With Myanmar in the centre

Its elevation to the ASEAN chair comes at a crucial moment in Southeast Asia

Written by Amitendu Palit | Published:October 18, 2013 4:01 am

Its elevation to the ASEAN chair comes at a crucial moment in Southeast Asia

Myanmar is the new chair of ASEAN,the 10-member grouping of Southeast Asian countries. For the next year,it will shepherd various issues connected to domestic engagement within Southeast Asia,as well as ASEAN’s external engagements.

For a country shunned by the international community,particularly the West,for several years due to its autocratic military regime,the ASEAN chairmanship affirms Southeast Asia’s faith in the economic and political transition of Myanmar. It also reflects ASEAN’s willingness to project Myanmar as its face at a time when Southeast Asia is a critical variable in regional and global economic and geopolitical calculations.

Myanmar’s elevation is also significant for India. India has been a major supporter of pro-democratic forces in Myanmar championed by Aung San Suu Kyi. The country is also an ideal example of the pragmatism becoming conspicuous in India’s external engagement policies. Despite supporting the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar since the 1990s,India began engaging its military government over the last decade. The apparently paradoxical shift underpinned India’s urge to dig a firmer foothold in a country with ample unexploited energy resources. Access to untapped energy reserves is a primary factor driving India’s contemporary external engagement policies. Similar motivations encouraged China to engage with Myanmar. China,of course,was not constrained by the same ideological baggage as India and was able to get a head start in deepening economic ties with Myanmar. India has tried matching up through aid and loan programmes,including a $500 million credit line for infrastructure projects. With the Exim Bank of India opening a representative office in Yangon and several Indian companies enthusiastic about business prospects with the country,the outlook for bilateral trade and investment is promising.

India will look forward to its expanding ties with Myanmar,and to Myanmar’s assuming the ASEAN chair,as important components of its deeper engagement with Southeast Asia. The region has been in the spotlight in recent months with back-to-back visits of the Chinese and Indian leaders. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang’s visits to Southeast Asia were indicators of the importance the new Chinese leadership attaches to deeper strategic and economic engagement with Southeast Asian countries. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to Brunei for the ASEAN-India summit conveyed a similar signal.

Xi proposed establishing an Asian infrastructure investment bank to address the need for infrastructure in the region’s developing countries. The proposal can significantly address infrastructure deficits in economically backward Southeast Asian countries like Myanmar,Laos and Cambodia. Singh,on the other hand,announced the conclusion of negotiations on the bilateral trade in services and investment agreement between India and ASEAN. The agreement is to be signed in December and will substantially increase capital and labour flows between India and Southeast Asia.

Critical developments in the Asia-Pacific over the last few years have encouraged both China and India to deepen and diversify their engagements with ASEAN. The most important of these is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — the mega regional trade deal connecting Asian and American economies from both sides of the Pacific. Led by the US,the TPP is aiming to lay down the rules for 21st century trade. It also has significant geopolitical implications as a symbol of the US “pivot” towards Asia. Both China and India,till now,are excluded from the TPP,as are Indonesia,the Philippines,Myanmar,Cambodia and Laos from ASEAN. All these countries,along with other ASEAN members,have embarked on a parallel regional trade initiative that includes Australia,Japan,South Korea and New Zealand. Christened the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP),the initiative builds on earlier intra-Asian integration efforts,such as ASEAN+3 and ASEAN+6,with ASEAN as its hub. China and India’s active participation in the RCEP negotiations mark their eagerness to stay embedded in major trade and economic deals in Asia. And,in this regard,they are willing to accept the centrality of Southeast Asia in taking forward Asian integration.

Despite outstanding contentious issues,such as India’s unhappiness over the alleged intrusion of Myanmar troops in Manipur and China’s territorial problems with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea,both countries are committed to up the ante with Southeast Asia. Economics will undoubtedly be the key driver of this enhanced engagement. Within the economic matrix,Myanmar will vie for extra attention. For both India and China,Myanmar is not only the land of untapped riches,but also the land conduit to greater Southeast Asia. Myanmar’s assuming the ASEAN chair comes at a time when its neighbouring Asian giants are not only keen on wooing it bilaterally,but equally bullish on deepening ties with its core neighbourhood. Myanmar could have hardly looked forward to greater attention and better days.

The writer,formerly with the Union finance ministry,is head (partnership and programme) and senior research fellow at the ISAS,National University of Singapore

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