December 5th, 2011
01:48 PM ET

Zakaria: Myanmar's geopolitical games

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

One of the world's poorest countries has done something few rich nations would dare to do these days: It said "no" to China. I'm talking about Myanmar, an impoverished country that was, until this year, the world's longest-serving military dictatorship.

Myanmar shocked Beijing recently by pulling the plug on a dam that was meant to supply millions of Chinese with electricity.

Beijing may have been upset, but it nonetheless invited Myanmar's top general to the capital last week, and he was greeted by none other than the man who is expected to become China's President next year, Xi Jinpeng.

What in the world is going on?

To understand the situation, let's look at another top-level meeting: Hillary Clinton was in Myanmar last week to meet its President. It was the first visit by a U.S. Secretary of State in 56 years.

Myanmar is opening up, which is turning this country into a cockpit of international currents, rivalries and diplomacy.

For decades, the country's military junta has cracked down on any form of dissent.

The 2007 Saffron Revolution was brutally suppressed; even the monks who were seen as sacred were mercilessly beaten up when they took to the streets.

But in a time of global anger against repression, there are signs Myanmar's government feels the need to change its ways. Its new President, a former military general, has released some 200 of an estimated 2,000 political prisoners. His government has lifted restrictions on the media and called on armed ethnic groups to hold peace talks.

He's also reached out to his opponents. The most famous of them, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has finally been released from house arrest. In a move seen as hugely encouraging in the West, she agreed last month to rejoin politics.

President Obama calls these moves "flickers of progress." The President strikes a cautious tone because we've seen these flickers before: Myanmar makes minor concessions hoping the West will drop its sanctions, and then it regresses once again.

What's different this time is the regional context of these changes. People think of Myanmar as tiny but look at the map in the video above. Myanmar is Southeast Asia's second largest country. It's larger than France. And it borders two rising powers - China and India.

Despite international sanctions, China has become the biggest foreign spender in Myanmar, with more than $5 billion dollars in annual trade. India is right on its heels, with $4 billion dollars in trade. Neither country has attached any moral conditions to doing business with Myanmar, the way the United States perhaps would.

So the fact that Myanmar is now making overtures towards Washington, suggests a few things: It is seeking a hedge against China's influence in the region; it wants the West to drop sanctions; and it wants to re-engage with the world.

For Washington, these are all positive signs. President Obama spoke of a policy "pivot" towards Asia in his tour there last month. He also struck an agreement with Australia to keep 2,500 troops in that country. Myanmar's progress opens a window for the U.S. to strengthen its footprint in Asia and maintain a balance of power on that continent.

The Chinese will still have deep ties in Myanmar but increasingly, so will India. Myanmar clearly wants to play all three powers against each other. But in doing so - and to really get America interested - it realizes that it will have to open up its economy and its political system.

The good news is that the winners of this great power game may turn out to be the long-suffering people of Myanmar.

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Topics: China • Foreign Policy • From Fareed • India • Myanmar • United States • What in the World?

soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. pmcdonald

    "Neither country has attached any moral conditions to doing business with Myanmar, the way the United States perhaps would" Yes, the 'moral' conditions that the US would attach are (i) Support US foreign policy (ii) Allow US troops to be stationed there (iii) Open up the economy to allow established US multi-national companies to operate there and forego the potential to nurture domestic companies. No wonder these countries prefer to deal with China who impose no conditions.

    By the way Fareed, what moral conditions does the US impose on Saudi Arabia where women aren't even allowed to drive?

    December 5, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Reply
    • cleo


      Good point. I didn't even think about that.

      But still...India and China are still behaving badly, it's just that America is equally bad. Or maybe even worse considering the Saudis have slaves.

      December 5, 2011 at 5:08 pm | Reply
    • sma

      Damn right, donald. it is the right question to raise.

      December 6, 2011 at 11:58 am | Reply
  2. That'snotTrue:[

    This article is a joke, just because one project failed does not mean all of them will and besides Cina have more to offer. The US only export weapons and political ideals... none of which are practically useful at ALL!!!

    December 5, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Reply
  3. krm1007

    Too little too late. The future belongs to China globally. Guess why? You just have to look back 10 years !!!

    December 5, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Myanmar is impoverished, due to bad governance under autocratic rule for decades.

    December 5, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Yet it has huge deposits of gems, minerals, natural gas and oil. It needs western know-how to exploit their resources!

      December 5, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Reply
  5. Ordnry1

    Geographically speaking, Burma is sort of sandwiched between India and China. Burma’s population is only about 60 million whereas India and China each has approximately 1.2 billion inhabitants. China can easily annexed Burma without waging war. Businesses in all the big cities in Burma are run by Chinese or joint Burma-China enterprises. Burma is blessed with a lot of natural resources that are siphoned off to neighboring countries, thanks to mismanagement and the corruption of the military regime and partly due to the corruption of its citizens as well. It’s hard to get things done quickly in Burma unless tea money or bribe is given. The government system is totally broken. For example, ethnic people or non-Buddhist citizens are denied the renewal of National Registration Card (NRC) whereas a recent Chinese immigrant who may not even speak Burmese could easily obtain an NRC. The road to democracy for Burma will be long and arduous but it’s good to see that the Burmese government is showing some signs of willingness to make things better.

    December 5, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Reply

      You've made the good comment. But most of the articles written and said about Burma are same old same old. Reporters, journalists should also study more about Burma very closely and see what's going on. This article doesn't help any ethnics either.

      December 6, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Reply
  6. Brillgyme Stucyo

    Myanmar. It's so hot right now. Myanmar.

    December 5, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Reply
  7. Yaung

    Mr. Zakaria you said "Myanmar clearly wants to play all three powers against each other", I do not think it is the case.
    But I hope so that "the winners of this great power game may turn out to be the long-suffering people of Myanmar".

    December 5, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Reply
  8. Jack

    Myanmar is doing this to get better trade and better conditions from China. Myanmar is an impoverished nation and there is not much they can receive from US via trade. It is a ploy to soften China in order to receive more.

    December 5, 2011 at 7:21 pm | Reply
  9. Stanley

    There is nothing new in this article. Everything you wrote is already reported in the media, and you called yourself a pundit?

    December 5, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Reply
    • johnny

      Myanmar is an important part of the SEA equation. But I dont most inward looking Americans to be bothered by that.

      There is alot to know about how Myanmar ticks – than you think.

      December 5, 2011 at 10:24 pm | Reply
  10. johnny

    Myanmar is an important part of the SEA equation. But I dont most expect most inward looking Americans are bothered by that.

    December 5, 2011 at 10:26 pm | Reply
  11. johnny

    I think Pres Obama being a great diplomat and statesman should be able to provide the neccessary incentives for Burma to embrace democracy. Albeit this would infuriate China and could rock the stability in South East Asia.

    Most Asean countries would prefer peaceful co existence of US and China in sharing 'power and influence' in SEA.

    But if they have to make a choice, I guess some ASEAN countries would take side with USA – provided Pres Obama remains in White House. It would different though if any Republican with the likes of Pres Bush is in charge.

    By the way, the President of USA should never be made the automatic Commander in chief of America. Because such ruling has been proven to be fatal and expensive experience for Americans .

    December 5, 2011 at 10:36 pm | Reply
  12. jdoe

    Does the U.S. attach any moral conditions on doing business with China (like we used to decades ago)? Nope, we just ship American jobs to them.

    December 5, 2011 at 11:23 pm | Reply
  13. marc gunn

    Its important to remember the US already plays a role inside Myanmar prior to this visit.

    We have secretly been funding opposition groups opposed to china's interest allegedly based on environmental damage irrespective of whether it is true or not. And it works, some vocal groups influenced public opinion and scuttled what apparently was an agreement between the two countries. I can't help but think how disingenuous we Americans are, whether the welfare of the people really mattered or that we just wanted to ruin someone else helping them develop.

    December 6, 2011 at 6:42 am | Reply
  14. Anshul

    I think its just that the United States has realized that imposing sanctions on Myanmar is not hurting the generals or the top military officials, but is hurting the common people instead. Myanmar, on the other hand, is trying to just provide enough to attract more foreign players into the country. Progress is relative and in the last 40 years, there has been so signs of it in Myanmar. So, even if the current regime provides a little, it will be counted as a lot. In this sense, I agree with Obama that these are just 'flickers of progress'.

    If one were to talk about India and China, the latter has rarely attached ideological commitments in dealing with different regimes in different countries. The former tried to chart the path of ideology and sanctions till early 90s, when they suddenly realized that they were losing strategic, economic and regional ground in Myanmar and did a massive volte-face to try to beat china in its own game.

    One would have to wait and see whether these 'flickers of progress' transform into reasonable progress in the field of governance, eradicating poverty and more importantly, re-engaging with the world economy, or would again disappear under the garb of 'guided democracy'.

    December 6, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Reply
  15. Edward Liu

    Fareed Zakaria started out as an erudite, thoughtful, and articulate commentator for mainstream American news media - one of a few select non-white pundit with Asian roots. Along the way, he allowed his Indian phobia against China turn into virulent China bashing and Chinese demonization.
    Worse, he learned how to play the game with America's ruling class and white elite; now... Look at him, becoming the gungadin and spear-carrier for his new Sahib .... Pax Americana.
    Fareed Zakaria has lived in America too long. He has achieved honorary whitehood and lost sight of his former perspective as a smart Asian with thoughtful probity on world events. What a waste. He should spend less time hobnobbing, breaking bread, and sharing wine with the Euro-Western elite. And spend more time in the non-Western world to truly feel the pulse and shifting changes.

    December 6, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Reply
  16. u win

    41% of world population is around Burma,neighbourhood including India, China. Rich in natural resources and potentisally rich with smart people. Even my delta township is twice the size of Singapore with 3 small rivers all season flowing . Burma has more than enough markets for the trade if we can add up with western education,tech and investment. I supported some money to 08 Hillary campaign,but never asked her help for our freedom and democracy. Wholeheartedly thank you Hillary,you are a very serious friend .I have been for 14 years in solitary prison cells (by military govts) due to be an activist and elected rep,always dreamed of our free and rich motherland. Thank you.

    December 6, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Reply
  17. Ilias Siddiqui

    US Route to South and South East Asian Links : :Zakaria: Myanmar's Geopolitical Games – Global Public Views

    December 6, 2011 at 10:38 pm | Reply
  18. George Yin

    Please be fair to Mr. Zakaria. If you are going to make a judgment, substantiate it with evidence and not with your prejudice. And evaluate Mr. Zakaria's argument based on its merits, instead of dismissing it by putting "hats" on Mr. Zakaria.

    From Edward Liu "Worse, he learned how to play the game with America's ruling class and white elite; now... Look at him, becoming the gungadin and spear-carrier for his new Sahib .... Pax Americana."

    What the heck? How much more judgmental can you get?

    December 7, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Reply

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