Myanmar in US-China Relations

Issue Brief
|

Myanmar in US-China Relations

On January 22, 2013, following the 5th US-China Asia Pacific Consultations in Beijing, the United States and China jointly announced their intention to pursue several areas of practical cooperation. For the first time in the history of their bilateral relations, Myanmar was listed as an area for future cooperation, though the suggested scope for mutual or complementary action is very modest. As stated in the announcement, “US and Chinese experts will meet to coordinate with Myanmar counterparts on an appropriate project(s), such as in the field of health, to work together for Myanmar’s stability and development.

The announcement sent several important messages. Since the beginning of Myanmar’s political reform and improvement of relations with the United States, China has felt aggrieved about the “damage” that has been inflicted on Chinese political, economic and strategic interests inside Myanmar. Many Chinese analysts perceive the “obstacles” that China has encountered in Myanmar to be largely the result of a US premeditated strategy to undermine Sino-Myanmar relations and “contain” China. Against this background, the announcement of US-China cooperation in Myanmar might be seen as an indication that the zero-sum perceptions have moderated.

However, a careful examination of the reality raises more questions and doubts than answers about such cooperation. Although China and the US share common interests in Myanmar’s stability and development, a strong sense of competition has been observed between the two powers for influence in the country, which will inevitably affect their cooperation. Given China’s perception of and grudge against the “containment” nature of US maneuvers in Myanmar, trust will be a major issue that limits the scope and depth of such cooperation. In addition, a key element of any US-China cooperation in Myanmar is the pivotal role Myanmar itself should play in the process. Whether the Myanmar government is willing or capable to play such a role remains unclear.

Key Findings:

1 - The January 2014 US-China Joint Statement on cooperation in Myanmar is an important first step in setting a new tone for how the two countries view each other’s policies and presence in the country.
2 - China has perceived new American interest in engaging Myanmar as a threat to their established role in the country, and has tended to view the dynamic in zero-sum, competitive terms.
3 - The United States, in contrast, has focused its policies in Myanmar primarily on the country’s commitment to internal reforms, and its prospects for democracy and improved human rights. While not directed at China, however, these policy priorities are seen by Beijing as harmful to its interests.
4 - The new declared interest in US-China cooperation in Myanmar does not mean a dramatic change in the near future. The content and depth of such cooperation will be difficult to work out, and some level of friction in US-China relations related to Myanmar is likely to persist.

This is the third of a series of four issue briefs on the changes and challenges that Myanmar faces in its domestic and foreign policies since the beginning of democratization in the nation in 2011. These briefs will explore how external factors and forces influence and shape various aspects of Myanmar’s internal development, including economic growth, ethnic conflict and national reconciliation. Previous issue briefs include “Chinese Investment in Myanmar: What Lies Ahead?” and “China, the United States and the Kachin Conflict.”