Burmese junta courting Moscow to balance Beijing | Voice of America
BANGKOK – The decision of Burmese junta leader Min Aung Hlaing to travel to Russia before neighboring China highlights his army’s easier relations with Moscow and his hopes of bringing the Kremlin closer to avoid depending solely on Beijing, according to analysts.
Min Aung Hlaing visited Russia last week for a three-day conference on international security.
China and Russia have been the junta’s most powerful allies since the military, or Tatmadaw, toppled Myanmar’s democratically elected government four months ago. Amid international reprimands for the military’s bloody crackdown on peaceful protests, Beijing and Moscow have blocked efforts by the United Nations Security Council to pressure the junta to back down. The two are also Myanmar’s main arms suppliers.
As a neighbor, China has much older, deeper, and complex ties with Myanmar. It is the country’s largest trading partner and a major investor. Myanmar is also prominent in Beijing’s sprawling Belt and Road Initiative, providing China with a new route to the Indian Ocean and vital oil and gas supplies to the Middle East.
Instead of making Beijing his first stop outside Southeast Asia since the coup, Min Aung Hlaing traveled to Moscow on June 20 for the security conference. The visit included meetings with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev.
Those who observe Myanmar up close weren’t surprised by the choice.
“Moscow’s support for the new regime has been unequivocal and the junta leader was assured of a warm welcome from a major international power and the opportunity to discuss the expansion of military cooperation and economic, ”said Anthony Davis, Bangkok-based security analyst at Janes Defense. publications.
“Relations with China have been much more difficult given Beijing’s dissatisfaction with the chaos sparked by the coup and Tatmadaw’s long-standing suspicions of Chinese goals and support for some insurgent ethnic groups,” he said. he declared.
Bad weather friend
Smuggling, gambling operations and arms flows between southern China and northeast Myanmar have for decades helped support ethnic minority rebel armies fighting the Tatmadaw for autonomy along the border. , a major thorn for the army. Last year, Min Aung Hlaing openly complained about a “foreign country” supporting some of the rebels.
“Although he didn’t mention the name of this country, you automatically knew he was referring to China,” said Ye Myo Hein, who heads the Tagaung Institute for Political Studies, a Burmese think tank.
He also noted that Min Aung Hlaing was speaking to Russian state media during a trip to Russia.
As a neighbor and a big investor, China is also much more worried than Russia about the violence and economic collapse caused or inflamed by the February 1 coup, he added. Financial forecasters say Myanmar’s gross domestic product could fall 20% this year. Assassinations and bombings targeting government administrators and installations are rife in the country, while long-standing clashes between the Tatmadaw and some rebel armies have erupted.
Ye Myo Hein said Min Aung Hlaing visited Russia before China to avoid the extra pressure that would come with a trip to Beijing to stick to a five-point plan to save Myanmar from elaborate collapse. by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“He knows that China will not give a blank check, which the coup plotters will not be happy with. China is very concerned about the instability and the spillover effects in neighboring countries. This is why he is pushing the ASEAN five-point consensus, but the junta is not ready to follow it, ”he said.
Min Aung Hlaing reportedly agreed to the plan at a special bloc meeting in Jakarta in April, including an immediate end to violence and negotiations with “all parties concerned,” but has shown no sign of follow-up since.
Davis said Russia also offered Myanmar “a critical great-power counterbalance to the kind of over-reliance on Beijing seen in the 1990s.”
Min Aung Hlaing’s decision to attend the security conference in Moscow rather than send a representative could signal his interest in bringing Russia even closer, said Moe Thuzar, a Burmese analyst at the Institute of Russian Studies. Singapore Southeast Asia.
“Thus, the decision to make Russia the destination of his first visit outside the region would be motivated by Min Aung Hlaing’s interest in seeking more legitimacy and strategic support, and in presenting this element of balancing and diversification to existing relations with China, ”she said. .
To date, Russia has fulfilled this role largely as an arms supplier, and an increasingly important role. The Tatmadaw bought more military equipment from China during its history. Over the past two decades, however, it has sourced almost as much from Russia as it has from China, according to data collected by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
The same data shows that the Tatmadaw has recently turned to Russia primarily for air power, from surface-to-air missiles to helicopters and fighter jets. Davis said the superior quality and competitive prices of Russian equipment make them a better deal than their Chinese alternatives, and that Tatmadaw’s possible purchase of more planes and armored vehicles – and interest in the sub – Kilo-class sailors – could soon make Russia the number one arms supplier to Burma. Whether that happens will largely depend on what the junta can afford as the economy collapses, he added.
These financial problems are also the reason Min Aung Hlaing wants to move relations with Russia beyond the military to military level where they are now, Ye Myo Hein said.
As Western governments impose targeted sanctions and foreign companies delay new deals, he said the junta “urgently needs more investment as the economy shrinks dramatically. Currently, there will only be investments from China, and I think the junta is trying to invite more investments from other countries, ”Russia added.
Ye Myo Hein has said the junta will lure Russia in with the promise of more arms sales and may even offer Myanmar ports for Russian Navy stopovers on any foray into the Indian Ocean.
Ian Storey, another analyst at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said Russia would like to expand its presence in the ocean, having forged close security ties with India, but said few friendly ports along the way to Vladivostok on the east coast of Russia. He said a reliable stopover in Myanmar would help, but added that the limited number of warships in the Russian Navy’s Western Pacific Fleet would keep these trips modest “for the foreseeable future.”
The Russian Navy can send one or two ships to the Indian Ocean using Myanmar as a stepping stone, but not in numbers to change the balance of power there, Eugene Rumer, Russian expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Washington. .
He said Russia’s naval ambitions would remain elsewhere, notably in the North Atlantic and the Northeast Pacific.
Rumer said Moscow would seek trade concessions for the diplomatic cover it offers the Burmese junta but, like others, he doesn’t expect Russia to prove the economic lifeline the junta can seek. .
Analysts say that role will continue to go primarily to China.
What the junta is also offering Russia is another chance to reduce West pressure for an international relations regime based on democratic values, Rumer said. In coming to the aid of the pariah states of Venezuela in Zimbabwe, and now in Myanmar, he said Moscow hopes to advance a regime devoid of these values, fully in line with Beijing.
“It undermines the US emphasis on values as a major aspect of our foreign policy,” he said. “The flip side is that it helps show that the United States is not omnipotent; it takes it down a notch or two. And that brings Russia and China closer together, which [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has been one of his foreign policy priorities.