Published on Nov 14, 2014 in The Edge Review Column

Posturing and positioning were high on the agenda for the host – and many guests – at this week’s East Asia Summit

Myanmar has become a world stage, at least this week when leaders gathered in the capital, Naypyidaw, for ASEAN and East Asia Summit (EAS) meetings. Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, India’s Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama were just a few of those joining Asian leaders including newly minted Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Thailand’s self-imposed prime minister, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha.

It’s an odd, eclectic mix without a clear agenda. Myanmar’s chairmanship of ASEAN and the EAS has been strong on symbolism, but weak on substance. The ASEAN meetings so far have served as quiet meetings to showcase Myanmar’s “arrival” on the international stage rather than promote any specific sets of goals. Nevertheless, behind the pomp of the ceremonies at this EAS, there are real interests being promoted.

To start with, one of the most important dynamics is that Myanmar is being used for the domestic agendas of visiting leaders, particularly those from afar. Consider Russia’s strong presence. Russia has been viewed with suspicion since the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, although no ASEAN leader – Malaysia included – has attacked the country over its possible role in providing the weapons used.

Putin has gained domestically at home though promoting his nation abroad, and this current runs through the country’s participation in EAS. Russia is projecting itself in Asia as a global power, which serves to strengthen Putin’s appeal at home.
For Modi and India, the relationship with Myanmar runs much deeper and is tied to his administration’s ongoing economic transformation. There is a need for closer economic integration, and Modi’s mission is to build trust and foster linkages as he moves India forward. Economic revitalization is tied to his success. As with Russia, broader national ambitions tied to the current leadership are framing his visit.

Personal goals also extend to US President Obama’s visit. When he first visited Myanmar in 2012, he was riding the wave of victory. Now he is coming off a bruising defeat in US mid-term elections and is in a different position, striving to mark his legacy and protect his achievements.

Obama’s record in Asia parallels his mixed performance elsewhere, as his “pivot” has moved to rebalancing without any major accomplishments to point to as progress. The TPP trade agreement is effectively dead, particularly with the mid-term results. The more frequent high-level visits have not really engendered greater depth in bilateral relationships, as many Asians continue to view the US with suspicion. Obama has essentially ignored meaningful human rights issues, showcasing an administration without clear principles or direction.

The only success story he can point to in Asia is Myanmar. The jury is still out on the reform process, with reforms slowing noticeably with the 2015 elections approaching and issues of citizenship for Rohingya continuing to simmer amid the shadow of potential ethnic and religious conflict. But Obama is still able to showcase Myanmar as at least one Asian foreign-policy success abroad.

Ironically, he does not deserve much credit, as changes in Myanmar are primarily being driven by those inside the country. That will not stop Obama from using his trip to be in the right pictures, meet the right people and try to salvage a bit of dignity after his embarrassment in the November polls.

The prominence of Russia, India and the United States at the EAS reveals another underlying shift within the EAS. When originally mooted by Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, its aim was to include China, bring it into dialogue with ASEAN and forge closer East Asian ties. In this meeting the exact opposite is happening, as countries from afar are being brought into the EAS to check China.

If there has been one feature of contemporary Myanmar foreign policy, it has been a growing alliance with ASEAN nations concerned with limiting China’s encroachment into the region. Myanmar’s close relationship with Vietnam and its own interests in forging an independent path internationally and in development have moved Myanmar toward a wary China stance.

Thein Sein’s administration has defined itself by clearly distancing itself from China, its “big brother” as China is called within Myanmar. Thus it has welcomed the participation of other global powers in the EAS forum, signalling to China that it will make its own decisions and is not stuck in China’s orbit.

This use of international alliances and relationships reflects well-honed diplomacy on Myanmar’s part, as its leaders understand that independence is a vital strength if they are to secure diversified investment and open up economic links the country needs.

The EAS has thus moved from being an organization led by ASEAN to one dominated by non-ASEAN global powers. This has caused considerable concern. ASEAN as an organization has suffered in recent years due to infighting over the South China Sea, weak chairing by Cambodia and Brunei and the inward orientation of ASEAN countries wrestling with domestic challenges.

The South China Sea wrangling has extended into Myanmar’s time as chair, with Cambodia continuing to thwart the signing of a consensus agreement for a Code of Conduct. The eve of this meeting featured the leaking of a statement over the South China Sea, a signal of ongoing division.

Such divisions are debilitating and hurting ASEAN, and have led to more members calling for a strengthening of the bloc as a whole. It is no surprise that ASEAN is trying to reorient the EAS toward greater ASEAN interests. Do not expect much, as ASEAN itself is none too clear or unified on what these interests are.

In this dynamic, Myanmar has cannily positioned itself as a loyal ASEAN member, a promoter of its ambiguous interests. It has laid the groundwork for pushing for a stronger ASEAN community in the hope of revitalising it. This is a distant hope, but Myanmar has in the process shown itself not only capable of chairing ASEAN but also an important member.

When it passes the chair to Malaysia, Myanmar may not have yielded significant substantive outcomes, but it will have effectively used the chairmanship to position itself globally and regionally.