by Andrew Kroybko
(Please read Part I before this article)
Existing Unilateral Initiatives
In their quest to stabilize Myanmar according to their long-term strategic visions, each of the three examined actors has unilaterally taken significant (and in most cases, counter-productive) strides in trying to achieve this. Here are the most impactful actions and their results:
By far the most important thing that India has done in trying to stabilize Myanmar was its cross-border raid against Naga terrorists. While the strategic risks that this entails have already been briefly touched upon, it’s necessary to speak a bit more in detail about how India plans on following up with the operation. It would preferably like for Myanmar to coordinate a joint offensive against the NSCN-K units active in its territory, driving them towards the Indian border where they could then be arrested or exterminated, but Naypyidaw isn’t eager to jeopardize the frail proto-truce that’s preserving the country’s pre-election peace. It’s also nervous that further Indian incursions into its territory could inevitably lead to reprisal attacks by the NSCN-K or its related affiliates, and that the death of any Indian servicemen within Myanmar might fortify the government and public’s resolve in continuing the operations, which would demonstrate that they’re not soft on terrorism and won’t be deterred by a few casualties. The main problem here is mission creep, and the reason this is an issue is because of the fact that the Myanmar operation was so heavily publicized in the Indian press. Had decision makers kept the details amongst themselves and not have leaked them to the press (unlike how Obama and his administration exploited the alleged Bin Laden operation), then there wouldn’t be any pressure on the state, but India obviously wanted to send a message after suffering its worst ambush in two decades and hence why it turned the event into a media extravaganza.
This reveals two things: first, that India’s defense establishment is fearful enough of the United Liberation Front of West South Asia (the new umbrella group of Northeast secessionists that the NSCN-K is under) that it felt compelled to make a global statement of intent against it; and secondly that elements inside India’s government wanted to use the tactical success of the operation as a political tool for exciting the public. In a situation of strategic apprehension and political games, it’s likely that India may get drawn into a scenario where it increasingly loses its control over the initiative and eventually finds itself in a huge blunder of a mess (especially if Myanmar doesn’t cooperate as India had initially expected and if reprisal attacks pop up in Northeast India). Overall, India’s most grand stratagem in trying to stabilize Myanmar appears to be moving along quite a counter-productive trajectory, and the longer this goes on for and the deeper that India becomes invested in continuing its present course of action, the more difficult it will be to change course and alter the chain of destabilizing events that have already been forced into motion.
China’s policy towards Myanmar since the latter’s pro-Western pivot in 2011 (and especially after the suspension of the Mysitone Dam) can best be characterized as an attempt to regain the strategic initiative amidst a continual loss of influence. It’s been reported that Chinese investment largely contracted within the country in the past couple of years (despite remaining its biggest foreign investor ), and this is likely a combination of growing domestic antipathy to Chinese projects and the relative inroads that non-Chinese investors have made since 2011. China’s not completely out of the game, however, it’s just in weakened position compared to the space it previously occupied, and positive advances in bilateral relations have indeed occurred since Myanmar’s pro-Western pivot. Construction has recently been completed on two gas and oil pipelines to the Indian Ocean, which effectively inaugurates an early build of China’s envisioned Maritime Corridor through Myanmar. This proves that Beijing hasn’t completely lost out on strategic opportunities in the country, although the concern still remains that it did lose its formerly privileged position there for an indefinite amount of time, and must now compete more heatedly with other (perhaps eventually hostile) forces interested in the same market (which they had no hope of accessing prior to the 2011 pivot).
Part of China’s quest to regain its influence in Myanmar is the political game that it’s playing with Aung San Suu Kyi, who surprisingly just paid a visit to Beijing and even met with Xi Jinping. Chinese news outlet Xinhua said the trip will “strengthen ties between the two sides as well as mutual understanding between Chinese leaders and the renowned Myanmar political figure”. It also observed that “Xi couldn’t have put it better when he told Suu Kyi, “I hope this visit will help deepen your understanding on China and the CPC, contributing to our mutual understanding and trust, and lay a better foundation for the party-to-party and state-to-state relationship.” This makes it clear that China has tried to woo Suu Kyi over to its side and sees her as a potential agent of positive influence in building better bilateral relations. From this, it can be surmised that China is both using her as a means to enact pressure on the Myanmar government and signify its intense displeasure of their pro-Western pivot (and the recent trans-border Kokang shelling ), and that it wants to actively court her towards facilitating their grand strategic interests in helping Myanmar return to its previous buffer status. Of course, this would have to mean that Suu Kyi abandons her Western patrons, or at the very least, refuses to follow their ‘guidance’ as regards Chinese relations, and no matter how obscure of a possibility this may seem to outside observers at the moment, China’s invitation to her indicates that Beijing does see it as being feasible in the near future.
The Chinese government’s acceptance of Suu Kyi and its active efforts to court her to their side signifies that they identify her as one of the most important people in the country, not only now, but also into the future. This could be read to mean that they anticipate her “National League for Democracy” party achieving a sizeable electoral victory in November that makes them an institutionalized political force. In fact, their invitation for her to visit Beijing could be seen as a type of political endorsement for the forces that she represents, and it may give the signal that her party is supported by both the US and China, a rare feat in today’s tense geopolitical climate. This in turn could have a noticeable electoral impact in early November, but it might not necessarily be to China’s ultimate advantage. If China doesn’t succeed in wooing her over (or at least getting her and her on-the-ground affiliates to moderate their pro-Western and anti-Rohingya policies), then it might have inadvertently assisted a major strategic foe in climbing to power in a neighboring state, and this would of course reverberate negatively for bilateral affairs. Furthermore, Suu Kyi and her associates might get the idea that they can manipulate ethnic identity politics in order to score electoral points, believing that assumed Chinese backing can compensate for any government backlash to this gambit. If it does come to that, and the “National League for Democracy” rolls out ethnically divisive tactics in its pre-election campaign, then Myanmar would surely undergo an intensification of identity conflict that could predictably break the fragile peace. All in all, China’s attempt to play the Suu Kyi card might drastically backfire and herald in the same type of destabilization and strategic defeat that Beijing hopes to avoid in Myanmar.
Russia has been the most pragmatic and least risky of Myanmar’s major Eurasian partners, as this is mostly due to a distant geography that inhibits any ulterior geopolitical motives on Moscow’s behalf. Since Myanmar doesn’t border Russia like it does India and China, Russia has no incentive to get dragged into political games and intrigues in order to secure its broad national interests in the country’s stability. Being comfortably located far away from the country’s various problems, Russia doesn’t have to attempt to micromanage Myanmar’s affairs in order to achieve its vision. This makes it a reliable partner and one in which no unpredictable behavior (such as surgical border strikes or schmoozing with the ‘opposition’) is expected.
The existing nature of bilateral relations between Russia and Myanmar is centered on the arms trade and natural resource investment , but plans were announced last August to quadruple inter-state trade to $500 million a year via a focus on “metallurgy, oil production, transport, engineering and aviation”. While these are significant endeavors in and of themselves, they don’t constitute a major unilateral initiative on par with what India and China are doing, and until recently, it seemed as though Russia wasn’t going to get too involved with Myanmar. That all changed at the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum 2015 when the two sides signed a nuclear energy cooperation agreement and Myanmar Vice President U Nyan Tun was given a privileged position alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin to deliver a capstone plenary address (after guests as distinguished as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Chinese Vice-Premier Gaoli Zhang). Without a doubt, these two high-profile moves show that Russia proudly stands behind Myanmar and wants to unreservedly showcase it as an emerging economy that it believes holds enormous potential. Reading into things, this demonstrates that Russia is confident that Myanmar will succeed in weathering any forthcoming destabilizations, and it wants to use its global platform in Saint Petersburg to help Southeast Asian partner attract as much foreign (ideally non-Western) investment as possible in its pursuit of modernization.
Through its actions in Saint Petersburg, Russia has proven that its policy towards Myanmar is much more productive and stable than that which is currently being practiced by India and China, and this gives makes Naypyidaw trust Moscow more than it does New Delhi and Beijing. After all, Russia is betting that Myanmar will eventually stabilize itself to the point where a nuclear energy reactor would be a national asset, not a security vulnerability, while neither of the other two sides are making such symbolic investments in the country’s future. Highways and trade corridors are one thing, but a nuclear reactor is a whole different level of strategic investment, and it thus implicitly commits Russia to providing complementary means of support (such as arms shipments, other economic investments, and political solidarity) in helping Myanmar remain stable both before and after it is built. The most immediate step that Russia can take in this regard is to call upon its trustful relations with all three sides (India, China, and Myanmar) as a means of bringing them together in coordinating an integrated strategy for regional stabilization.
Proposed Multilateral Initiatives
Russia is the only country capable of bridging the strategic divide between India and China over Myanmar, a gap which is responsible for both of their unwittingly destabilizing actions in the country as of late. It’s to both of their advantages for the Southeast Asian state to settle its domestic military and political disputes and become the solid partner that they need for advancing their respective infrastructure interests. The SCO, which India is planning to join early next month, is the most viable framework for bringing Russia, China, and India together in discussing their stabilization strategies towards Myanmar (BRICS’ economically focused orientation isn’t suitable for such a topic), and with Russia acting as the go-between in balancing the outwardly contradictory visions between China and India and taking the lead in behind-the-scenes negotiations, it’s absolutely possible for there to be a strategic breakthrough between all sides.
What needs to happen is for Russia to help the two reach a mutually acceptable strategic solution that resolves the security dilemma between them over Myanmar and achieves a win-win situation for all. So long as India and China both feel that the other is attempting to encircle it, Myanmar will be seen as a ‘fair game’ pivot of equal opportunity to ‘out-game’ and strategically outwit the other. Both sides need to understand that their latest steps in safeguarding their interests (India’s cross-border raid, China’s flirtation with Suu Kyi) have inadvertently destabilized Myanmar, and that this ironically works against their overall goals.
Dispel Mutual Fear:
The first step towards reaching a tangible Indian-Chinese convergence on Myanmar and the coordination of their stabilization policies is that their governments have to engage in a trust-building conversation with one another. There’s no false expectation that this would be an historic talk, but merely that they engage in a discussion about their policies towards one another’s neighbors, which lies at the root of their mutual suspicion. New Delhi needs to be clear about its Trans-Pacific Partnership interest and what its intentions are in ASEAN (e.g. is Act East a symmetrical regional counter to the New Silk Road?), while China needs to be transparent about its ‘String of Pearls’ relationship with Pakistan, Sri Lanka (although this appears to be weakening a la the Myanmar scenario), and Bangladesh (which may also redefine its relations with China after Modi’s landmark visit ). Their regional competition comes to a head in Myanmar, and therein lies the problem in each of them pursuing self-interested stabilization policies that unintentionally destabilize the strategic situation in the country. The challenge is for Russia to get India and China to realize this before either of them takes their current strategies far enough to the point where they’re irreversible without considerable damage to their reputation (a fear which in and of itself could motivate a perpetual cycle of destructive policy continuation simply for the purpose of saving face).
Craft A Common Vision:
The ideal result of the Russian-initiated Indian-Chinese talks would be for all sides to recognize the need for a common and compatible vision in Myanmar. Russia, as the non-regional partner with no intrinsic interests in Myanmar one way or the other, could proclaim its investment support for both the ASEAN Highway and the Maritime Corridor, giving it one foot in each camp that can help it achieve an equitable balance between them. Moscow should press for New Delhi and Beijing to accept that the other’s venture is not incompatible with or exclusive of their own (and offering to invest in both of them is a strong statement in that direction), and that it’s perfectly realistic for Naypyidaw to host both crucial (and crisscrossing) projects and become a gateway in bringing India and China closer. With both countries committing impressive investment to Myanmar (and Russia contributing to that as well), they’d all have a mutual stake in upholding its stability, and potentially even coordinating the basic schematics of their policy towards the Southeast Asian state to ensure that this would be the case.
Supposing that India and China can realize their common interest in stabilizing Myanmar, they must then take action to reform some key elements of their recent policies. Here’s what has to change:
New Delhi must affirm that it will not engage in any unilateral cross-border raids and will restrain itself no matter how difficult this may be at times. It should instead concentrate on fortifying its border with Myanmar and resolving the existing ethno-political tensions in the Northeast. This would go a far way in isolating the militant groups active in Myanmar from their cross-border counterparts and diminishing whatever appeal they may have in certain segments of India’s population, and it would do so in a manner that does not inadvertently destabilize Myanmar.
Beijing must immediately reach out to the non-state actors that it’s in contact with (be they rebel groups or Suu Kyi) and inform them that it won’t tolerate any renewal of violence in the run-up to the elections. It may retain its existing contacts with whatever entities it engages with in Myanmar, but it mustn’t expand them or intensify its collaboration, as such actions could shift the uneasy balance that pervades throughout the country and misleadingly encourage various actors to stubbornly resist constructive government outreaches. This is especially the case with Beijing’s embrace of Suu Kyi in recent weeks, since it sends very confusing signals to her supporters, the Myanmar government, and the world at large, which, although this may be the point, creates an uncertain political situation in the country that might end up turning against China’s ultimate interests of stability there.
India and China should reach an implicit understanding that they will intensify their support of the Myanmar government, especially after the elections in early November. Unsettling actions such as unilateral military strikes on its territory or hosting ‘opposition’ leaders don’t contribute to reinforcing stability in the pivotal state, and what’s fundamentally needed is for New Delhi and Beijing to rethink their policies towards Naypyidaw and treat it with the respect that it deserves. While it may be difficult for Great Powers with over one billion citizens to treat a comparatively smaller and less powerful neighboring state as a political equal, it needs to be done by both of them in order to give the Myanmar government time to breathe and organize its internal situation.
It’s critical that the authorities adequately prepare for the upcoming elections and deflect any planned US destabilization scenarios, but they have difficulty doing so with the added pressure being forced upon them by India and China. Therefore, a recalibration of those countries’ policies away from the clumsy pursuit of their narrow self-interests and more in the direction of the mutual shared interest of stability that they both have with Myanmar (and by this point, hopefully with one another over their vision for the country) is the necessary prerequisite for preventing their partner’s inadvertent destabilization and the demise of everyone’s grand objectives.
Russia’s trusted relationship with India and China enables it to serve as a neutral middleman in managing their conflicting (and unintentionally destructive) grand strategies towards Myanmar. Instead of viewing the other as a rival in the country, Russia should help them see one another as complementary poles of stabilization and economic benefit. As an out-of-regional actor with no ulterior motives in Myanmar, Russian diplomacy can believably go the distance in convincing India and China of their respective policy faults that are imperiling everyone’s interests there.
The eventual goal should be to form a quadrilateral framework between Russia, India, China, and Myanmar, whereby the Eurasian Powers offer their own forms of stabilizing support to their Southeast Asian partner, listening to its feedback in order to assess exactly what’s needed from each of them. Potential multilateral support could come in the form of SCO cooperation with Myanmar (even if only through dialogue partner or observer status), but more immediately, the BRICS New Development Bank could help finance reconstruction projects in the civil war-torn rebel regions (pending an official resolution to the long-running conflict) and perhaps even give a stimulus boost to both the ASEAN Highway and Maritime Corridor.
A strong and stable Myanmar would be a geopolitical blessing for Russia, India, and China, since all sides would stand to gain in their own way. Moscow would likely achieve a Free Trade Agreement with the country, which could pave the way for a Eurasian Union-ASEAN free trade zone; India would be able to strengthen BIMSTEC and peacefully return its civilizational influence back to its historic limits; and China would acquire its prized non-Malacca outlet to the sea and a secure corridor for its resource imports and product exports. The only thing standing in the way of this shared and mutually beneficial vision is a lack of trust and misunderstanding over India and China’s intentions towards each other, and this is why Russia must take the lead in spearheading a strategic conversation with both of them in resolving the security dilemma they’re engaged in over Myanmar and paving the way for prosperous cooperation between all four sides.