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Myanmar Foreign Policy under Aung San Suu Kyi

Last November, the National League for Democracy won a landslide electoral victory in Myanmar. It formed a new government this month. 

Conservative pundits have long predicted that, under any administration led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s foreign policy would lurch towards the West, increasing bilateral tensions with China and making Naypyidaw an important player in the strategic competition between Washington and Beijing. That will not happen, but Myanmar’s current non-aligned stance will undergo minor adjustments.

Aung San Suu Kyi – who is tipped to head up the foreign ministry in the new Cabinet – has always been on good terms with the West, which for decades supported her struggle for democracy and human rights in Myanmar. Through her hand-picked president, she will doubtless consolidate these links, but she knows that Myanmar’s long-term interests lie in maintaining an even-handed approach towards all foreign countries, including its two most powerful neighbours.

Also, despite the advent of a democratically elected government, Myanmar’s armed forces retain considerable influence. The generals would not support any change in foreign policy that could threaten Myanmar’s unity, stability or sovereignty. They know that these three “national causes” are best served by firm but friendly relations with both regional neighbours and the great powers.

After decades of isolating and punishing the former military regime, the United States is keen to restore bilateral relations with Myanmar. Given its critical geostrategic position and membership of ASEAN, it is also a factor in Washington’s “tilt” towards Asia. Claims that the US plans to use Myanmar to “contain” China, however, lack credibility. In any case, such a provocative policy would be rejected by the new government.

It can be expected that the US will seek Aung San Suu Kyi’s help in curtailing Myanmar’s military relationship with North Korea. It faded from view under President Thein Sein, but links still appear to exist between the armed forces of the two countries. However, she is unlikely to be any more successful than the former president in forcing the generals to sever their ties with Pyongyang.

China has a strong interest in establishing close ties to the new administration in Naypyidaw, as shown by its invitation for Aung San Suu Kyi to visit Beijing before last year’s elections. Bilateral relations became strained under Thein Sein, but China has vital strategic, political and economic interests in Myanmar which it is keen to protect. Myanmar needs to keep China on-side, but will remain wary of its long-term goals.

Recent developments should also prompt the suspension, if not the lifting, of most sanctions still imposed against Myanmar (the exception will be those relating to North Korea). Not only will this permit the restoration of normal relations between Myanmar and the outside world, but it may also encourage military-military ties with the Western democracies.

At a broader level, the international community stands ready to help Myanmar’s new government tackle the many problems it faces – bearing in mind that Naypyidaw’s greatest challenges will be domestic ones. Foreign action will probably take the form of increased aid, technical advice, training, trade and investment. Indeed, Myanmar is unlikely to be able to absorb all the help it is offered.

Myanmar’s government is still not free of military controls, but it has been democratically elected. While she is barred from the presidency, Aung San Suu Kyi will play a dominant role. These factors will help attract greater external support. There may be adjustments around the edges, but the country’s foreign policy is likely to remain much the same. Its watchwords will continue to be independence, balance and caution.

Dr Andrew Selth is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. He has been studying international security issues and Asian affairs for more than 40 years as a diplomat, strategic intelligence analyst and research scholar. He has published four books and over 50 peer-reviewed papers, most of them discussing Myanmar/Burma. This article originally appeared on Future Directions International on 23 March. It is republished with permission. 

Published March 28, 2016