The role of the Burmese navy has traditionally been eclipsed by the army’s dominance. For a long time since the country’s independence, the navy has been relegated to offering riverine support to the army in its counter-insurgency efforts. Limited to ‘brown water’ capabilities, the Burmese navy was confined to protecting fisheries and conducting coastline patrol against smuggling.
However, the twin national security crises of 2008 – the scare of seaward humanitarian intervention following Cyclone Nargis in May and the November standoff with the Bangladesh navy in the Bay of Bengal – revealed that the Burmese navy, following decades of neglect, was no match for its foreign counterparts. Since then, an outward security orientation emphasizing maritime security has underpinned Myanmar’s naval modernization.
Yet, how sustainable are the one-off events of 2008 in maintaining the momentum of Myanmar’s naval modernization? Afterall, since the 2012 peaceful resolution to the maritime boundary conflict with Bangladesh, there has been no outstanding territorial conflict that provides strong impetus to develop a powerful navy. Myanmar is not embroiled in the South China Sea imbroglio that has troubled other Southeast Asian states. Instead, coming under the umbrella of China’s diplomatic and indirect security protection, and armed with the sturdy shield of non-intervention and regional resilience that its membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) provides, Myanmar’s navy lacks urgent justifications to play catch up with its regional and global counterparts. Unsurprisingly, the country’s aspirations to acquire (Russian Kilo-class) submarines by 2015 have failed to materialize. In any case, the unlikely threat of seaward armed aggression in the name of regime change has become near obsolete since the National League for Democracy (NLD) succeeded at the November 2015 polls. With the diminished role of the military since then, could the navy find itself victim to budget cuts and see its efforts at modernization coming to a halt?
The growing potential of Myanmar’s maritime sector appears to be the likely saving grace of the Burmese navy. Assuming that the NLD government commits to the Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ) project and revives the development of its offshore oil and gas industries with foreign investments, Myanmar’s economic and industrial development will see the growth of its maritime dependence on trade routes in the Bay of Bengal. Such reliance on the seas will demand an increasingly outward-oriented security posture that places a high premium on sustaining naval power projection into its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Myanmar’s long coastline and vast jurisdictional presence in its maritime spaces will require the expansion of naval power, along the lines of developing its oceanic ‘blue-water’ capabilities, to secure its wealth of offshore deposits of natural resources. With the offshore oil and gas industries foreseeably emerging as Myanmar’s engine of economic growth and a revenue base for its industrialization as the country opens up economically, naval modernization would persist as a vital means to safeguard Myanmar’s maritime interests.
However, even if maritime security imperatives were to increase the demands on the Burmese navy, sustaining efforts at naval modernization requires more than just the will to do so. Afterall, the process of naval modernization largely rests on Chinese acquiescence to military assistance. Almost 60 percent of Myanmar’s military procurements in 1998-2013 (often at ‘friendship prices’) originated from the Middle Kingdom. In fact, the two locally-built Kyan Sittha-class frigates, which are the pride of the Burmese navy today, relied on Chinese technical assistance and equipment.
Despite the prospects of improved relations with the West under the government of Aung Sun Suu Kyi, Myanmar can still expect the Chinese to be more dependable than the West in offering assistance to modernize the Burmese navy. It is one thing for western countries to lift sanctions against Myanmar and channel resources to strengthen its civil society, but it is another to actively provide assistance to develop Myanmar’s military machine. Afterall, the West remains wary of the still-powerful tatmadaw that is not only constitutionally autonomous and exempted from civilian oversight, but also retains overriding control over national security affairs.
Therefore, successful naval modernization requires that Suu Kyi’s rapprochement with the West and Myanmar’s democratic transition do not alienate the Chinese the way the Thein Sein government had. Haunted by the unpopular history of the military’s crony relations with China at Myanmar’s expense, the Thein Sein government curbed Chinese inroads into the country in an effort to dispel domestic perceptions of encroaching Chinese exploitation of Burmese natural resources. Consequently, China has come under the impression that since the quasi-civilian takeover in 2011, it has been undeservedly penalized for its ties with the former military junta. In particular, the Chinese has been frustrated by its troubled developmental projects in the country, such as the Myitsone Dam project was suspended in 2011 and the proposed $20 billion railway project between Rakhine and Yunnan that was terminated in 2014. If Beijing were to link the protection of its investments and infrastructural projects with continued military assistance, the navy will face obstacles in its drive towards modernization.
The birth of a new regime offers Myanmar the opportunity to jumpstart its tricky relations with China. For now, Suu Kyi’s foreign policy towards China has been on the whole positive. She has assured the Chinese that Myanmar will continue to adopt a friendly foreign policy towards its neighbor. Although it is still too early to tell if the inauguration of the NLD government has led to a new era in relations, both sides appear to transcend ideological differences in the pragmatic pursuit of shared interests. Suu Kyi has expressed support for President Xi Jinping’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative that will increase Myanmar’s connectivity and cooperation with the Middle Kingdom. Despite anti-Chinese sentiments, the NLD government has more room for policy maneuver than its predecessor, which was often guarded against the Chinese because of the military’s unpopular ties with China.
The NLD’s strong mandate allows for policymaking on cooperation with China to be unconstrained by historical baggage and be based on the sound and practical merits of individual collaborative projects. Whether such an advantage would improve Myanmar-China relations will have consequences on Chinese willingness to assist Myanmar’s naval modernization.
As significant as external assistance may be, fundamentally, for naval modernization to be sustainable the new regime has to adopt an outward-oriented security outlook. Departing from its inward-looking security posture reflective of its counter-insurgency agenda rests on the effectiveness of the NLD government in fostering national reconciliation among ethnic groups. Afterall, armed ethic conflict justifies the primacy of the army in national security affairs and its involvement in politics, while confining the navy to its secondary role and drawing away resources needed for its modernisation. Only by managing ethnic relations carefully can Myanmar’s predominant security challenge recede and make way for the reconfiguration of the tatmadaw into a conventional defense force in which the navy develops capabilities to resist external threats.
For now, with Suu Kyi’s determination to personally head ceasefire negotiations, Myanmar’s main ethnic parties have appeared to respond positively to her overtures. Her strong mandate and popularity is expected to enhance the confidence of ethnic minorities in the peace process that could see ethnic armed groups, including the Kachin Independence Army and United Wa State Army, which have yet to sign the National Ceasefire Accord do so after more than six decades of civil war.
A durable peace lies in a permanent settlement that institutionalizes power and fiscal sharing. Increasing self-determination for ethnic minorities would undermine support for armed struggle, while enhancing local rights and administration of resource management in a way that promotes inclusive development would reduce local resistance (in states like Rakhine and Kachin) against what is deemed as extortive resource appropriation. In the long run, such progress in the peace process would foster a security climate permitting an outward shift in Myanmar’s security conception that will see developmental opportunities for its navy. Conversely, if Suu Kyi falls short of accommodating the aspirations of ethnic groups, the consequence, as the past suggests, would be the persistence of tension and conflict that will encourage the army’s rise in the name of national (and regime) security at the cost of derailing naval modernization efforts.
The Burmese navy possesses a huge potential for modernization. For now, the stars of maritime industrialization, foreign (western and Chinese) rapprochement and national reconciliation appear to be slowly aligning. If such a trend persists, the Burmese navy is on track to gaining regional prominence in the decades to come.
*Stefan Tan Ying Xian is a graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he majored in International Relations and History.