Foreign policies are the ways and strategies of the governments’ actions in their external relations in the international arena. In formulating foreign policy, the adherence of their values and interests plays a central role in the decision-making process of every state. In case of Myanmar, the diversity of historical heritage, culture, geographical location, economic needs and security concerns shape the value and interest of Myanmar’s foreign policy formulation and also in its national interests.
The value in Myanmar’s foreign policy have deep-roots since Myanmar’s independence movement. The successive governments have tried to maintain the values in line with the national interest of Myanmar. These values can be known as neutralism, non-alignment, independent and active foreign policies. In shaping Myanmar’s foreign policy, the political, economic and social needs are the considerable domestic factors to achieve the national interests. In addition, the external factors like cold war rivalry among the major powers also played an important part in the formation of foreign policy.
After decades of military rule, Myanmar has transformed into a democratic state with the multi-party general election in 2010. Many political parties have obtained the opportunities to contest in the election. U Thein Sein from Union Solidarity and Development Party (with a military background) became a President after achieving the victory in the general election. Under his administration, series of reform measures such as political, economic and administrative reforms were implemented. These reforms with its openness brought opportunities and led to the changing dimension of Myanmar’s foreign relations in the international arena.
The foreign policy direction practised by President can be found in his inaugural speech delivered at the first regular session of parliament (Hluttaw) on March 30, 2011. Five principles of peaceful coexistence, non-aligned, neutral, independent and active foreign affairs were the keywords in his speech. It is clear that his government maintained the practice of successive governments’ foreign policy. The test of his foreign policy practices was evolved several times. The first test of his foreign policy came out at the 2014 ASEAN Summit in which Myanmar took the responsibilities of ASEAN chairmanship. The major issue at this Summit was South China Sea (SCS) territorial dispute. In this context, U Thein Sein administration faced with a question how to tackle its bilateral relations strategy with China, which has been friendly for almost two decades. Myanmar is not the claimant of the SCS, and it made a hard choice for U Thein Sein’s administration to balance between ASEAN and China in order to accomplish the positive outcomes for both sides. In dealing with this issue, his policy orientation was shaped by the two main factors: China is an immediate neighbour which is a rising power, and China has been Myanmar’s closest partner during military rule. However, the Summit accomplished to issue the Joint Statement on SCS disputes, and Myanmar demonstrated its stand on that disputes in line with the voice of ASEAN by maintaining “independent” foreign policy as its value and deliver a clear path for the country’s future policy direction.
Another test of foreign policy between values and interest can be observed with Nay Pyi Taw’s engagement with Washington. The US-Myanmar relations were strained for two decades due to military administration control on political power. The economic sanction imposed by the west paved the way for Myanmar to be close partner and overdependence on China. However, Myanmar’s democratic transition under President U Thein Sein and his reforms led to the revival of bilateral ties between Myanmar and the US. The deeper interactions could see along with the President Obama’s historic visit to Myanmar on 19-11-2012, and economic sanctions imposed on Myanmar was lifted. Myanmar’s engagement with the US has presented China with a range of challenges, from the fear of losing a strategic asset to American encirclement close to its borders. However, the value of “ five principles of peaceful coexistence,” adhered in Myanmar foreign policy was maintained in relations with both US and China though there remain issues in the Chinese investments especially Myitsone hydropower project (an agreement with the previous military government was suspended under his administration due to public demonstration) in Kachin state. Under his administration, the significant pace of reform agenda while maintaining the values of Myanmar’s foreign policy paved the way for the new connections in its external relations.
– New Light of Myanmar, 31 March 2011
– Global New Light of Myanmar, 15 October 2014
Chaw Chaw Sein is a Professor and the Head of the International Relations Department, University of Yangon. The views expressed here are personal.