Myanmar diplomatic debut tested by China sea spats

asia1NAYPYIDAW: Myanmar parades its once-isolated capital to international leaders this weekend, hosting a landmark summit of Southeast Asia’s regional bloc as reforms see the country strut onto the world stage. The long-cloistered country’s debut as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) presents the diplomatic newcomer with a delicate challenge amid soaring maritime tensions between members Vietnam and the Philippines and an increasingly assertive China.

Leaders began arriving on the eve of the summit as foreign ministers worked on drafting a unified statement on recent incidents in the South China Sea that have stoked international concern. Observers said Myanmar-at the helm of ASEAN for the first time in its 17-year membership-was steering a moderate course among the different views.

“There are some disagreements but I think Myanmar is handling it very well as a neutral chair,” one diplomat said. A new quasi-civilian regime that took power in 2011 has thrust the country into the international limelight, with reforms including freeing political prisoners and welcoming opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament.

Myanmar’s year-long chairmanship is a challenge for ASEAN, which has seen its ability to present a cohesive stance in the past tested by some members’ loyalties to regional heavyweight China. Hanoi on Wednesday accused Chinese ships of attacking Vietnamese patrol vessels near a controversial oil rig in the South China Sea. On the same day, Philippine police said they had seized a Chinese fishing boat elsewhere in the sea, which is crisscrossed by strategically important shipping lanes and vast potential energy reserves.

China claims sovereign rights to almost all of the disputed waters. Beijing has long been the largest investor in Myanmar and was a rare ally during the country’s years in the diplomatic wilderness under the junta. The country should strive not to let its close relationship with China “mar its neutral and even-handed leadership”, said Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, adding that this would “not be easy”.

In 2012, China’s ally Cambodia caused consternation when it was ASEAN head by refusing to take Beijing to task over its assertive maritime stance. Singapore Foreign Minister K Shanmugam said yesterday that it was imperative that ASEAN present a unified front, even if it did not take sides in the rows. “Neutrality doesn’t mean staying silent. We can’t stay silent,” he told reporters, adding that the bloc’s “credibility” had suffered in recent years over the issue.

‘Political dignity’
Myanmar was forced to renounce the rotating ASEAN presidency in 2006 because of the military regime’s failure to shift to democracy. But it has skipped ahead of Laos to take the rudder this year, indicating an enthusiasm to showcase its revamped international image in the run up to crucial 2015 elections that are seen as a key litmus test of reforms.

Myanmar has won praise for its democratizing efforts from the international community and has welcomed a series of global leaders, including US President Barack Obama. “Both the country and the people are now enjoying a high level of political dignity,” government spokesman Ye Htut told AFP. The removal of international embargoes has also raised hopes of an economic boom in the country, left impoverished after decades of mismanagement by the junta.

Foreign firms, drawn by huge natural resources and an estimated 60 million potential consumers, are already dipping their toes into the market. According to state newspaper New Light of Myanmar this week, foreign investment created 90,000 jobs in the 2013/14 financial year.

Rajiv Biswas, an economist at IHS Global Insight, said the country was “one of the last great frontier market opportunities for many Western firms”, but problems including weak governance and poor infrastructure meant it was still a “challenging” business environment. Naypyidaw bears the signs of the country’s evolving aspirations.

The “Abode of Kings” rose out of remote scrubland after a sudden, costly, decision by the military to shift the capital from Yangon to Myanmar’s parched central region in 2005. Unconstrained by conventional notions of scale or design, the city sprawled across the tropical hinterland in an architectural smorgasbord of vast government buildings and hotels, linked by lonely multi-lane highways. Tending flower beds near the ASEAN conference centre, local laborer Aye Aye Aung said the changes in the capital had brought electricity to her village on the fringes of the city-but little else. “Naypyidaw has improved. I hope our lives will also improve as the city develops,” the 29-year-old said. – AFP


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