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75 the national bureau of asian research nbr special report #45 | march 2014 ABRAHAM M. DENMARK is Vice President for Political and Security Affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research. He can be reached at . Myanmar and Asia’s New Great Game Abraham M. Denmark EXECUTIVE SUMMARY This essay examines the existing and emerging dynamics between Myanmar and Asia’s three major powers—China, India, and Japan—and assesses both the prospects for great-power competition and the opportunities for future cooperation. MAIN ARGUMENT Myanmar’s domestic reforms have not only created the potential for the country to play a more significant role in the outside world; they have also opened the door for a more intensified geopolitical competition among Asia’s great powers. Myanmar’s indigenous resources and the potential of its nascent markets make it a ripening opportunity for economic engagement and development. Moreover, Myanmar’s geographic position puts it at the center of efforts to increase the interconnectivity of South and Southeast Asia with Northeast Asia, thereby greatly enhancing the country’s strategic value to the region’s established and emerging powers. Finally, China’s strong influence in Myanmar has driven Naypyidaw to work to diversify its external relationships, while similar concerns are simultaneously driving other Asian powers to check China’s rising power in South and Southeast Asia by enhancing their own relations with Myanmar. POLICY IMPLICATIONS • Although Myanmar seeks to diversify its international relationships so as to reduce its dependence on Beijing, it will continue to require a positive and robust relationship with China for the foreseeable future. However, Myanmar’s stronger ties with other foreign powers will likely force Beijing to take Naypyidaw’s interests and priorities into greater consideration. • While Myanmar’s relations with India and Japan have rapidly expanded across a number of dimensions—especially in recent years—neither country yet enjoys influence on par with that of China. As these ties continue to improve and additional domestic political reforms are realized, observers should expect the influence of these two large Asian democracies to grow as well. • Competition among Asia’s major powers will greatly influence the nature of Myanmar’s continued international reawakening. Yet despite these competitive dynamics, China, India, and Japan all share interests and goals in Myanmar that could serve as the basis for future cooperation and coordination. 77 MYANMAR AND ASIA’S NEW GREAT GAME u DENMARK China’s drive southward and India’s drive both westward and eastward—to keep it from being strategically encircled by China’s navy—means that both powers collide in Burma. As China and India vie for power and influence, Burma has become a quiet, strategic battleground. — Robert D. Kaplan1 M yanmar sits at the epicenter of change. Not only are its internal political and social structures rapidly evolving, but so too is its position in Southeast Asia. For decades, until quite recently, Myanmar was something of a pariah that stood outside the region’s expanding economies, burgeoning democracies, and integrating politics. Yet reforms at home have opened the door for Myanmar to play a more active and influential role in shaping Asia’s geopolitics. Geography has made Myanmar a key player in the Asia-Pacific’s increasingly complex geopolitical machinations. Sharing land borders with Bangladesh (193 km), China (2,185 km), India (1,463 km), Laos (235 km), and Thailand (1,800 km), as well as sitting on the Bay of Bengal and near the Strait of Malacca, Myanmar has the potential to serve as a strategic gateway between China and India, South and Southeast Asia, and continental and maritime Asia.2 Today, Myanmar also represents a potential source for new economic development and expansion. Difficult times in the global economy have made international corporations and foreign governments desperate for guaranteed growth, and Myanmar presents a nearly blank-slate opportunity for the development of infrastructure, institutions, and the other foundations of a modern economy. The country also possesses tremendous natural resources that have remained largely untapped, including abundant reserves of oil, natural gas, uranium, coal, zinc, copper, precious stones, timber, and hydropower. As it reforms its economy, Myanmar is also emerging from decades of political isolation. Once a major political force in international politics that was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961, the military coup in 1962 and rise to power of General Ne Win quickly diminished Myanmar’s influence—and interest—in international affairs. Domestic reforms, however, have created expectations of engagement with the outside...


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