Guest Piece: Burma and ASEAN: What Does it Mean for the U.S.?

When John Kerry spoke at the ASEAN summit on October 9th this year, he thanked the government of Burma and President Thein Sein in advance for what “will be a very productive year for U.S.-ASEAN relations when Burma takes the association’s chairmanship in 2014.”  It seems that many nations are eager to observe Burma’s tenure as chair of the 2014 ASEAN summit, which formally began on October 10.  A decade ago, the idea would have seemed ridiculous: a closed off military junta with a hostile attitude towards democratic reform made refusing the chair to Burma an obvious choice.  But recent reforms enacted by the Burmese Government under Thein Sein have seen the state loosen restrictions on the media and release political prisoners including the high profile Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.  Now that Burma is taking the chair, it is time to reflect on what that means for other nations, including the United States.


Image courtesy of eGuide Travel, ©2011, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of eGuide Travel, ©2011, some rights reserved.

Currently, the United States and China are competing for influence in Burma.  China is attempting to ensconce itself into the Burmese economy, as shown by the Kyaukphyu to Kunming pipeline, or the Myitsone dam.  In the meantime, the United States is also seeking to increase economic influence there: the USAID mission to Burma was reestablished in 2012, the same year President Obama pledged $170 million in assistance. Currently it appears that China has the upper hand, however it is likely that Burma’s time as ASEAN chair will bring tensions between it and China.  For example, while Burma itself is not directly involved in any maritime dispute with China, other ASEAN nations, like Thailand, Brunei, and Malaysia are.  Considering that ASEAN is a forum to express grievances against China, it is likely that Burma will have to take a stance on the matter.

The US may use Burma’s position as chair to increase its economic relations with Burma by using preexisting US-ASEAN institutions.  Burma is not as firmly situated on the path towards the proposed Asian Economic Community: the Declaration on the Asian Economic Community Blueprint states that there is a “development divide” and calls for accelerated integration via the Initiative for ASEAN integration.  Burma will also likely further its participation in ASEAN programs like the Single Window, evidenced by the attendance of customs and trade officials from Burma at a trade facilitation course taught by the Singapore Customs Academy.  The United States can take advantage of this movement towards integration to gain traction in Burma via its preexisting and substantial trade agreements with ASEAN, such as the Expanded Economic Engagements Initiative, or the ASEAN-United States Trade and Investment Framework Arrangement.  If the United States does this, then it has a significant advantage in its competition with China.

More tensions may emerge between Burma and other ASEAN states.  The Muslim states in particular have long been concerned with the treatment of Rohingya Muslims in the Burmese Rakhine State.  There were bloody clashes last year between the Rohingya Muslims and the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist population.  The Muslims are not even recognized by the government; Burma simply refers to them as Bengalis.  Considering that Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim majority state, and that other states like Malaysia also have majority Muslim populations, there is sure to be backlash against Burma if more is not done to resolve this crisis.  Again, this drives a wedge between Burma and other ASEAN states that the United States has the potential to exploit, perhaps by taking a more vigorous moral stance on the issue or specifically targeting some forms of its investment towards Rakhine State, as called for by Bangladesh.  This would enhance United States relations with both Burma and the Muslim states of ASEAN.

Over the past few years, the United States has been engaged in a rapprochement with Burma.  After Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma in December 2011, the United States named Derek Mitchell as its ambassador to the nation.  In November 2012, Barack Obama became to first American president to visit Burma, leading President Thein Sein to declare that “relations have been improved significantly.”

It is impossible not to mention President Obama’s much vaunted “pivot to Asia.”  This policy consists of a strategic redeployment of forces and resources towards East Asia—though with the Obama administration’s recent attention being directed towards a possible rapprochement between America and Iran, some critics maintain that this posited “pivot” has not been realized.  Such critiques were only encouraged when President Obama did not embark on a planned week long trip to Asia in early October because of the United States government shutdown.  Regardless, there are tangible signs of the “pivot:” a littoral combat ship has been deployed to Singapore; a new marine combat force will be deployed to Darwin, in northern Australia, by 2014.

These advances show that the United States has made significant ground in improving its relations with Burma, but Burma’s tenure as chair of ASEAN in 2014 means that there is further opportunity for a rapprochement.  This coming together opens up opportunities for the United States to increase investment in Burma and specifically Rakhine State.  In the context of President Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” it makes even more sense to shore up support for the United States, as the United States is showing a clear interest in the region.  So what does Burma taking the ASEAN chair mean to the United States?  It means a chance for better relations and an increase of American influence in Southeast Asia.