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53 the national bureau of asian research nbr special report #45 | march 2014 MORTEN B. PEDERSEN is Senior Lecturer in International and Political Studies at University of New South Wales in Canberra and the Australian Defence Force Academy. He can be reached at . Myanmar Foreign Policy in a Time of Transition Morten B. Pedersen EXECUTIVE SUMMARY This essay examines the changes and continuities in Myanmar foreign policy under the post-2011 government, with a particular view to elucidating the country’s emerging role in Asia. MAIN ARGUMENT Like every government of Myanmar since independence, the new quasi-civilian government has pursued an independent, nonaligned, and active foreign policy. With domestic political reforms gathering momentum, however, it has been able to leave behind the essentially defensive, inward-looking policies of past security-oriented administrations and greatly increase interaction with the outside world in pursuit of national development. Over the past three years, the government has thus moved aggressively to normalize Myanmar’s international relations, rebalance bilateral relations with the major powers, and further integrate the country into the region. At the same time, it has taken steps to ensure that new foreign aid, trade, and investment genuinely benefit the country and its people rather than just a narrow economic elite. POLICY IMPLICATIONS • While Myanmar’s resurgence has added fuel to the long-simmering strategic competition in the country between the major powers, the new government continues to eschew alliances in favor of friendly, mutually beneficial relations with all nations. • Despite potentially emerging as one of the more liberal members of ASEAN, Myanmar is unlikely to want to push its own values on other members or change the political modus operandi of the organization, at least in the short term. • The most immediate impact of Myanmar’s new foreign policy is economic. Major business opportunities are opening up in the country, especially for responsible, rule-based investors. At the same time, Myanmar’s efforts to strengthen connectivity with its neighbors could remove a major barrier to interregional economic integration. 55 MYANMAR FOREIGN POLICY IN A TIME OF TRANSITION u PEDERSEN F or the past 25 years, studies of Myanmar’s foreign policy have mainly focused on the military’s efforts to fend off Western pressure for regime change.1 Yet with major political and economic changes now underway in the country, the traditional story of military intransigence, government propaganda, and unholy alliances with other repressive states is rapidly losing relevance. As the new quasi-civilian government’s domestic reform program gains momentum, Myanmar’s foreign policy is also undergoing a transformation. This calls for a new kind of scholarship and for a broader reassessment of Myanmar’s role in Asia. This essay seeks to elucidate how Myanmar views, approaches, and ultimately influences the outside world, with a particular emphasis on the changes that are taking place under the post-2011 government. Applying K.J. Holsti’s classic model of foreign policy, the essay considers Myanmar’s general foreign policy orientation, as well as its specific foreign policy objectives and the concrete actions undertaken to achieve them.2 The latter are examined through a thematic survey of four key areas of Myanmar’s foreign policy: normalizing international relations, balancing the major powers, furthering regional integration, and managing international resources. Myanmar’s Foreign Policy Orientation Basic Attitudes Myanmar’s foreign policy orientation—understood as the general kinds of decisions, commitments, rules, and actions its leaders consider suitable to their state3 —has been powerfully shaped by the country’s history and geography, which have conspired to instill a deep sense of national vulnerability. Since independence, the failure of successive governments to build a strong, unified state, coupled with Myanmar’s location in a region dominated by great and dangerous powers, has conditioned an essentially defensive, even xenophobic, mindset. In the 1950s, Prime Minister U Nu spoke of Myanmar as “a tender gourd among cactuses,” obliquely referring to the country’s location between two of the world’s largest and most populous countries, China and India.4 Later, General Ne Win reportedly stated that “all of [Myanmar’s] problems would be solved if only the country could be chiseled off from its neighbors and floated out in the Bay of Bengal.”5 Since the 1980s, successive governments have increasingly come to recognize the potential benefits of joining a rapidly globalizing and generally more peaceful region. Yet twenty years of Western efforts to subvert the post-1988 military regime, coupled with the post–Cold War upsurge in...


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