A new Eastern axis

Japan, Thailand, India joining forces in Myanmar could challenge China’s dominance.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Updated: March 18, 2014 9:28 am

Myanmar’s democratisation is leading to its opening up and growing importance for existing and newer regional powers. Recent Japanese assertiveness in the country also sends a clear signal against China’s growing influence there. Setting aside the tension spilling over from World War II, both countries share the common ground of wanting to maintain a safe distance from China, which is why Japan-Myanmar relations are at an all-time high.

Japan’s assistance in helping build up Myanmar has deepened the partnership. Significantly, Japan has appointed a special envoy for national reconciliation in Myanmar to facilitate dialogue between the government there and ethnic minorities. Japan’s support to ethnic groups by supplying them with essential food commodities and medical stocks is commendable.

Japan’s geopolitical ambitions and expanding economic footprint pose a serious challenge to the traditional regional powers in Myanmar. It has offered economic aid to support the development of the country’s infrastructure in the hopes of improving the investment climate there. Its total investment up to 2013 stands at $ 292 million, which is nowhere close to China’s $ 14 billion. Nevertheless, its engagement strategy attempts to counter China’s influence in Southeast Asia.

Myanmar will use Japanese official development assistance loans to the tune of $ 610 million for the implementation of four projects — upgrading the Yangon-Mandalay railroad and Yangon’s water supply, and developing the Thilawa port and irrigation facilities in the western Bago region. Moreover, Japan has been providing assistance for the development of Myanmar’s communication and postal services as well as offering to train Myanmar police by conducting technical courses. The Japanese government is also involved in grassroots human security projects in Bago and Taninthayi regions as well as in Kachin state.

The visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Myanmar in May 2013 — a first since 1977 — was noteworthy. This was followed by the cancellation of $ 3.7 billion of debt. Japan has further pledged to develop a special economic zone in Thilawa, which is expected to promote industrial development and create employment opportunities. Japan has also shown willingness to help in developing the Dawei port along with Thailand. There has also been a request for help to promote vocational training and agronomy education in Myanmar. Further, Japanese companies also participated in the Japan festival held recently in Yangon. But they must make responsible investments and be careful not to follow China’s example of partnering with former junta cronies.

So far as India is concerned, it’s stepping up its development cooperation with Myanmar, in light of the latter’s continuing reform process and their historical and cultural ties. India is trying to leverage its “soft” power and foster deeper economic and business links with Myanmar. Compared to China’s mostly commercial involvement in the country, India and Japan have focused on infrastructure development, capacity building and humanitarian assistance. This is in line with Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s vision. According to her, …continued »

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