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The recent elections in Burma (Myanmar) saw Nobel Prize Winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi celebrate a landslide victory, which has been viewed by most as a landmark win for democracy in a country that has lived under military dictatorship for decades. The ramifications of this victory, confirmed earlier this month, have sent shockwaves not just through Burmese towns and countryside, but across the world.

 

As the west, including Britain and the U.S, begin to lift economic sanctions over Burma with a view to restoring diplomatic ties, the foundations have been laid for an almighty clash between China and the ‘West’. This will be a clash over the prospects of future trade; slowly corridors of communication are opening up between the West and newly democratic Burma.  As a consequence this may challenge the Chinese monopoly in the region (more on this later).

 It will also be a clash of ideals and values. This will be seen as a chance for Britain and the U.S to reinvigorate their fervent support for, and belief in, the sanctity of democracy. It is a chance to brandish and herald the Burmese people to be champions in its cause. The cause that they, the ‘West’, (apparently) stand for and represent; another ego boosting good versus bad scenario for the UK and US to revel in.

 

However there is more at stake this time. Support for Burma and their evolving democratic government will magnify the differences between China and the U.S and Britain. Not only is this about supporting democracy, it is about opposing China, who had supported the military regime in Burma for decades.

 Judging by the American response to this new possible oasis of democracy in the East, the clash could be more than symbolic.

 As the New York Times has written over the past months in relation to Burma’s break towards democracy:

 ‘A renewed relationship between the two countries has the potential to remake American diplomacy in Asia, where the Obama administration says it hopes to refocus its foreign policy at a time when China’s influence is expanding. The closer ties could enhance trade and help integrate Myanmar into regional alliances sympathetic to the West.’

 So at the very least Burma could become a lynchpin for a change in direction for American foreign policy as more and more sanctions are lifted. Obama has now even lifted a travel ban for American nationals. However, diplomatic jostling could lead to more serious actions as the NY Times has again reported on the American and Chinese ‘Battle for Burma.’

 We might be witnessing the evolution of some grown-up political tug of war over Burma. On the right hand side are China, who have been a strong ally of the Burmese military dictatorship for years and has a huge influence over its industries. It is also a crucial trade route for China. The Chinese were also more ‘like minded’ with the former government. On the left hand side, the U.S hope to offer the new government a friendship based on democracy and to help forge a ‘freer future’ for its people. There is also the prospect of important trade links for the States. As the report stated:

 

As Myanmar loosens the grip of decades of military dictatorship and improves ties with the United States, China fears a threat to a strategic partnership that offers access to the Indian Ocean and a long-sought shortcut for oil deliveries from the Middle East.

With the United States reasserting itself in Asia, and an emboldened China projecting military and economic power as never before, each side is doing whatever it can to gain the favour of economically struggling, strategically placed Myanmar.

So far the American corner has thrown the bigger punches. There have been unprecedented meetings between the two countries, with Hilary Clinton meeting Burmese officials. The Chinese have taken note of this apparently aggressive stance and a Chinese Foreign Policy expert has said that American meddling is ‘why the Chinese are angry’. This is the first real time the two states have gone head to head. The consequences could be huge. How far will the U.S go? How willing are Burma to forge a new pro-U.S anti-Chinese alliance? If the Americans do reshape foreign policy around Burma one thing is certain, the Chinese will not view it kindly. The last question must therefore be, how sensible is it for the Americans to do this? The result could be symbolically explosive.

Where does this leave Britain? Burma, a former colony, has recently been ‘rewarded’ by the Foreign Secretary William Hague with relaxed sanctions and the prospect of trade. However, given the situation and given the propensity for China getting even more uncomfortable at American advances, it might be wise for a degree of British independence. The UK is in a good position because a policy of independence from the US would decrease China’s perception of Britain as a threat over Burma, which it definitely perceives America to be. Britain does not have the financial clout to redefine an Asian-centric foreign policy around Burma, nor does it seek to crack horns with China. It would be absurd to do so. Also the old colonial ties, I would suggest, should be kept quiet, especially in Burma’s time of triumph. The country should be approached on Britain’s terms and with caution (relax the special relationship). It could be, squeezed between China and India, a vital ally in the future. Plus, as much as maintaining China on good terms is important in that region, for Britain, Burma’s proximity with India is just as relevant, if not more.


What is certain is that Burma will play a huge role in international foreign policy in the years to come – one hopes that it will find its own route to a secure democracy. I must stress that I do not advocate any policies that would take advantage of Burma’s young government, rather that it is in British interests not to follow a gung-ho approach from the United States.

Jack Goodman 

 

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