Burma: United States Finally Adopts Political Reach-Out – Analysis

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By Dr. Subhash Kapila

The strategic imperatives for the United States to make a dramatic political reach-out to Myanmar was advocated in 2009 in SAAG Paper No. 3470 dated 22 October 2009, entitled “United States: Dramatic Political Reach-Out to Myanmar, A Strategic Imperative” (reproduced below)

The United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Myanmar (the first such visit in 50 years) from November 30 to December 02, 2011 indicates that Myanmar has finally started figuring in United States strategic calculus due to the changing security environment in South East Asia – SAAG Director


By Dr. Subhash Kapila

The United States has for decades shunned Myanmar politically and economically on the grounds of human rights abuses and democracy. India too had till the early 1990s adopted the same stance. In the process, both the United States, and India till the 1990s,pushed Myanmar into the strategic embrace of China.

India to some extent retrieved its strategic losses in Myanmar to China by a political and economic reach-out to Myanmar by the mid-1990s The United States is still dithering, though the Obama Administration has made some tentative moves towards normalization of relations with Myanmar.

United States preoccupations in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to a US strategic vacuum in South East Asia and by extension to Myanmar. This facilitated China to make some deft moves strategically in the region, especially in Myanmar. China has sought to use Myanmar for strategic land corridors to the Indian Ocean and energy corridors from Myanmar ports to South China.

China needs to be strategically checkmated by the United States in South East Asia. The strategic keys for checkmating of China by the United States in South East Asia lie in Myanmar.

The aim of the Paper is to highlight the strategic imperatives for a dramatic political reach out by the United States to Myanmar by examining the following issues.

  • Myanmar: The Geo-strategic Significance for the United States Naval Interests
  • Myanmar Has Not Been Adversarial to the United States Geo-politically
  • Myanmar in Relation to South East Asian Security
  • United States Could Use India as a Bridge to Politically Reach-out to Myanmar

Myanmar: The Geo-strategic Significance for the United States Naval Interests

In naval terms, the geo-strategic significance of Myanmar emerges as follows:

  • Myanmar with its long eastern littoral on the Bay of Bengal upto the Northern tip of the Andaman Islands secures the Bay of Bengal
  • Myanmar with its long eastern littoral in continuation, along the Andaman Sea, along with India’s Andaman Islands secures the Andaman Sea.

While India dominates the maritime approaches to the strategic chokepoints of straits of Malacca, it does so alone. China is trying to make naval inroads in Myanmar as a result of the American vacuum.

US naval planners would be aware that a US-friendly India coupled with a US-friendly Myanmar could fully secure both the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Therefore, it is a strategic imperative for the United States to draw Myanmar into its fold.

Needless to say that this has a direct bearing on the United States transference of its Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean Naval Fleets and Vice versa.

Myanmar Has Not Been Adversarial to the United States Geo-politically

Myanmar despite being subjected to long years of political and economic sanctions by the United States, to the best of my re-collection, has never geo-politically acted in an adversarial manner to the United States. Nor has Myanmar unlike Pakistan, hosted terrorist organizations targeting the United States.

Geo-politically, Myanmar was pushed into the strategic embrace of China as a result of American and Indian policies. As reflected in this Authors writings it was China which clasped Myanmar into a strategic embrace and not the other way around.

In terms of US allies in South East Asia, Myanmar has close and good relations with Singapore. Along with Singapore and Indonesia, Myanmar too should figure in US strategic and political calculations as an anchor for a viable US political and security presence in South East Asia.

Myanmar in Relation to South East Asian Security

Myanmar geographically covers the western flank of the strategic South East Asian Region.

With China no longer in a position to envelope South East Asia on the Eastern Flank through Vietnam, Myanmar offers an attractive alternative of China for this purpose.

Myanmar as a Chinese strategic satellite could endanger South East Asian security and by extension that of the Untied States.

Myanmar has yet to become a full strategic satellite of China and the United States would be well advised to politically reach out to Myanmar to pre-empt that eventuality.

United States Could Use India as a Bridge to Politically Reach out to Myanmar

India realized its strategic folly in the 1990s to give weightage to human rights and democracy in Myanmar over strategic considerations. Under PM Narasimha Rao ,it strategically retrieved that situation by basing its policy not on idealistic ‘isms’ but on national security considerations. An Indian political reach out to Myanmar was made and cooperation initiated.

Currently, India enjoys good political and economic relations with Myanmar. This also extends to military-to-military relations. India is also involved in infrastructure development projects for better India- Myanmar connectivity.

Today, the United States could utilize India along with Singapore to pave the way for a dramatic political reach out to Myanmar. Singapore and India both enjoy good relations with Myanmar and similarly have good relations with the United States, India and Singapore are therefore well placed to synergize a United States dramatic political reach out to Myanmar.

India has a stronger imperative to build even more proximate strategic relations with Myanmar to secure its North East land border with China and secure the Eastern seaboard of the Bay of Bengal. A United States political reach out to Myanmar could provide extra ballast to India and also induce India to act as a more committed bridge to facilitate USA-Myanmar political reconsideration.

With a US-India strategic partnership in operation, there should be a natural strategic convergence between USA and India on Myanmar and thereby secure their respective national security interests.

Concluding Observations

Myanmar is a strategic “blue chip” for China’s overall strategy to establish itself in the Indian Ocean and also to establish direct energy corridors from Myanmar ports to South China by pipeline grids to offset China’s vulnerabilities of passage through US-dominated choke points like Malacca Straits.

For exactly the opposite reasons, Myanmar should emerge as a “blue chip” in United States strategic formulations, especially naval strategy, and its geo-strategic value to US security interests needs to be recognized.

The United States has not held itself back from strategic relationships with confirmed rogue nations like Pakistan where terrorism against USA flourishes and democracy not allowed to flourish. Myanmar in comparative analysis should emerge in US strategic calculus as a more deserving candidate for strategic co-option by the United States

Geo-strategically and geo-politically, a United States dramatic political reach out to Myanmar is a strategic imperative whose time has come not only for US security but overall Asian Security too.

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email: [email protected])

Dr. Subhash Kapila

Dr Subhash Kapila combines a rich and varied professional experience of Indian Army Brigadier ( Veteran), diplomatic assignments in the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Bhutan. Served in India's Cabinet Secretariat also. He is a Graduate of Royal British Army Staff College, Camberley, UK, Msc Defence Studies from Madras University and a Doctorate in Strategic Studies from Allahabad University. Papers have been presented by him in International Seminars in Japan,Turkey, Russia and Vietnam. Credited to him are over 1,500 Papers on geopolitical & strategic topical issues and foreign policies of USA, Japan, India, China and Indo Pacific Asia. He has authored two Books : "India's Defence Policies & Strategic Thought: A Comparative Analysis" and "China-India Military Confrontation: 21st Century Perspectives"

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