On the second day of the US-ASEAN summit, leaders at the Sunnylands resort in California put their heads together to formulate a common stance on the conflicting claims laid on islands in the South China Sea. The topic, which pits China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia on opposing sides, has long been a delicate issue among ASEAN nations, not least for Myanmar, which wants to remain neutral.
For some time, the US has tried to convince the ASEAN nations to take a stronger position on the islands dispute, and against China’s handling of the problem. But the economic dependency of some ASEAN countries which rely on the powerful nation to the north have long made a unified, opposing stance unlikely.
“If past experience serves as any indicator, ASEAN cannot grow out teeth against China overnight,” Yun Sun, a senior associate with the East Asia Program at the Washington-based Stimson Center, said.
The summit was a thorn in the eye of China which was “certainly concerned that the summit might have some components that undermine China’s interests”, Ms Sun said.
A joint statement released after the conference referred to China only indirectly. It reaffirmed a shared commitment to the “peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force”, an indirect reference to the aggressive positioning of China in response to the conflict so far.
But Mr Obama spoke strongly against the militarisation of the islands, and said “tangible steps” were needed to ease tensions. Just hours later, reports surfaced that Beijing had deployed missile launchers on an island also claimed by Vietnam.
Tang Xiaoyang, associate professor at the Department of International Relations of Tsinghua University in Beijing and resident scholar at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, defended China’s actions. “I think that the narrative should be reversed. It’s an understandable diplomatic activity to protect China’s interest in the dispute. But the US as an external power joined the dispute and exerted its influence on ASEAN countries to counter China. China is unhappy about this,” he said.
China has often perceived the US as working its way into its backyard and in Myanmar especially since a quasi-civilian government replaced the former junta in 2012. Open to foreign investment and no longer a pariah to the West, Myanmar began to rely less on China.
Anti-Chinese sentiment became prominent after public protests were no longer completely outlawed and at least two large Chinese investments – a copper mine in central Myanmar and a multi-billion-dollar hydropower dam in Kachin State – came under increased pressure from the public to be halted. It was no longer self-evident that China would continue to win large contracts.
“Newcomers also need to understand and respect the indigenous culture and tradition in Myanmar. Some Chinese firms neglected this issue and paid a high price for it,” said Mr Xiaoyang.
The copper mine project came under parliamentary scrutiny after a group of protesting monks were allegedly attacked with white phosphorus by the Myanmar Police Force, injuring them severely and leaving horrible burns on their bodies. Daw Aung San Suu Kui, who was appointed to head the commission investigating the mine project, sided with the Chinese and let the project continue.
Her warming to China, likely a strategic decision to maintain good relations with Myanmar’s powerful neighbour, has raised questions about her upcoming foreign policy strategy.
While the US may expect relations to warm between the two countries as the democracy icon takes the helm, China may see things differently, according to Ms Sun.
“[In China], they believe that [Daw]Aung San Suu Kyi, as a pragmatist and a nationalist, will have more opportunities not to see eye-to-eye with the US. Combined with her need for national reconciliation and economic development and China’s readily available resources to assist in both processes, they believe that [she] will make the correct choice between the US and China,” she said.
Despite a waning influence in the country, observers say that China still has a strong hold over ethnic armed groups active in Myanmar’s border lands and have alleged that it was due to pressure from China that President U Thein Sein’s nationwide ceasefire agreement was not all what its name suggests.
In his closing speech on the last day of the summit, Mr Obama expressed his intention to continue to work closely with Myanmar on a ceasefire agreement and on national reconciliation. “We will sustain our engagement with the people of Myanmar,” he said.