Jun 6, 2013

Japan’s economic advance into Myanmar part of wider regional strategy

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Myanmar in late May. As the first Japanese leader to visit the country in 36 years, Abe met Myanmar President U Thein Sein and opposition political figure Aung San Suu Kyi, expressing Japan's support to Myanmar in aiding in the country's democratic transition, economic reform and ethnic reconciliation.

Japan is anxious to develop relations with Myanmar at the moment.

Not long after Abe took office, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso chose Myanmar for his maiden foreign visit. And Abe's latest Myanmar tour brought the leadership visit to an unprecedented high level.

Both Aso and Abe took big economic packages along with their visits, releasing Myanmar from a total debt of 500 billion yen ($4.9 billion) and adding hundreds of billions of yen in Japan's Official Development Assistance to Myanmar.

During his recent visit, Abe paved the way for Japanese enterprises to seek more business opportunities in Myanmar. He has made efforts to get Japan a leading role in Myanmar's infrastructure construction and economic development through signing a series of agreements in many fields.

Thanks to media promotion, Abe's visit has acted as a good advertisement for his economic program, "Abenomics," since investing in large infrastructure projects overseas is an important part of the scheme, which is aimed at boosting Japan's sluggish domestic economy.

But Japan's generosity is not merely aimed at updating economic and trade relations with Myanmar. Tokyo also has geopolitical ambitions.

Japan's intention to rope Myanmar in so as to counter China's influence in Southeast Asia is obvious.

Myanmar has a very important geopolitical location. Bordering on India, China, Bangladesh and Thailand, Myanmar is a hub that can connect South Asia and Southeast Asia.

As the country is promoting democratic transition and opening-up and is expected to be a new rising star of Asia, powers like the US, the EU countries, Russia, India, Japan, South Korea and China are competing to develop relations with Myanmar.

Japan is seeking the most advantageous position in this competition, which could help enhance its own geopolitical and economic influence in the Mekong River region, Southeast Asia and even the India Ocean region, so as to press the influence of traditional regional powers such as China and India.

Besides, against a backdrop of Chinese enterprises meeting their Waterloo in Myanmar, Japan expanding economic opportunities in Myanmar will pose strong challenges to China's economic interests in this country.

Myanmar's feelings toward Japan are complicated, with gratitude and caution going together.

On the one hand, Myanmar is thankful to Japan's support during its transition process, but on the other hand, historical shadows are still lingering in bilateral relations thanks to the legacy of World War II.

Thein Sein looked back to history in a speech on Myanmar's Independence Day on January 4. He said Myanmar got rid of the British colonists, but fell into the clutches of the Japanese fascists.

Abe paid homage to Japanese soldiers who died in Myanmar during World War II at the suburb of Yangon on May 25, which aroused dissatisfaction from Chinese soldiers still living who once fought against Japanese invaders.

Considering the rising power of the right-wingers in Japan and their historical denials, Myanmar has enough reasons to guard against Japan.

As the biggest economy in Asia and Myanmar's biggest neighbor, China maintains the largest investments in Myanmar and is Myanmar's biggest trading partner. Besides, China could provide Myanmar with the biggest market with the most potential.

But while China might not fear Japan strategically, it needs to take it seriously tactically.

China should be wary of Japanese competition in Myanmar. It needs to urge the Chinese enterprises to respect and comply with local laws and customs and to make more investments that will benefit the public.

Chinese enterprises should also be open-minded in studying the experiences of their Japanese counterparts, which will help increase competitiveness.

But as long as China and Myanmar forms a community and are closely tied to each other, the bilateral relationship will remain unshakable.

Source: Global Times