The Pacific Century (II)


BERLIN/WASHINGTON/NAYPYIDAW (Own report) - As part of their anti-Chinese efforts to gain influence in Southeast Asia, Berlin and Washington have signaled a change in policy toward Myanmar (Burma), a regime they had been vehemently fighting. At the end of last week, the US president announced that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would travel to Myanmar in December. German State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Werner Hoyer visited that country in early November, to initiate a resumption of so-called development aid. German Minister of Development Dirk Niebel will fly to the capital Naypyidaw early next year to initiate the following steps. This change of policy is due to the earlier confrontation policy's lack of success: The People's Republic of China, for which Myanmar is of great geostrategic significance, is still holding an exclusive position in that country. The West seeks to exploit contradictions in the Myanmar establishment, to strengthen its own position - this time by way of cooperation (“transformation through rapprochement"). The efforts being made by Washington and the transatlantic wing of Berlin's foreign policymakers to gain influence in Myanmar are part of the recently announced official strategy to reinforce their positions in the countries of the Pacific region - against China.

Grandstanding Policy

Critical observers see two reasons for the western change of policy toward Myanmar, most strikingly expressed by the announcement of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit in early December. Due to China's continued rise, Myanmar's geostrategic importance has significantly grown in recent years. After the end of the East-West confrontation, the West had shown no particular interest toward that country, where a repressive military regime took power in 1988. As early as 1989, a Western diplomat told the Washington Post: "Since there are no U.S. bases and very little strategic interest, Burma is one place where the United States has the luxury of living up to its principles."[1] Since then a loud outcry has been raised about Myanmar's human rights abuses and since the 1990s the USA and the EU have repeatedly imposed sanctions - a policy of grandstanding serving the western human rights image toward a country considered for years insignificant.

Important for China

For a while, the world's major powers showed little political interest in Myanmar until they realized that - taking advantage of the west's sanctions - China brought that country into its dependence. Beijing has not only been trying to win over Myanmar, with its extensive natural resources, as a business partner to open new perspectives for developing its relatively underdeveloped bordering southwestern region. It also has plans to build pipelines from the Indian Ocean across Myanmar to China. The pipeline would facilitate the People's Republic's oil and gas supply from the Middle East and Africa. Once the pipelines are completed, the raw materials can be pumped into the pipes already from the Indian Ocean, avoiding the expensive and dangerous maritime transport through the Southeast Asian islands. That maritime route crosses through straits such as the Straits of Malacca, which can easily be blocked, for example by the US Navy, still the predominant naval power in that region. The United States would - in principle - be in a position to cut off China's energy supply at any moment [2] - a scenario gaining significance since the US government recently announced it would militarize the Pacific. ( reported.[3])

Plans for a Coup

Particularly during the Bush administration, the West had sought to instigate a coup d'état in the Myanmar capitol Naypyidaw, through its support for the opposition and massive pressure on the government. The opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was provided advance laurels in the awarding of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, was considered the US and the EU's favorite. Suu Kyi is said to represent "definitely pro-western standpoints in economic policy." In her party's fundamental 1989 manifesto, "privatizations, an opening" of the country "to foreign investments and cooperation with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were approved."[4] The Myanmarian opposition therefore was supported by the West when, in the Fall of 2007, it staged mass protests.[5] Wide-ranging PR measures accompanied this - unsuccessful - attempt to overthrow the Naypyidaw government, as well as attempts by western capitals to use the natural catastrophe, in the spring of 2008, to justify a military intervention. A German Social Democrat minister at the time declared in reference to Myanmar that, if in the course of a natural catastrophe, a government cannot provide relief rapidly enough, it should be permitted to intervene to bring aid to the population. ( reported.[6]) The plans, which would have meant going to war to install a new regime, were a failure.

Split in the Establishment

The failure suffered by their open hostility, along with the country's growing geostrategic significance, forms the second reason for the West's current change in course. Using US President Barack Obama's January 2009 inauguration, the US and the EU have been seeking closer cooperation since. Not having been successful with their confrontation policy, they are now trying to reduce China's influence through "the development of civilian structures," according to observers.[7] German government advisors declared last year that "the regime in Burma" should be perceived "no longer merely as a monolithic block," but rather "the economic actors, (...) who have a vital interest in initiating innovative developments, because it will provide them with a higher degree of independence from the power structures, should be identified."[8] That those actors in question, those critical toward relations with China, are becoming stronger, can first be seen by Naypyidaw's decision to halt construction of a gigantic hydroelectric dam project. The project, financed by China, was also to furnish hydroelectric power to the People's Republic.

Human Rights

For the past few weeks, the western press has been reporting that the regime in Naypyidaw has been "radically" transformed - and, all of a sudden, respects human rights. To provide a reason for the West to make such an astounding allegation, a political PR measure was needed to facilitate closer cooperation: The regime released up to 300 political prisoners. In exchange, the West announced that over the past few years it had been mistaken: there were not 2,000, but merely 700 - 800 political prisoners, at the most.[9] The opposition, which, up to now, had been wooed by both the US and the EU, must now adapt. Just recently Aung San Suu Kyi's party announced it was abandoning its electoral boycott policy and would participate in future elections and integrate into the country's political system. Critical observers point out that the military still holds the reins tightly in hand and they consider that these current measures have been coordinated with the West to be able to justify closer cooperation.[10] Little known, on the other hand, is that this PR operation is "limited to the political and economic centers." Rural territories, particularly those areas inhabited by minorities, are still suffering serious human rights violations.[11]

Development Aid

However, western efforts to win influence - with vigorous German participation - are picking up momentum. To secure its position, Berlin, which sees European influence waning in Southeast Asia,[12] sent State Secretary in the Foreign Ministry, Werner Hoyer, to Myanmar. Hoyer, who suggested that Berlin could contribute "precious experience" to the development of Myanmar's democracy,[13] was accompanied by Harald Klein, a department head in the German Development Ministry.[14] The Minister of Development, Dirk Niebel is scheduled to visit Naypyidaw in early 2012, to initiate the first steps toward a renewal of so-called development cooperation. Other measures toward securing German influence in this geostrategically important country are due to follow. Over the next few weeks and months, mention of the "difficult" human rights situation in Myanmar can still be expected. This is deemed necessary for preparing to turn public opinion around from the confrontation course just a few years ago to the new course. At the same time, "human rights" arguments provide a means for maintaining a certain amount of pressure on the Naypyidaw regime, should it create problems for the West in the near future.

[1] Human Rights Watch World Report 1989 - Burma (Myanmar);
[2] Geostrategische Bedeutung von Birma/Myanmar nimmt zu; 02.08.2011
[3] see also Das pazifische Jahrhundert
[4] Geostrategische Bedeutung von Birma/Myanmar nimmt zu; 02.08.2011
[5] see also Prestigious and Mit langem Atem
[6] see also In The Shadow of Catastrophe (III), Overt or Covert, The Right of Might and Den Gürtel schließen
[7] Geostrategische Bedeutung von Birma/Myanmar nimmt zu; 02.08.2011
[8] Christine Schuster, Gerhard Will: Birma jenseits der Wahlen; SWP-Aktuell Oktober 2010. See also Erfolglose Sanktionen and Wandel durch Spaltung
[9] Burma lässt politische Gefangene frei; Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 13.10.2011
[10] China behind Myanmar's course shift; 19.10.2011
[11] The good, bad and ugly in Myanmar; 08.11.2011
[12] s. dazu Das pazifische Jahrhundert
[13] Deutschland will engere Beziehungen zu Burma; Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 05.11.2011
[14] on Klein see also A Relaxed and Comfortable Putsch and For the Freedom of the Oligarchy