Obfuscating the obvious is commonly perceived as a critical component of public diplomacy. However, ever so often, so is acknowledging that which is evident.
A clear example of such an approach was the just concluded visit of Myanmar’s new President U Thein Sein to China, as the two nations took their bilateral relationship to a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.”
After taking oath on March 30, Sein has made a conscious effort to project Myanmar in a new light - a nation marching along the path of democracy and development while seeking to rehabilitate itself as a responsible international actor.
In his inaugural address to the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, he called for the new Republic of the Union of Myanmar to focus on developing political, economic and military might to realize national goals. This is precisely what dominated Sein’s agenda as he landed in Beijing, accompanied by about a dozen government ministers and military leaders, on May 26.
China, which is Naypyidaw’s second largest trading partner and its largest foreign investor, views its neighbour as a potential strategic asset to ensure energy security and implement its Two Oceans policy. For Myanmar, isolated and chastised by the West on human rights and democracy over the years, China has not just been a key ally but rather a window to the world.
During the visit, the two nations discussed enhanced cooperation in the fields of investment, trade, technology, science, agriculture, health and tourism. Bilateral trade between Naypyidaw and Beijing, estimated at $5.3 billion in 2010-2011, is expected to exceed $6 billion in the next fiscal.
Among some of the key deals that have emerged from the meeting are the bilateral agreement for a $763 million line of credit that China would extend to its neighbour and the announcement that China Railway had signed an agreement with Myanmar to jointly build the 810-km long rail line from Ruili in Yunnan Province to Myanmar’s port city of Kyaukphyu.
The project is an important aspect of the broader Chinese strategy to secure oil and gas supply routes. Kyaukpyu has often been viewed as a terminus for tankers supplying oil to China. After the pipelines are completed in 2013, they are expected to transfer to Yunnan nearly 80 percent of China’s imported oil from the Middle East and Africa, along with Chinese-purchased natural gas from Burma's Shwe Gas Field.
This deal adds further weight to the prospect of Chinese navy eventually docking at Kyaukpyu, effectively getting direct access to the Bay of Bengal.
Another important aspect in deepening engagement was the support that President Hu Jintao extended to Myanmar as the host of the 2013 Southeast Asia Games and the potential chair and host of ASEAN in 2014.
The 2014 summit is pivotal for Sein’s strategy to rehabilitate Myanmar as a responsible global player. While ASEAN members have in principle agreed upon Naypyidaw as the host and chair, China’s support remains vital as difficult negotiations loom with other key partners like the US, South Korea, EU and Japan.
Thus, in response, Sein openly backed China’s recent aggressive approach to affairs and disputes in the South China Sea, a move that is at odds with the spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) signed in 2002 between China and ASEAN.
While such a declaration can potentially further divide the bloc, its actual impact on ASEAN unity yet remains unclear. What is clear, however, is the tilt of the newly elected government of Myanmar toward Beijing.
From an Indian point of view, diplomatic jockeying for the edge over China in Naypyidaw seems to have failed in producing the desired results. The reasons for this lie in the success of the Chinese to continually increase their influence while New Delhi floundered owing to the lack of a clear strategic vision by Indian policymakers and the lethargic approach of state-run organisations.
An example of this is the recent case of the rather public display of frustration by Indian Ambassador to Myanmar VS Seshadri regarding the 1,200 mw Tamanthi hydel project, as he proposed that India might as well exit the initiative in order to save face. This, despite the fact that a Chinese firm is sure to be the beneficiary of an Indian pullout.
Just as the ambassador advised that it was high time for the NHPC to give up its “business as usual approach” and get into “mission mode,” one can only hope that the leadership in New Delhi is also paying attention to those words.
Manoj Kewalramani is a strategic affairs writer affiliated to Three Headed Lion Research and Information Services, www.threeheadedlion.com
(The views expressed in the article are that of the author and do not represent the views of the editorial committee or the centre for land warfare studies).