Clash of the titans? China and the United States in Myanmar

There is an emerging consensus that the United States is challenging China’s dominance in Myanmar, with analysts reporting signals of ‘Myanmar’s shift from China’s orbit toward the West’. This apparent shift was brought into focus by the suspension of China’s Myitsone Dam mega-project in northern Myanmar’s Kachin State in September 2011, a decision described as a ‘democratic act’ by US Senator John McCain. Many have described the dam suspension and other recent events as signs that Myanmar wants to be ‘part of the new world order instead of being half-colonized by China’.

The thrust of these analyses is the vilification of Chinese involvement, in contrast to the idolisation of US engagement. That viewpoint needs some analysis. On face value, it cannot be assumed that US involvement is necessarily positive or negative. But nor is Chinese.

China’s years of diplomacy and assistance have supported and cultivated Myanmar’s development. It is unfair to the Chinese government to insinuate that Myanmar’s recent liberalisations and the increasing involvement of other foreign nations were unforeseen by the Chinese. Indeed, the Chinese have actively encouraged Myanmar to engage with the international community over the years, including supporting their ascension to ASEAN.

It is also important to recognise that when US policy towards Myanmar began to change in 2008 following President Obama’s election, the US was simply acknowledging what China and other Asian nations had known for years: sanctions are an ineffective instrument to catalyse Myanmar’s liberalisation. Instead, constructive engagement through various mechanisms including development assistance, diplomacy, capacity building and investments has been shown to work well.

Following a long history of strategies of engagement with Myanmar, it’s to be expected that China has more investments and greater influence in the country than the United States. Construing Chinese engagement as necessarily detrimental to Myanmar overlooks their involvement in Myanmar’s recent democratic turn.

It must also be remembered that the Myanmar government is not easily exploited by foreign influences that are not consistent with their politics and plans. Recent developments, including elections, the release from house arrest and election of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the liberalisation of the economy, are all consistent with the government’s plan for the country. Opening the country to foreign investment and inviting US investment and engagement is the next stage in this plan.

Further, Myanmar has a long history, stretching back to the 1950s, of actively playing the United States, China, Russia and India off against one another. Myanmar will continue these efforts, and at no point can it be assumed that one player will be able to monopolise opportunities.

Myanmar can comfortably absorb investment, bilateral aid, diplomatic overtures and engagement from a range of sources, and doesn’t have to choose favourites. Especially now, when innumerable opportunities for investment are opening up, it is overly simplistic to imply that either China or the United States will dominate the country. In reality, it is more likely that many foreigners will enter the fray; some will become more engaged than others, but none will totally dominate.

So while America and China are competing for stakes in Myanmar’s future, a clash is not inevitable. The abundance of opportunities in Myanmar leads me to conclude that increasing US involvement will only modestly temper Chinese designs. Myanmar’s future will involve both US and Chinese engagement to the ultimate benefit of the Myanmar people.

Jacqueline Menager is a PhD candidate in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University, Canberra.