Amid Speculation of China Tilt, US Reaffirms Ties with Myanmar

A senior State Department official said the United States continues to enjoy a very good relationship with Myanmar, amid speculation that the country is tilting toward China and even though de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi skipped a chance to meet Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington this week.

Tillerson hosted foreign ministers from the region Thursday, a gathering meant to reinforce the strategic partnership between the United States and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), according to the State Department.

In a call with reporters in the region, W. Patrick Murphy, the deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, dismissed suggestions that Suu Kyi’s absence was anything other than a scheduling conflict.

“I want to emphasize that the United States and Myanmar, Burma, enjoy a very good relationship,” Murphy said. The U.S. still calls the country Burma, which the military government changed to Myanmar in 1989.

Letter to Tillerson

Murphy said Suu Kyi’s national security adviser represented Myanmar and that he delivered a letter to Tillerson from Suu Kyi, though he did not elaborate on what the letter said.

“He came with an explanation that State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi unfortunately had a previous commitment to international travel. She’s been in Europe this week. And that commitment was made before the meeting with the foreign ministers in Washington was arranged.”

Barred from the presidency by a military-drafted constitution, Suu Kyi assumed the role of foreign minister and state counselor when her party came to power last year following democratic elections that ended more than two decades of military rule.

She had a close relationship with the Obama administration, which lavished attention upon Southeast Asia in general and Burma specifically, dropping remaining sanctions against the country.

President Donald Trump’s administration has made efforts of late to reach out to ASEAN leaders. In addition to the Tillerson meeting, Trump issued separate invitations to Thai leader Prayuth Chan-ocha and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to the White House, raising protests from human rights advocates.

Prayuth has presided over an increasingly draconian Thailand, while Duterte unleashed a war on drugs that has killed thousands.

Beyond human rights abuse?

Those invitations, combined with the lack of attention paid toward Myanmar and Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, have created the impression that the administration is willing to look past human rights abuses while also suggesting a lack of vision for the region. 

The meeting Thursday was dominated by talk about disputed parts of the South China Sea and North Korea. Tillerson reportedly urged member states to distance themselves from Pyongyang.

“Contrary to the clarity and pro-activity of the Obama administration policies toward Southeast Asia (TPP, human rights, etc.), Trump’s policies toward ASEAN, and indeed toward Myanmar, have been bogged down in ambiguity, slow transfer of presidential power, State Department budget cuts and Trump’s publicly spouted prioritization of ‘America First,’” Paul Chambers, a lecturer at the College of ASEAN Community Studies in Thailand, said in an email.

“It is small wonder that Myanmar seems to currently be tilting toward China. Why not? Beijing is eagerly offering huge amounts of investment and ODA [Official Development Assistance] while the Trump administration appears lost in interpreting its own foreign policy.”

Myanmar and China

Myanmar recently inked an agreement to send oil to China via a pipeline, while China has been a factor in peace talks with ethnic armed groups.

Last month, a Chinese official told the Reuters news agency the government could help mediate a dispute between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have crossed into Bangladesh fleeing a deadly crackdown by Myanmar’s military as it seeks to rout a militant group responsible for attacks on border guard posts in October that killed nine police officers.

Earlier this week, however, a senior official with Myanmar’s ministry of foreign affairs told Reuters that “we don’t promote relations with any country at the expense of another.”

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