By Joseph Allchin
Burmese Foreign Minister Maung Lwin will travel to Tokyo later this month for bilateral meetings with the Japanese government, with business likely to feature high on the agenda as Japan looks to rekindle historically uneasy relations with Naypyidaw.
The announcement of the 20 to 22 October visit coincides with a report in domestic press in Burma that Rangoon’s Sedona Hotel will play host to a Japan-ASEAN economic forum from 2 to 4 November. Last month ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan described greater ASEAN-Japan trade as “a win-win formula.”
Japan’s largest business association, Keidanren, also visited Burma last month. The country has reinvigorated its efforts to engage with Burma after years of reticence following the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2003, which induced the country to block all aid except disaster relief. This policy officially ended this year.
Japan has several reasons to reassess ties with Burma. Across most of Asia, the once-dominant nation has been overtaken by historical rival China in both trade and aid. This has, according to economist Professor Shuije Yao, made “even Japan feel vulnerable”.
Vulnerability towards securing resources is a major factor: Japan’s earthquake in February and subsequent nuclear disaster caused the world’s third largest economy to look towards natural gas as an alternative to nuclear energy. This has lead to squabbles over maritime boundaries in the South China Sea, with all concerned hopeful that gas and oil may be present under the seabed.
This factor was believed by many to be behind a Chinese move to block exports of rare earth metals to Japan which are vital for the manufacture of batteries for hybrid cars, wind turbines and many more technologies which Japan has successfully exported. As a result Japan joined South Korea last month in announcing a bid to seek the minerals in Burmese soil.
Two Japanese companies were reported to be exploring a 20,000 square-kilometre wide area of Kachin state’s Hukaung valley for natural gas and oil.
Japan is also part of a string of countries eager to counter China’s growing military might, with Japan a client state to the US in regards to the military. Shockwaves were caused in Taiwan when the US said it would not replace the country’s ageing F-5 fleet with more modern fighters, sparking Taiwanese concern that its fleet would soon lack the edge over China’s indigenous technology.
The Japanese for their part undertook joint naval patrols with the Philippines, also an ASEAN member, near the contested waters in the South China Sea. Indicative of this, Wunna Maung Lwin’s trip to Tokyo will be followed by a visit by Vietnamese Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh, specifically to discuss the issue of the South China Sea.