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Asean Affairs   21  January 2014

Myanmar in the ASEAN Chair Challenges and opportunities

Geoffrey Goddard

Handling differences within ASEAN over China’s disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea will be one of Myanmar’s key challenges as chair of the regional grouping this year, say academics and analysts.

“This is a major issue,” said Robert Taylor, a professorial Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, referring to China’s claims to islands and shoals also claimed in whole or in part by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

“[The issue] will tax Myanmar’s ability to draft resolutions which all can live with, if not agree with,” said Professor Taylor.

But he expected that Myanmar would handle the differences over the issue among its partners in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations “rather well”.

This was because of the experience acquired by the Foreign Ministry since the Cold War “when, while keeping Myanmar’s self-respect and interests upper most, compromises were arrived at which disturbed few, and avoided core issues,” said Professor Taylor.

Wahyu Dhyatmika, managing editor of Indonesia’s weekly Tempo magazine, said the South China Sea issue and the border dispute between ASEAN members Thailand and Cambodia, would need to be handled carefully.

“Myanmar will have to be able to broker a good deal between conflicting parties, especially on complex issues and navigate the mother ship of ASEAN through these thorny and potentially explosive problems,” Mr Dhyatmika said.

On the South China Sea dispute, a key test was the differences among ASEAN members over a code of conduct to resolve the issue.

Mr Dhyatmika said that ASEAN’s basic stand had already been decided, “which is to go ahead with the formulation of a code of conduct, thus in other words indicating that China has to deal with ASEAN as a whole group.”

Despite an agreement between ASEAN and China in 2002 on establishing a code of conduct to settle the disputes, Beijing is reported to have obstructed its implementation because it prefers bilateral agreements with claimant countries.

Mr Dhyatmika acknowledged that “parties who are not satisfied with this current trajectory, will obviously try to bend things in their favour.”

Myanmar would have to be decisive on the issue, he said.

“ASEAN doesn’t need another breakdown like what happened in Phnom Penh when Cambodia was the chairman … in 2012,” he said.

Mr Dhyatmika was referring to the unprecedented failure of the grouping to issue a joint communiqu? after its foreign ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh in July 2012 when Cambodia opposed moves by Vietnam and the Philippines to include references to their territorial disputes with China in the document.

Echoing comments by Professor Taylor, Mr Dhyatmika said he was confident that Myanmar would handle the differences “with grace and elegance”.

He said Myanmar’s political history had taught its leaders the importance of moderation and finding resolutions in difficult circumstances.

“I am convinced Myanmar’s leaders will find ways to navigate the best way forward in these kind of situations. Moreover, I am sure Indonesia and other ASEAN members’ leadership will also offer advice and counsel when needed to resolve all those possible differences.”

Mr Dhyatmika said China was likely to “use its power over Myanmar – politically and economically – to make sure their interest is safeguarded and respected.”

But Myanmar’s current geopolitical importance and new alliances with other powers in the region “will surely counterbalance any pressure from China.”

Marvin Ott from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington said the ASEAN chair was both a test and an opportunity for Myanmar.

One of the tests would be whether Myanmar could “withstand inevitable heavy pressure from Beijing to support China’s position on the South China Sea,” Professor Ott said.

He said the example set by last year’s ASEAN chair, Brunei, at the regional summit it hosted last October had provided a satisfactory example for Myanmar to follow.

Bangkok-based regional analyst Kavi Chongkittavorn also gave credit to the way the issue was handled at the Bandar Seri Begawan summit.

“Myanmar will certainly follow Brunei’s good practices; consultation with ASEAN members and maintaining ASEAN’s common stand,” Mr Kavi said.

This was reflected in a statement agreed at talks in Brunei between the ASEAN and Chinese leaders to work towards the conclusion of the code of conduct “on the basis of consensus.”

Yangon-based independent political analyst Richard Horsey said the South China Sea issue was certain to be raised in talks involving ASEAN members and in discussions with its dialogue partners and in the ASEAN Regional Forum, which brings together such powers as the China, Japan, the United States and India.

“China may hope to use its close relations with Myanmar to influence how those discussions are handled, but the reality is that Myanmar is in the process of rebalancing its external relations and China no longer has the same influence it once had,” Mr Horsey said.

Another key test for Myanmar as ASEAN chair will be institutional capacity.

Professor Ott said this would include whether Myanmar has the bureaucratic support, English speakers and adequate facilities for the role, though Mr Dhyatmika said Naypyitaw could expect considerable support from the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta.

Mr Kavi said he was confident Myanmar would be able to handle all the ASEAN meetings it will need to host as chair, despite still being on a “learning curve”.

Professor Taylor also had no doubt that Myanmar had the institutional capacity to fulfil the role, adding that smaller and less experienced ASEAN countries had done so.

Mr Horsey said there were “huge logistical challenges” that come with the role, including hosting hundreds of meetings, but no reason why Myanmar could not meet them. “It has certainly made this a priority,” he said.

Mr Horsey said Myanmar would also face some significant political challenges.

“Myanmar will be taking a lead role in navigating many thorny ASEAN-internal issues such as political and economic integration, but also ASEAN’s relations with global powers such as China and the US. This requires a strong grasp of the regional and global political, security and economic environment which will not be easy for a country that has long been left marginal to such conversations,” he said.

On economic integration, Mr Kavi said ensuring compliance with remaining measures needed to implement the ASEAN Economic Community next year would be among the main challenges facing Myanmar.

Mr Dhyatmika offered a different opinion, saying this issue was not too significant.

“The integration process was initiated years ago and all the necessary preparation has already taken place,” said Mr Dhyatmika.

“Myanmar can help smooth the transition and iron out last minute adjustments, but big decisions will not be needed just a year before the deadline, other than making sure all previous commitments are met by all member countries,” he said.

But while Myanmar will face many challenges in its role as ASEAN chair, the benefits will be significant.

“This represents Myanmar’s re-emergence on the regional and global stage, and if handled successfully, it could give a real boost to the country’s image and how it is perceived, with the political and economic benefits that that implies,” Mr Horsey said.

“The chairmanship is very important for Myanmar symbolically,” he said. “This is when it demonstrates not only its ability to assume the responsibilities and challenges of the chair, but also that it is resuming its rightful place as an important country in the regional community,” he said.

Professor Taylor said Myanmar would gain recognition as an equal and fully fledged member of ASEAN and the larger world of international politics.

“It is also a recognition of the legitimacy and competence of the government of President Thein Sein and the transition from SPDC rule,” he said.

“It will mark Myanmar as one of the ‘politically advanced’ states in Southeast Asia.”

Mr Kavi said holding the chair would give Myanmar credibility and increase its prestige and Professor Ott said that if Myanmar’s chairmanship was successful, “as I expect it will be, it will mark the full maturation of Myanmar’s membership in ASEAN”.

Mr Dhyatmika said serving as chair three years after the reform process began “is a testament of trust and respect by ASEAN to Myanmar’s bold move towards democracy”.

He expressed hope that the chairmanship would strengthen Myanmar’s democratic transition “and open up the country even wider for the benefit of its people”.

“If this year as ASEAN chairman can help bring Myanmar closer to its goal to become a prosperous, democratic, stable and free country, then that is the ultimate benefit for Myanmar and for Southeast Asia,” Mr Dhyatmika said.--mizzima

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