Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Between ASEAN and China, which side will Myanmar choose?

The Cambodia Herald - August 12, 2014

NAY PYI TAW (Eleven Myanmar/ANN) -- After Myanmar took over the chair of Asean for the year 2014, and past well over half of its term, Myanmar’s standing on South China Sea became a question to ask.

In the past four years while Vietnam, Cambodia and Brunei took the Asean chair, only Vietnam actively handled the South China Sea matters. However, Vietnam is a country involved in the South China Sea’s disputes; Vietnam’s effort didn’t get a satisfactory result.

While Cambodia acted as Chair of Asean, the dispute over South China Sea was put aside and during Brunei’s turn, no extensive discussion took place.

When Myanmar took Asean’s chair, it is a matter to test the standing of Myanmar over the South China Sea. Myanmar handled a good balance over the South China Sea during the 24th Asean Summit held in May with neutral policy.

During that time, tensions among China, Vietnam and the Philippines were elevated over the matter.

To reduce the tension emerging before the Asean Summit, Myanmar got together with other Asean countries able to handle the problem. After the Summit, two discussions were held in Nay Pyi Taw and Jakarta to solve the South China Sea issue by peaceful negotiations.


In every dispute in the South China Sea issue, problems were started by China. The tension began in May was also ignited by China.

Though unanimous agreement was gained to solve by peaceful negotiations the disputes on the South China Sea issue at the 24th Asean Summit, the tensiond among China, Vietnam and the Philippines came out again this month.

The tension appeared only days away from the 47th Asean Ministerial Meeting and related meetings, and 21st Asean Regional Forum.

The significant thing about the tension was it was again started by China.

The tension broke out when China announced that it will build lighthouses in five disputed islands claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan. China announced building of lighthouses on these five islands through their State Media on August 7.

Asean countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia are involved in disputes with China.

At the same time, Cambodia, Brunei and other countries have a close relation with China.

Myanmar is a neighbouring country with China and has established very close relations. Due to that point, it became a very interesting case over which side Myanmar will stand as the South China Sea is of China’s significance.


Officials from Myanmar said that they will remain neutral in the disputes.

But other countries, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, are worried as Myanmar’s standing on the South China Sea issue may not be precise while Myanmar is acting as the Asean Chair and Myanmar has very friendly relations with China.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi attended the Asean Summit held in Nay Pyi Taw. He met Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh and delegation on August 8.

At the meeting, the Chinese Foreign Minister said China would take “all necessary means to safeguard national sovereignty and maritime rights and interests”.

Wang Yi also urged the Vietnamese side to resolve the issues through bilateral communication and properly deal with the “aftermath of the incident involving beating, looting and arson to create conditions for the improvement of bilateral relations.”

This was a reference to riots in Vietnam cities in May which saw factories burnt out and a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment after Beijing moved an oil rig into waters claimed by Hanoi.

Although China said that they will solve the disputes in a peaceful mean, their words seemed to threaten Vietnam.

The Friday night meeting failed to reduce tensions between the two countries. After their meeting, Vietnamese Foreign Minister suffered degradation and left the meeting without answering the queries of reporters.

On August 9, US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived at Nay Pyi Taw. Within hours of his arrival, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi together with his Thai counterpart held a press briefing.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that “The South China Sea issue should only be resolved by the countries that are directly involved with the issue.” He added that someone has been exaggerating or even playing up the so-called tension in the South China Sea."

“We have already found a method to solve this issue between China and Asean countries. The South China Sea has become stabilized now. No other issues have risen recently,” said Wang Yi.


Although Mr. Wang Yi said these words, there was tension at the Asean-China meeting held on August 9.

The tension was that China turned down the proposal of the Philippines over the South China Sea. The Philippines proposed that discussions among the disputed countries to carry out and to stop the deeds that set fire to become the disputes.

The proposal of the Philippines is the same with the proposal of the United States. At the meeting of Asean+ U.S, Foreign Secretary John Kerry responded the saying of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

“We have to cooperate to reduce the tension of South China Sea, to resolve in peaceful means, and to abide by the international law. The dispute of this region not only concerns this region alone but also concern to the United States and all the countries,” said John Kerry.

On the morning of August 10, the joint statement of Asean Foreign Ministers came out. In the statement, there are expressions on the South China Sea.

The Asean Foreign Ministers urged that Asean countries are anxious about the South China Sea and insisted on peace, stability, safety in maritime and air routes. Asean will follow the 6 principles of South China Sea enacted on 2012.

So, respective countries have to be patient and avoid acts that slow down peace, stability and safety of the South China Sea to resolve in peaceful ways.

Moreover, the code of conduct that needs to follow must coordinate with China on the South China Sea.


The Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting and Asean Regional Forum held from August 8 to 10 in Nay Pyi Taw is a test of strength for the Asean Summit and East Asia Summit that will be held in November in Nay Pyi Taw.

The South China Sea dispute still remains a prolonged disease for ASEAN. But, it also concerns the dignity of Myanmar, the alternate Asean Chair, how to control the South China Sea issue?

The trip of U.S. Secretary of the State John Kerry, who is visiting Myanmar before the U.S. President Obama tour that will start in November, is very important for Asean.

For Kerry, the South China Sea dispute is one of the important issues.

“Of course the issue of the South China Seas is going to be a high priority for Kerry on this visit. This in itself will put pressure on Myanmar, who will have to walk a tightrope between the pro-Beijing nations and the others in Asean with Washington watching with ‘hawk eyes’ from the side lines,” said journalist Larry Jagan.

At the time, the settlement of the South China Sea dispute may become put pressure on Myanmar.

On August 9, Kerry met with the President Thein Sein and warned the leaders of Myanmar that improved relations with the United States will require a significant speed-up in its democratic transition and a halt to what Washington sees as backsliding on commitments to improve human rights.

Kerry also warned that Myanmar government needs to solve the challenges and problems before the Obama visit.

As the U.S., they seem to handle Myanmar with carrot and
stick theory they used to apply.

“The present matter annoyed the U.S government but I’m sure they (the U.S) won’t do anything that push Myanmar into China’s influence again,” said analyst Bertil Lintner.

For the Myanmar acts as Asean Chair, handling of South China Sea is a pressure to Myanmar.

But even more than that, pressure is how the President Thein Sein administration who left only 450 days in his president’s term will implement the pledges he has given to the public to become a success.

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