Myanmar's ASEAN Leadership: Progress on the South China Sea by Jeremie Credo (Issue 7, September 2014)

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MYANMAR’S ASEAN LEADERSHIP:
PROGRESS ON THE SOUTH CHINA SEA

by: Jeremie P. Credo

Although compelled to give up chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2006 due to its reconciliation and democratization process, Myanmar has finally taken on the role of chairman since its admission in 1997.

Myanmar’s chairmanship comes at a crucial time as ASEAN member states prepare for the realization of the ASEAN Community by 2015. At the outset of Myanmar’s chairmanship, the international community had doubts about its potential to lead due to the numerous internal problems stemming from its economic and social reforms that aim for peace, prosperity, and democracy. Among such difficulties are the amendment of the 2008 Constitution, conflict among ethnic and religious groups, and development issues related to electricity supply network and influx of foreign investments. But amidst its reform and transition, Myanmar must do its part to lead Southeast Asia towards prosperity and integration while maintaining its stable and peaceful pursuit of economic growth.

On the economic front, sanctions have been eased following significant progress that Myanmar has made towards democratization. The easing of sanctions provides Myanmar opportunities to develop and advance its interests, among them economic advancement as well as a greater international role. With positive developments, Myanmar is expected to become a more responsible stakeholder, refraining from displays of abuse, corruption, and destabilizing behavior in order to maintain the approval and support of the international community. ASEAN member states and other regional players have been watchful, and Myanmar has had to prove that its shift towards democracy will continue through its policies and actions.

Myanmar’s ASEAN challenge: The South China Sea dispute

Myanmar’s main challenge as ASEAN chairman is addressing regional security and strategic concerns, which continue to hinder cooperation towards building a cohesive ASEAN Community. The strengthening of the region’s military powers and strategic competition among superpowers need close attention, as these may cause miscalculations that could result in instability. Non‐traditional security issues, such as international terrorism, illegal drug trade, human trafficking, natural disasters, environmental degradation, and maritime security, also loom large in the region. But among the security concerns the region is facing, the escalation of tensions in the South China Sea proves to be the most critical.

Rather than showing a unilateral position on the disputed territorial claims, Myanmar is on the right track in obtaining a consensus across ASEAN. Its call for the immediate conclusion of the talks on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea reinforces a rules‐based approach in addressing the territorial disputes that highlights the rules of engagement and dispute settlement mechanisms. Myanmar’s positive trajectory on the South China Sea is advantageous for all concerned pares in the territorial disputes. By tempering Chinese influence and exercising fair judgment in the discussion of the South China Sea issue, Myanmar is earning the confidence of the ASEAN bloc.

Defying expectations

Myanmar’s leadership in ASEAN is commendable because of the country’s neutrality against an evolving backdrop of challenges. In contrast, Cambodia was highly criticized for its failure to reach an agreement on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea during its chairmanship, with ASEAN member states failing to issue a joint communiqué. Cambodia was even accused of deliberately keeping the South China Sea issue off the agenda of ASEAN meetings—an action perceived to be influenced by its close ties with China. Conversely, Myanmar’s stance on the South China Sea is more neutral despite its active relations with China. China has had great influence over Myanmar, specifically as a result of military rule and subsequent isolation from the international community, and its huge investments have been its leverage over Myanmar. Thus, initially, the international community harbored fears that Myanmar was likely to follow Cambodia’s actions in ASEAN, particularly on the South China Sea.

Contrary to doubts and suspicions, Myanmar has been a fair and accommodating leader to ASEAN member states. Notably at the 24th Summit held in Nay Pyi Taw in May, ASEAN Foreign Ministers issued a statement expressing their serious concern over the ongoing developments in the South China Sea, with specific reference to the recent clashes between Vietnam and China. The placement of Chinese oil rigs in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Vietnam has escalated tensions in the region, sparking violent protests and anti‐China sentiments among the Vietnamese. Other claimant states, along with key players outside the region, have described the move as provocative and unhelpful to the maintenance of peace and stability in the region. China’s continuation of the drilling process despite Vietnamese opposition is a clear indication that the move is a means to display its control over areas it claims as territory, and not entirely commercially driven. The statement signifies a unified front that ASEAN will not tolerate aggressive behavior and that continued provocations have their limits.

Moreover, the Ministers at the Summit urged all concerned parties, in accordance to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to exercise self‐restraint and avoid actions that could undermine peace and stability in the region. They emphasized that states must resolve disputes by peaceful means and refrain from resorting to threat or use of force, underscoring the importance of maritime security, freedom of navigation in and over the South China Sea, as well as the ASEAN’s Six‐Point Principles on the South China Sea and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties.

Moving forward

Myanmar evidently cannot afford to project a negative image to the international community, especially at a crucial time when it needs support for reform and transition. Rather, it wants to project an image that would dispel its reputation as an isolated, unaccommodating, and unprogressive society governed by military rule. It cannot opt for alignment and partnership, lest it risks gaining the disapproval of the ASEAN member states. Addressing looming security and strategic issues will continuously test Myanmar’s leadership. As ASEAN chairman, Myanmar has to underscore collective effort among ASEAN member states, which is essential in addressing traditional and non‐ traditional security issues challenging regional unity and cooperation. At a time of ASEAN community‐building and strengthening ASEAN identity, discord among the member states is not an option. Instead, Myanmar must see to it that the implementation and acceleration of confidence‐building measures and practice of preventive diplomacy are strengthened at the forefront.

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*Jeremie P. Credo is a Foreign Affairs Research Specialist at the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies of the Foreign Service Institute. Ms. Credo can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this publication are of the authors’ alone and do not reflect the official position of the Foreign Service Institute, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Government of the Philippines.