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Building strategic trust for peace, cooperation and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region

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At the outset, I would like to express my sincere thanks to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong our Singaporean host, Dr. John Chipman and the organisers of the 12th Shangri-La Dialogue for your kind invitation to me to attend and address this important forum. Since its inception 12 years ago, the Shangri-La Dialogue has truly become one of the most substantive and meaningful security dialogues in the region. I do believe that the full presence of government officials, military leaders, prestigious scholars and all distinguished delegates at this forum reflects the interest and the efforts to jointly preserve peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region in the context of a dynamically changing world.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
While languages and expressions might differ, I am sure we all agree that without trust, there would be no success and harder work asks for bigger trust. In Vietnam, there is a saying that ‘if trust is lost, all is lost.’ Trust is the beginning of all friendships and cooperation, the remedy that works to prevent calculations that could risk conflicts. Trust must be treasured and nurtured constantly by concrete, consistent actions in accordance with the common norms and with a sincere attitude.

In the 20th century, Southeast Asia in particular and the Asia-Pacific in general were fierce battlefields and deeply divided for decades. It might be said that the entire region always had a burning desire for peace. To have peace, development and prosperity, it is a must to build and consolidate strategic trust. In other words, we need to build strategic trust for peace, cooperation and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific. That is what I wish to share with you at this forum.

To begin with, Vietnam has a profound confidence in the bright future of development and cooperation in our region. Yet the trend of increased engagement and competition, particularly by big powers, not only offers positive elements but also involves negative risks that require us to take initiative and work together to prevent.
The Asia-Pacific region now enjoys dynamic development and is home to the world’s three biggest economies, and many emerging ones. Here, the trend of multi-layer, multi-sector cooperation and linkages is evolving vigorously and is becoming the prevailing one of the day. This is quite a promising prospect for us all.
However, looking back at the full picture of the region in the past years, we cannot fail to be concerned over the simmering risks and challenges to peace and security.

Competition and engagement are by themselves normal facts in the course of cooperation and development. Yet if such competition and engagement embrace calculations that are only in one’s own interest, without equality, respect of international law or transparency, then strategic trust could in no way be reinforced, and there could be a chance for the rise of division, suspicion and the risk of mutual containment, thus adversely affecting peace, cooperation and development.
The unpredictable developments in the Korean Peninsula; sovereignty and territorial disputes from the East China Sea to the East Sea (South China Sea) that are evolving with great complexity, threatening regional peace and security – firstly maritime security and safety as well as the freedom of navigation – have indeed caused deep concern to the international community. Somewhere in the region, there have emerged preferences for unilateral might, groundless claims, and actions that run counter to international law and stem from imposition and power politics.
I would like to draw your further attention to the fact that maritime transport and communications are growing in scale and acquiring a much greater significance. It is projected that three quarters of global trade will be made via maritime routes and two thirds of that will be shipped across the East Sea. A single irresponsible action or instigation of conflict could well lead to the interruption of these huge trade flows, with unforeseeable consequences not only to regional economies but also to the entire world.

In the meantime, the threats of religious and ethnic conflicts, egoistic nationalism, secessionism, violence, terrorism, cyber security, etc. are still very much present. Global challenges like climate change, the rise of sea levels, pandemics or water resources and the interests of upstream and downstream riparian countries with shared rivers, etc. have become ever more acute.
We should realize that such challenges and risks of conflict are not to be underestimated. We all understand that if this region falls into instability and especially, armed conflicts, there will be neither winners nor losers. Rather, all will lose. Suffice it to say, therefore, that working together to build and reinforce strategic trust for peace, cooperation and prosperity in the region is in the shared interest of us all. For Vietnam, strategic trust is perceived, above all, as honesty and sincerity.

Secondly, to build strategic trust, we ourselves need to abide by international law, to uphold the responsibilities of nations, especially of major powers, and work to improve the efficiency of multilateral security cooperation mechanisms.
In global history, many nations have suffered from irreparable losses when they fell victim to power politics, conflict and wars. In today’s civilised world, the UN Charter, international law and the universal principles and norms serve as the common values of all humanity and must be respected. This also represents the precondition for the building of strategic trust.
Each state should always be a responsible stakeholder in the pursuit of common peace and security. Countries, both big and small, must build their relations on the basis of equality and mutual respect and, at a higher level, on mutual strategic trust. Big states have a greater role to play and can contribute more, but they should also shoulder bigger responsibilities in the cultivation and consolidation of such strategic trust. Besides, when it comes to the right voice or beneficial initiatives, it does not matter whether they come from big or small countries. The principles of cooperation and equal, open dialogue in ASEAN and other forums advocated by ASEAN, as well as this Shangri-La Dialogue, are born from and maintained by such a mindset.

I fully share the views of H.E. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia who said last year at this forum that small and medium countries could help lock major powers into a durable regional architecture. I also agree with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on what he said in a speech in Beijing last September: that a reliable and responsible cooperation between the United States and China would positively contribute to the common interest of the region. We all understand that the Asia-Pacific has sufficient room for all intra- and extra-regional countries to work together and share their interests. The future of the Asia-Pacific has been and will continue to be, shaped by the roles and interactions by all countries in the region and the world, particularly by the major powers and certainly, by the indispensable role of ASEAN.
I believe that no regional country would oppose the strategic engagement of extra-regional powers if such engagement aims to enhance cooperation for peace, stability and development. We should expect more of the roles played by major powers, particularly the United States and China – the two powers having the biggest roles in and responsibilities to the future of the region and the world. What is important is that such expectation should be reinforced by strategic trust and such strategic trust must be reflected in concrete and constructive actions of these nations.
We attach special importance to the roles played by a vigorously rising China and by the United States – a Pacific power. We would expect and support the roles of the United States and China, once their strategies and actions conform to international law and respect the independence and sovereignty of nations, to not only bring about benefits to them, but also to contribute genuinely to our common peace, cooperation and prosperity.

What I want to further underline is that the existing regional cooperation mechanisms such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meetings Plus (ADMM+) as well as the Shangri-La Dialogue offer opportunities to foster multilateral security cooperation and find solutions to the challenges that arise. Yet it could be said that what is still missing, or at least still insufficient, is the strategic trust in the implementation of those arrangements. The first and foremost thing is to build a mutual trust when confronting challenges; taking account of the impacts of interactions, and enhancing practical cooperation in various areas, and at different levels and layers – both bilateral and multilateral. Once there is sufficient strategic trust, we could advance and expand cooperation and find solutions to any problem, even the most sensitive and difficult one.
Thirdly, when talking about peace, stability, cooperation and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific, we cannot help but mention an ASEAN of unity and consensus, playing its central role in many multilateral cooperation forums.
It was hard to believe that a South East Asia once divided and embedded in conflicts during the Cold War could become a community of nations united in diversity and playing a central role in an evolving regional architecture like ASEAN today. The participation of Vietnam in ASEAN in 1995 marked a new era of development in ASEAN towards building a common house for all South East Asian nations true to its name. The success of ASEAN is the fruit of a long persevering process to build trust, nurture the culture of dialogue and cooperation, and cultivate the sense of responsibility to the shared destiny of South East Asian nations.

ASEAN is proud to be an example of the principle of consensus and mutual trust in the making of its own decisions. That principle is the foundation for equality among the member states, whether it is Indonesia with nearly a quarter of a billion people or Brunei Darussalam with less than half a million. That principle also constitutes the foundation for extra-regional countries to place their trust in ASEAN as an ‘honest broker’ in guiding the numerous regional cooperation mechanisms.
With a mindset of shared interests rather than one of win-lose, the enlargement of the East Asia Summit (EAS) to include Russia and the United States, the ADMM+ process that was put into reality in Vietnam in 2010, and the success of EAS, ARF and ADMM in the years that followed, have further consolidated the ground for a regional architecture in which ASEAN plays the central role, bringing about trust in multilateral security cooperation in the region.

I also wish to refer to Myanmar as a vivid example of the success of persevering with dialogue on the basis of building and reinforcing trust, respecting the legitimate interests of each other, which has helped open up a bright future not only for Myanmar but also for our whole region.
There have been profound lessons learned about the fundamental value of ASEAN’s consensus and unity in maintaining equal and mutually beneficial relations with partner countries and maximising its proactive role in handling strategic issues of the region. ASEAN could only be strong and able to build on its role when it is united as one. An ASEAN lacking unity will by itself, lose its place and will not act in the interest of any country, even ASEAN member states or partners. We need an ASEAN united and strong, cooperating effectively with all countries to nurture peace and prosperity in the region, not an ASEAN in which member states are forced to take sides with one country or the other for the benefit of their own relationships with big powers. We have a responsibility to multiply trust in the settlement of problems, enhance cooperation for mutual benefit, and to combine our national interest harmoniously with that of other nations and of the whole region.
Vietnam and other ASEAN members always desire that other countries, particularly the major powers, support the ASEAN Community’s central role, its principle of consensus and unity.

To return to the issue of the East Sea, ASEAN and China have travelled a long way with great difficulty to come to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) adopted during the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh in 2002. To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the DOC, ASEAN and China have agreed to work towards a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC). ASEAN and China need to uphold their responsibilities and  mutually reinforce strategic trust, first and foremost by strictly implementing the DOC, and then redoubling efforts to formulate a COC that conforms to international law and in particular, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

We believe that ASEAN and its partners can work together to develop a feasible mechanism that could guarantee maritime security and safety and freedom of navigation in the region. In so doing, we will not only help ensure maritime security and safety, and freedom of navigation, and create conditions for the settlement of disputes but will also assert the fundamental principles of maintaining peace, and enhancing development cooperation in the modern world.

As for non-traditional security challenges such as the security of water resources on common rivers, by building strategic trust, enhancing cooperation and harmonizing national interests with common interests, I believe that we will able to achieve successes, thus making practical contributions to peace, cooperation and development in the region.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear friends,
Throughout her thousands of years of history, Vietnam has suffered numerous pains and losses due to wars. Vietnam always aspires to peace and desires to contribute to the consolidation of peace and enhancement of friendship and development cooperation in the region and the world. To have a genuine and lasting peace, the independence and sovereignty of any country, whether large or small, must be respected; and differences in interests, culture, etc. must be subject to open and constructive dialogues of mutual understanding and mutual respect.
We do not forget the past but need to put it behind us and look forward to the future. With the tradition of offering peace and friendship, Vietnam always desires to work with its partners to build and reinforce strategic trust for peace, cooperation and development on the basis of the principle of respect for independence, sovereignty, equality and mutual benefit.

Vietnam consistently persists with a foreign policy of independence, self-reliance, multilateralisation and diversification of external relations, being a friend and reliable partner to all nations, and a responsible member of the international community. Vietnam wishes, and has spared no efforts to build and deepen, strategic partnerships and mutually beneficial cooperative partnerships with other countries. It is also our desire to establish strategic partnerships with all the permanent members of the UN Security Council once the principles of independence, sovereignty, non-interference in the internal affairs of each other, mutual respect, equal and mutually beneficial cooperation are committed to and seriously implemented.
At this prestigious forum, I have the honour to announce that Vietnam has decided to participate in UN peacekeeping operations, first in such areas as military engineering, military medicine and military observation.

Vietnam’s defence policy is that of peace and self-defence. Vietnam will not be a military ally to any country and will not allow any country to set up military bases on Vietnamese territory. Vietnam will not ally itself with any country to counter another.
In past years, sustained high economic growth has enabled Vietnam to increase its national defence budget at a reasonable level but lower than that of economic growth. Vietnam’s army modernisation is only for self-defence and the safeguard of our legitimate interests. It does not, in any way target any other country.

With regard to the present threats and challenges to regional security such as the Korean Peninsula, the East China Sea and the East Sea, etc, Vietnam adheres to the principle of peaceful dispute settlement on the basis of international law, respecting the independence, sovereignty and the legitimate interests of each other. All parties concerned need to exercise self-restraint and must not resort to force or threat to use force.
Once again, Vietnam reiterates its consistent compliance with the ASEAN Six-point Statement on the South China Sea and will do its utmost to work together with ASEAN and China to observe the DOC seriously and soon arrive at the COC. As a coastal State, Vietnam reaffirms and defends its legitimate rights and interests in accordance with international law, especially the 1982 UNCLOS.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear friends,
Peace, cooperation and development represent the interest, the ardent aspirations and the common future of all countries and peoples. In the open spirit of the Shangri-La Dialogue, I would call upon you all to join hands and take concrete actions to build and reinforce strategic trust for an Asia-Pacific region of peace, cooperation and prosperity.

 

Posting granted exclusively for the Modern Diplomacy

(*)Keynote Address at the 12th Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore, May 31st, 2013

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Southeast Asia

Ready for the Dry Years: Building Resilience to Drought in Southeast Asia

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Authors: Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana and Lim Jock Hoi*

South-East Asia has long endured severe droughts, which occur on average every five years. The prolonged 2015 and 2018 droughts were the worst on record for two decades. They simultaneously affected more than 70 per cent of the land area, with over 325 million people exposed. No ASEAN member States was spared from the devastating impacts including the disruption to livelihoods and food security, as well as forest fires and haze.

The drivers of drought risk in South-East Asia are inherently complex, resulting in considerable year-to-year variations. Drought is heavily influenced by various climatic drivers, mainly the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). Yet, despite this complexity, clear trends point to an intensifying drought risk across the region.

New analysis of observed data and climate projections in the second edition of Ready for the Dry Years: Building Resilience to Drought in Southeast Asia, a joint report by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) reveals a statistically significant increase in temperature from 1981-2020, that is expected to continue. This means that drought severity will increase as the climate gets warmer.

This urgency has been enhanced by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has converged with the climate crisis. Both disasters have simultaneously disrupted people’s health, livelihoods and supply chains across the region. These compounding impacts have led to severe economic stress and undermined the ability of the region to deal with current and future disaster risks. It is crucial that we understand how recurrent droughts and the current pandemic are interacting, to identify appropriate policies that can address these crises simultaneously.

ASEAN and ESCAP are working together to prevent the destructive impacts of droughts by promoting a paradigm shift towards more adaptive drought risk management and governance. This cooperation is anchored in a forward-looking, science-based approach to drought risks. The adaptive policy interventions must support the most vulnerable and those furthest behind in the region.

The latest evidence shows that 15 to 25 per cent of the region’s population lives in drought hotspots, with low levels of socio-economic development and high exposure to recurring droughts. Targeted policy interventions in these areas will be essential to prevent the cumulative impacts of recurring droughts, which over time, pose a serious threat to hard-won development gains, particularly the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. These interventions must follow three clear policy tracks to reduce and prevent droughts from occurring; prepare and respond to droughts when they happen; and restore and recover after a drought has passed. Accordingly, they should cover a wide range of policy areas, from the management of food, water and energy systems, to the implementation of early warning systems and drought risk financing.

Governments should capitalize on several opportunities to meet this challenge. Firstly, the cyclical and slow-onset nature of drought provides time for us to take risk-informed actions now, to prevent a drought hazard from becoming a crisis. Secondly, governments can benefit from ASEAN’s extensive experience and expertise through greater regional cooperation, driven by ASEAN’s agenda on drought and the newly adopted ASEAN Declaration on the Strengthening of the Adaptation to Drought. Thirdly, the COVID-19 pandemic offers an opportunity to act now to reduce the impacts of future droughts, by incorporating measures to build resilience into COVID-19 recovery stimulus packages.

The latest developments in science and technology will underpin the successful scale up of drought management interventions. ASEAN member States must take concrete steps now to strengthen national and regional drought monitoring and improve our understanding of the causes of drought. It is now more vital than ever for the region to build resilience to drought. By working together, we can mitigate the impact of future droughts and ensure that the entire ASEAN Community will be ready for the dry years ahead.

On this note, strong partnerships between the United Nations, ASEAN and national governments and other stakeholders are essential to deal with the increasingly complex and uncertain extreme weather and climate situations along with the impacts of transnational slow-onset disaster risks. ASEAN and the United Nations has enjoyed fruitful cooperation through implementation of the Comprehensive Partnership and the Plan of Action. This joint ASEAN-ESCAP work has reflected our cooperation and partnership for the benefit of our peoples.

*Lim Jock Hoi, Secretary-General of ASEAN

UN ESCAP

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Cambodia’s Hun Sen, Asia’s longest-serving PM, continues to quell the Opposition

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Image source: Wikipedia

For the past 35 years, the former French colony of Cambodia is ruled by the 68-year-old Prime Minister Hun Sen, Asia’s longest serving head of the government. His policies are regarded as autocratic, aimed at forcibly limiting the scope for the Opposition to rise politically and come to the forefront of democratic activism.

The latest in line of such policies is the politically-motivated mass trials of more than a hundred members and supporters of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

The 2012-founded CNRP’s unexpected success in the polls of 2013 and 2017 was seen by Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party with trepidation. The democratic opposition party’s performance came amid sustained pressures of intimidation and electoral malpractice.

The CNRP was the only opposition represented in the country’s National Assembly or lower house of the parliament, with 55 out of 123 seats, until November 2017 when the pro-Sen Supreme Court ruled to dissolve the party, ending its five years of existence.

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights referred to this arbitrary move as the final nail in the coffin for Cambodian democracy. Also, CNRP’s leader Kem Sokha was arrested on fake charges of treason, accusing him of conspiring with the US to overthrow the prime minister and his government, a claim which Washington has categorically rejected.

Strikingly, these moves came ahead of the 2018 election. In the absence of an effective Opposition, Hun Sen’s CPP unsurprisingly won 100% of parliamentary seats in the last elections held in July 2018.

Meanwhile, Sen’s biggest political rival during his three-and-a-half decade rule, Sam Rainsy, has been living in exile in Paris for the past fifteen years. Last year, he was planning to return to Cambodia along with other senior opposition figures via Thailand, but was denied boarding on the Thai flight due to Cambodian threats to the airlines.

However, to Sen and the CPP’s dismay, in January 2020, some former members of the CNRP and other democratic activists announced the formation of a new party named the Cambodian Nation Love Party (CNLP) to continue the CNRP’s legacy and participate in future elections.

The Cambodian people’s undying quest for democratic reforms was exemplified with the formation of a new democratic party. Sen’s previous attempt to prevent the erstwhile CNRP from reconstituting itself under another name, by banning more than 100 of its leading members from politics for a period of five years thus failed to reap sustainable gains.

As the suppression of democratic expression continues for a long time now, relations with the West have deteriorated in the past few years, pushing the ASEAN country further into Beijing’s orbit. The US is also watching the trial closely. Meanwhile, the European Union, a key export destination for Cambodia, has withdrawn special trade privileges given earlier.

Now, the recent summoning of 140 ex-CNRP members and supporters, for charges of conspiracy and attempting to overthrow the government, is the latest political drama in the long set of desperate moves from Hun Sen to cling on to power.

Among those who showed up in court include former opposition senator Thach Setha and Cambodian-American human rights lawyer, Theary Seng. But, there are many who fled into exile believing that they would not be given a fair trial.

Cambodia, bearing the painful memory of a genocide that happened under Pol Pot’s notorious Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s killing 2 million people, saw the country slipping into the hands of another would-be autocratic leader, Hun Sen, in 1985.

The interventions by the United Nations and other human rights-oriented organisations appear to be failing in the Southeast Asian nation as long-established democratic processes drift away and elections are held for namesake, adding up to the political drama. With Sen unwilling to forfeit power, the future prospects for Cambodia seem to be a dreary continuation of the past.

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The 2020 Myanmar Election and China: Push and Pull factor in ‘Paukphaw’ friendship

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National Democratic League (NLD), the ruling party of Myanmar under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had a landslide victory in the election, which led the party to continue in power for another five years. While Myanmar still struggling with the civil war crisis and without any solution-oriented approach the crisis in Rohingya is nowhere near to end since the breakout of the severe crisis in 2017.

The pre-election and post-election international media coverage and scholarly discussion on Myanmar bring back the China factor in the Myanmar election and general China’s undeniable ties with Myanmar. It’s been argued that a vote for Aung San Suu Kyi would mean the continuation of the unprecedented expansion of China in the country and a vote for multi-ethnic parties would mean resistance to China-backed infrastructure and other projects.

While the backlashes against China among multi-ethnic parties and towards China-led infrastructure projects are omnipresent in Myanmar, however, China has not loosed its heart to engage in the Myanmar peace process. It is also to be noted that China does not only have good relation with NLD but it also keeps its relationship with the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). It also frequently engages itself in discussion with ethnic groups. What China likes to call itself is a “neutral player”. Thus, the election results would not have a significant impact on the China-Myanmar relationship.  

The irk of Western countries towards Myanmar, who initially supported Myanmar’s democratic transition only intensified with the 2020 election as the Myanmar election commission only allowed election in 8 townships in Rohingya state, and denied election in 9 other townships. A joint statement was issued under the leadership of the UK and the US regarding the inclusion of left out Rohingyas into the election along with urging Myanmar to be more serious regarding the global ceasefire and confidence-building steps that include lifting restrictions on access to health, education, and basic services, lifting restrictions on freedom of movement. China’s as under the principle of non-interference abstained from commenting on the exclusion of nine districts in Rohingya state from the election. Chinese government since 2017 has blocked draft resolutions at UNSC regarding international intervention in the crisis in Myanmar. China, however bilaterally posited itself as a mediator between Myanmar and Bangladesh on the repatriation of Rohingyas. A role, China now often seems to play in conflict-ridden countries, for example in the Afghan peace process China plays a similar mediator role.  

Myanmar’s foreign policy after 2015 and China

After the first democratic election in Myanmar in 2015, and NLD’s new manifesto was focused on upholding ‘an active and independent foreign policy’. Under the AngSyu Ki leadership, the foreign policy of Myanmar was considered to be hedging towards a neutralist foreign policy to work together for the benefit of the region on issues relating to regional organizations and programs. Another important pledge in Myanmar’s 2015 foreign policy manifesto was to “to identify and cooperate with other countries on joint economic enterprises of mutual benefit. In particular, to work together for the benefit of the region on issues relating to regional organizations and programs.” Which, as mentioned by Moe Thuzar of Singapore’s ISEAS-YusofIshak Institute is missing in the 2020 Manifesto. The reason for missing the important article from the 2020 manifesto could be Myanmar’s subtle attempt to balance China’s unprecedented presence in the region. As, it also aligns with some of the recent activities of other international actors in Myanmar. Such as high-level delegation visits by India, in October 2020, Myanmar’s growing interest in business engagement with Hong Kong, and eagerness to expand its economic co-operation with other Asian countries such as South Korea and Singapore. All this renewed interest within a span of two months from September to October 2020, before the election in Myanmar also could be an attempt to recover the focus in Myanmar’s democratic transition as opposed to growing clout over claiming Myanmar as an authoritarian regime, especially after 2017.

In terms of Myanmar’s policy towards China, Myanmar could not be seen as prey to China’s economic interest. As, even though the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor is kicking off, Myanmar is still apprehensive regarding embracing all of the Chinese lead projects. According to Irrawaddy times, from China’s originally proposed 40 projects, only nine projects were tentatively agreed to implement from both sides under China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC).

AyungSyu Ki’s diplomatic shrewdness is evident in Myanmar’s China policy. The country despite using China as a shield to defend itself from international intervention, China has not completely able to unlock all economic leverages. China’s patience with Myanmar also relates to the fact of ensuring security in its border province. 

Yang Jiechi, the head of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party’s short September visit to Myanmar was an indication that China does not take Myanmar for granted to materialize the economic projects, it has started in the country under the banner of BRI, Especially after the 2017 launch of China Myanmar Economic Corridor. Before NLD came into power in 2015, the anti-Chinese sentiments in Myanmar were more prominent, as it has led to President Thein Sein to halt the Myitsone Dam in 2011. Scholars have argued that Myanmar’s skepticism over Chinese led projects between 2011-2012 could be seen as a reaction to its proximity with the West, as Western sanctions were slowly lifted for a brief period (Ganesan, 2017). Thus, as the Western sanctions grew after 2017, Myanmar hedged towards China. Even though, Myanmar is always dubious about China’s economic diplomacy in Myanmar.

However, Myanmar does return the favor to China diplomatically by recognizing the ‘one-China principle’. Myanmar’s President U Win Myint during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in January 2020, states Myanmar’s firm adherence to the One China principle, respects the “one country, two systems” policy China has implemented in Hong Kong and Macao and has always recognized Taiwan as an inalienable part of China’s territory. 

Myanmar is also one of the 53 countries that supported the Hong Kong National Security Law.

China’s multifaceted engagement in Myanmar

The question arises can Myanmar altogether keep China aside, especially from its peace process? As China’s border is at the stake, China is pretty much invested in Myanmar’s peace process. In the third Union Peace Conference, China played important role in pressurizing ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) to attend the peace conference. For China’s interest, the member of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FNPCC) includes the Northern Alliance EAOs, which are known for attacking commercial interests in northern Shan State and Kachin state that shares a border with China. China-funded the EAOs to attend the conference, which was the first time all the ethnic groups attended it with Chinese aid and diplomacy. Thus, Myanmar can’t shun Chinese help when it comes to the peace process. As of August 2020, the fourth Union peace conference marked the absence of many of the ethnic groups as due to COVID and other factors China was not seen pushing much for their inclusion. Yun Sun noted that the reason could be the absence of any specific request of the Myanmar government to China regarding the same. 

Apart from, engagement with the peace process and supporting Myanmar at the international front regarding the Rohingya crisis, and mediating between Bangladesh and Myanmar, China seem to have a resilient network approach towards Myanmar. This has led China to engage different actors in its diplomacy towards Myanmar. Chinese government NGOs (GONGO)’s such as the China International Poverty Alleviation Foundation (CIPAF), Blue Sky are becoming more present in Myanmar. These GONGO’s are not only providing humanitarian aid but also organizing skill development programs for locals. The Chinese government also sometimes organizes training programs for Myanmar’s diplomats and officials and businessman. Hence, China is more engaging at the grassroots level, a diplomatic style China has adopted from its experience of engagement in unstable states in Africa. 

Thus, as for now, it is both a win-win game for China and Myanmar, as both seem to seek leverages from each other. However, it would interesting to see if more international actors, especially the US lifts the ban on Myanmar and get engage with the country how Myanmar would design its policies towards China. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author.

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