PROSPECT Journal is collaborating with East by Southeast, a new blog focusing on China and its neighbors in Southeast Asia. As part of this collaboration, PROSPECT will be intermittently publishing articles by the East by Southeast bloggers, who all live and work in the region. Our journal is excited to bring a wider range of expert analysis of Southeast Asian affairs to our readers.

By William Feinberg
Contributing Writer

This past week saw big foreign policy news from Myanmar (Burma). Just days after meeting with US President Obama in Washington, Burmese President Thein Sein returned to Naypidaw to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Both visits saw improvements in Burma’s respective relations with the two countries, but which of the two relationships remain closer? From whom did Burma gain the most, and vice versa? The clear answer is Japan.

President Thein Sein visited Washington at the beginning of last week, becoming the first Burmese leader to visit the US since Ne Win in 1966. The visit was a largely symbolic one, lacking many of the tangible economic benefits that are usually associated with these sort of state visits. Aside from agreements to strengthen bilateral trade relations with two US agencies, most of Myanmar’s benefits can be found in the language of US officials. Before the President arrived, US Press Secretary Jay Carney referred to the country as Myanmar, not Burma. Myanmar is the name used by the military junta since 1989, while Burma is an appellation preferred by opponents of the regime. President Obama also referred to the country as ‘Myanmar’ and while it does not mark an official policy change, it does reflect a change in attitude.

During his meeting with President Thein Sein, Obama raised the perennial issue of human rights, but at the same time expressed strong support for the leader. Also of note, US Senator Mitch McConnell, a long-time champion of sanctions against Myanmar, said he was no longer in support of continued sanctions against the country, paving the way for smoother relations in the future. The Burmese president’s visit to the US came without multi-million dollar contracts and major US investment in the country will have to wait, but Thein Sein’s visit did represent a further thawing of the relationship, and offers hope for the future.

On the other side, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe’s visit to Myanmar was all business. Abe brought forty business leaders, including representatives from Mitsubishi and Mitsui corporations. Following the $3.4 billion in Japanese loans that were cleared last year, Japan announced that they would forgive $1.74 billion of the remaining debts this visit. Abe also promised more than $400 million in new loans that will be used on countrywide infrastructure development and development of the Thilawa special economic zone, a joint project that was announced last year. Japanese companies Sumitomo and NEC also announced that they would be providing Myanmar with 1.5 million telephone lines in 2013, made possible by a $16 million grant. This is all in addition to a variety of grants and aid packages that the Japanese government announced on the trip.

In a practical sense, Prime Minister Abe’s visit with Thein Sein was much more productive than President Obama’s. Thein Sein’s time in the US was about laying the base for future cooperation, which might include deals similar to those that Abe signed while in Naypidaw. However, that means that the US is far behind Japan and has a lot of catching up to do if it wants to really benefit economically from its relationship with Burma. History has afforded Japan its head start on relations with the country; while the US and EU levelled strict sanctions against Myanmar during the past twenty years, Japan did not. And while it did not engage in the level of trade that China did in that period, maintaining relations with the former junta has allowed it to capitalize on Burma’s recent economic reforms.

The white elephant in the room during both of these visits was China. During the the period from 1988-2011 the PRC was Burma’s only powerful ally and main trading power. Since 2011, other countries, including Japan have taken advantage of the economic opening and China’s position of dominance in the country has begun to hit shaky ground. America has always had unsteady ties with China and Japanese relations with China have hit a new low under the Abe administration. Seeing President Thein Sein meeting with the leaders of the two countries that it sees as its main rivals in the Asia-Pacific in the same week undoubtedly has made many in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs quite uncomfortable. After its economic dominance in Burma in the past two decades, China sees the country as a close partner in development and guards its status there jealously. Thein Sein’s two meetings last week sent a powerful message to China that its position in Burma isn’t unchallengable; the spoils of Myanmar’s vast natural resources won’t all be flowing to the northwest. A previous ExSE post concluded that the effects of Thein Sein cancelling of the Myitsone dam, viewed by many as a symbol of China losing ground in Myanmar, were yet to be seen. With these two visits however, it seems that Myitsone might be the start of a trend. Meeting with China’s two biggest rivals in the Asia-Pacific in the same week was not a random occurrence. Thein Sein understands how the PRC views these two meetings, the message that it sends. Both the US and Japan have a long way to go before they truly challenge Chinese supremacy in Myanmar, but the door looks to be wide open now.

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Photo by Glen Forbes

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