The Obama administration sent defense officials to Burma last week and may soon also allow Burmese officials to observe America’s biggest military drills in Asia. It’s the latest signal that Burma’s gradual reform process is providing new opportunities for Washington to pursue President Obama’s Asia pivot strategy. China, which until recently had enjoyed a privileged position in the hierarchy of Burma’s foreign relations, will probably view this nascent relationship with great suspicion.
Renewing military relations is one more way Washington is welcoming the once-pariah state back into the global fold. The U.S. imposed a range of sanctions on Burma after the junta’s brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters in 1988, including suspending military cooperation.
Those sanctions have been eased since President Thein Sein introduced a series of reforms in 2011 which set the country on the path to democracy and economic recovery. The complete removal of U.S. sanctions is a long-term process, however. Washington has imposed several conditions for complete removal of economic sanctions, including genuine political reconciliation and ending ethnic conflicts.
Meanwhile, Washington insists that Burma sever all military links with North Korea as a prerequisite for normalization. The restoration of full defense ties will also depend on the Burmese armed forces exiting politics completely and transforming itself into a professional military force under civilian control.
Notwithstanding these hurdles, the defense establishments of both countries have expressed a strong desire to expand ties. Building on last week’s meeting, the Burmese and American militaries are likely to have more contact with each other in 2013 than at any time in the past two decades. Although future cooperation will be restricted to humanitarian cooperation, both sides intend to maximize the opportunities.
The first order of business is for the U.S. to resume the search for soldiers and airmen missing in action in Burma during World War II. According to the Joint Prisoner-of-War/Missing-in-Action Accounting Command (JPAC), the Hawaii-based U.S. agency tasked with recovering and identifying U.S. personnel from past conflicts, there are more than 700 unresolved cases in Burma. For example, a large number of pilots were shot down while carrying supplies to China over the Himalayas.
In 2003-04, JPAC teams investigated dozens of sites in Burma but withdrew due to deteriorating political relations between the two countries. Cooperation remained suspended until Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested these searches resume during a visit to Burma in December 2011. In August, Burmese military officers visited Honolulu for further discussions, paving the way for JPAC to return to Burma in 2013. JPAC’s activities are likely to lay the foundations for U.S.-Burma relations in the same way as finding missing personnel helped America thaw ties with Vietnam in the 1980s.
The U.S. and Burmese militaries are looking to expand humanitarian cooperation in other areas. Next year, the two sides will participate in two multilateral exercises, one in Brunei focusing on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and another in Indonesia on counterterrorism. These training activities will take place under the auspices of an Association of South East Asian Nations process known as the Asean Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus.
Such interactions between military officers will foster mutual understanding and habits of cooperation. The U.S. and Burmese defense ministers are scheduled to meet in Brunei next October. Early in 2013, a Burmese delegation is likely to be invited to observe the humanitarian component of the annual U.S.-Thai Cobra Gold exercises, the largest military maneuvres in Asia.
The U.S. is also keen to help the Burmese military become more professional, by exposing its officers to values such as respect for human rights and the rule of law. As part of this process, last week U.S. civilian and defense officials held a human rights dialogue with their Burmese counterparts in Naypyitaw. Inculcating such values will be a long-term process, however, and will require Washington to restore the International Military Training and Education program which will enable Burmese officers to attend U.S. military educational institutions.
All of this is helpful for U.S.-Burma ties. But it is not happening in a vacuum, and these developments could have regional implications. China’s response will be particularly important to monitor.
Even if U.S.-Burma defense cooperation remains limited to humanitarian issues in the short-term, Beijing will be unnerved. Over the past two decades Burma’s leaders have become increasingly uncomfortable with their dependence on China for trade, aid and arms transfers, and while their desire to reduce that dependence may not be one of the central drivers of the current reform process, it’s clear that their move to broaden the country’s foreign relations will ultimately erode China’s political influence and economic interests.
So as to protect and promote its interests China will want to keep Burma firmly in its orbit and try to counter U.S. moves to pull it away. Beijing is sure to see the nascent defense relationship as part of America’s strategy to encircle or contain it—which is how it has generally interpreted the Obama pivot. China is unlikely to stay passive as U.S. overtures to Burma increase.
Therefore, we should expect to see Beijing step up its own defense-related diplomacy activities in Burma. This hitherto-isolated country may soon become a critical arena in the competition between America and China for primacy in Southeast Asia.
Mr. Storey is senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. He is the author of “Southeast Asia and the Rise of China: The Search for Security” (Routledge, 2011).