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Myanmar a game-changer in US relations in Asia?
Publication Date : 24-10-2012
It was inevitable that the US would eventually initiate some form of military cooperation with Myanmar, but few expected that it would come so early. Washington's invitation for Nay Pyi Taw to join the annual Cobra Gold US-Thai military exercise is a reward for Myanmar's rapid process of reform. It also demonstrates just how desperate the US is to make trade inroads into a country that has been isolated from the international community for the past five decades.
Given that nearly all trade sanctions against Myanmar have been lifted, it is natural that military ties are now in the offing. The invitation to join Cobra Gold is a clear signal that Washington wants to incorporate Myanmar into its much-publicised security "pivot" away from the Middle East and towards Asia-Pacific. As such, Washington's ongoing engagement with the region's powers has moved to a strategic level, aimed at countering China's growing influence in the region. This is, of course, something the US government continues to deny.
For the past three decades Myanmar has relied on military aid and technical know-how from Russia, China, Pakistan and North Korea.
After the sudden improvement in its relations with the US, Myanmar is looking to forge closer ties with other Western countries as well. Of course this relationship will eventually lead to arms sales and other forms of military aid and training. As such, it will further embed the US military presence in the Bay of Bengal, a strategic linchpin and gateway to the Indian Ocean for both Washington and Beijing. For decades China has been establishing links to the Indian Ocean, ultimately building a 770-kilometre pipeline between Yunnan and Myanmar's port of Kyaukphyu on the bay.
For its part, Washington has reiterated that any further US military ties depend on Myanmar upholding its commitment to respect human rights and democratisation. The US has been pressuring Nay Pyi Taw to do more - release political prisoners and allow international monitoring of its prison system. It seems clear that Myanmar is willing to comply in its bid to gain the full trust of Washington, which will no doubt lead to further strategic moves against China.
By bringing Myanmar into Cobra Gold, the US clearly intends to turn the US-Thai military "games" into a loose multinational military arrangement. For the past three decades, and especially during the Cold War era, the two allies have used the exercise to showcase their determination to quell any communist threat. Since that threat subsided, the exercise has focused on peacekeeping, disaster management/relief, and rescue operations, especially since the 2004 tsunami.
It is clear that the purpose of Cobra Gold will once again be transformed as US foreign policy focuses more strongly on countries that participate in the annual exercise. Thailand, the principle partner in Cobra Gold, has yet to create a long-term strategic blueprint for its unique geo-political position.
Meanwhile, Myanmar has the potential to be a game-changer for Washington's efforts to maintain US influence in Asia, because of its clear-cut diplomatic and security direction. So far, this kind of foreign-policy certainty is something Thailand has not managed to summon.