US President Barack Obama is to embark on an official tour of three South Asian nations – Thailand, Myanmar (former Burma) and Cambodia – on November 17-20. He’ll be the first United States sitting head of state to visit Myanmar. How can one explain the growing interest to the state that not so long ago had been ruled by military junta?
* * *
Until recently, Myanmar, the former British colony, had been within the sphere of China’s interest, the country that to great extent depends on oil supplies, especially from Persian Gulf and African states going through the Indian Ocean. That’s the route where 50% of world containerized shipping and 70% of global oil products supplies pass through. The ocean is a risky part of the planet. There are 11 sea points along vital hydrocarbons supply routes of the world that are most vulnerable to possible closure. The major part of them is situated in the Indian Ocean. The energy factor was decisive while working out the String of Pearls strategy. The term itself was invented by the experts of US Army’s Strategic Studies Institute and appeared in its publication String of Pearls: Meeting the Challenge of China’s Rising Power Across the Asian Littoral that saw light in 2006. The China’s plans to protect its sea supply routes are seen as a direct challenge to US regional interests. Its strategy envisages the creation of footholds, such as naval and air force facilities or friendly call ports stretching from the Chinese island of Hainan in the East to the Pakistani port of Gwadar in the West to guarantee secure and regular oil supplies to the mainland.
85% of oil and its products are supplied to China from the Persian Gulf and Africa across the Indian Ocean, including the narrow Malacca Strait controlled by the armed forces of USA and its regional allies. The area is subject to pirate attacks. In June 2011 Washington initiated the Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (Seacat) joint field training exercise involving the navies of the US, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Brunei in the Malacca Strait. Beijing couldn’t but see it as a threat to the sea lanes that are used for supplies of hydrocarbons and other materials to the country.
That’s where the geostrategic importance of Myanmar comes to the fore. By strengthening its presence in this country China guarantees access to one of the most important strategic sea lanes in the world – the Malacca Strait. Beijing goes to any length to make the bilateral relations with Myanmar as close as it can. In May 2011 the President of Myanmar Thein Sein elevated the bilateral relationship by establishing a "comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership". The military cooperation is on the rise. China upgrades Myanmar’s naval facilities it has access to and guarantees the southern neighbor’s security. The Chinese build shore based radars, maintenance and replenishment infrastructure, including the surveillance station on Coco Islands to monitor the Malacca Strait and naval exercises conducted in the area.
Being is Myanmar’s major trade partner (the annual trade turnover is around $5.2 – 5.3 billion), the Chinese investments into the southern neighbor’s economy are enormous ($15.9 billion totally). China is a participant in the major infrastructure projects, especially those related to energy. Myanmar has the world's 10th largest natural gas reserves (2.5 trillion cubic meters (tcm), including 510 tcm of proven reserves). The oil reserves are around 3.2 billion barrels.
The Chinese companies develop the Myanmar’s energy market since 2004.
In 2007 Beijing signed a large sea off shore natural gas development contract with Myanmar. In March 2009 the countries concluded a $2.5 billion pipeline construction agreement. The 2380 km long oil pipeline and 2806 km gas pipeline are to start in the Myanmar’s city of Kyaukpyu stretching to south-western provinces of China.
Finally Myanmar is a leading precious stones producer – sapphires, rubies and diamonds. It also produces gold, rare-earth metals, pearls and nephritis.
It all takes place against the background of Washington’s loud and promising statements about the “return” to the Asia-Pacific – at least since the Foreign Policy magazine published the State Secretary Hillary Clinton’s article America’s Pacific Century outlining the US policy in the region.
Washington views Myanmar as a weak point of China’s policy in South-East Asia. Myanmar held its first election in over 20 years in November 2010. A semi-civil government (its composition includes many members of military junta that had ruled the country before) took the place of military regime. No later than December 2011 US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to Myanmar. It was the first visit to the country at this level since 1955. She officially announced that a new phase of bilateral relations began. It was followed by easing of sanctions.
Before the Clinton’s visit then U.S. special envoy, now ambassador to Myanmar, Derek Mitchell had a meeting with the political leadership of the country, including General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces. The renewal of military cooperation was discussed in detail, though the military relationship never stopped since the days of General Ne Win’s rule. After the 1998 coup, when the new Burmese regime refused the socialist orientation, the military cooperation with the USA grew stronger. Back then many young officers, who have become generals today, received training in the US military academies.
By the end of this October, the US invited the Myanmar’s government to send observers to the annual Cobra Gold exercise – the largest military exercise in the Asia-Pacific with the US participation. The invitation is kind of a response to the Beijing’s initiative to start joint Mekong river patrols to fight piracy with the military of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.
The US started its efforts to create an anti-China military alliance during the Obama’s first term. Aptly instigating the neighbors apprehensions related to rapid economic rise of Chinese giant, Washington is pursuing the goal to cut China off necessary resources and potential allies. According to these plans, Myanmar is becoming an arena for a “big game” played to gain geopolitical influence in South-East Asia…