Friday, January 11, 2013

Start Preparing for Myanmar as 2014 ASEAN Chair

The title of this post may seem a bit premature, particularly as the previous post discussed Brunei as ASEAN Chair in 2013.  However, Myanmar’s role as ASEAN Chair in 2014 is unprecedented, and indeed had been something to be avoided until quite recently.  The country has had very little recent experience in international affairs due to the military regime’s isolation (and notwithstanding the country’s previous rich diplomatic history – e.g., U Thant).  How will the country fare as ASEAN Chair a year from now and what will this mean for the ASEAN institutions?

Barring events which remove either or both President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from the scene, which would seriously jeopardize the brisk pace of reforms and cause major domestic distractions, I think ASEAN could do well in 2014.  Counterintuitively, this is not because Myanmar’s government is prepared for the ASEAN Chair; it is not.  Rather, external factors should work in Myanmar and ASEAN’s favor.

This is particularly the case for politico-security matters.  Myanmar has been especially nimble in convincing the Western countries to lift economic sanctions.  The government did not want to be dominated completely by China, politically and economically, and has successfully begun re-engaging with the West.  If Myanmar can maintain this level of diplomatic aptitude, it should be able to lead on politico-security matters, especially the South China Sea dispute (to which it is not a claimant).

The bigger problem will be whether how Myanmar will cope as ASEAN Chair with ASEAN Economic Community matters.  I have much greater skepticism about this, and indeed this was a reason why I had originally hoped that Myanmar would delay its turn as ASEAN Chair.

The years of economic isolation have not fostered the necessary level of economic expertise necessary for Myanmar’s government to provide leadership on AEC matters.   The same military culture that allows for a consistent message by the Myanmar government on politico-security matters does not lend itself to economic matters because most officials have had very limited economic training.  There are a few academics who have been brought in at vice-minister levels  who are capable, and President Thein Sein has been advised by a group of former exiles who were educated in the West.  But the rank and file of most Myanmar government agencies have limited understanding of their country’s ASEAN economic commitments. To them, ASEAN is something that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs deals with, and no one else.  Many have no idea what Myanmar committed itself to in the ASEAN Comprehensive Investment Agreement, ASEAN Trade in Goods Agreement or other key foundational agreements of the AEC.

The counterintuitive part is that the government’s lack of economic sophistication should not hurt the AEC process if the Myanmar government understands its limitations.  From discussions with various Myanmar government officials (who are more knowledgeable about the AEC), I think that their leadership understands the situation.  As such, the ASEAN Secretariat should have more influence over AEC policymaking during the Myanmar chairmanship, because the ASEAN Chair will not be able to do so.

Nevertheless, Myanmar will still need much help in economic policy, both for its own sake and for its term as ASEAN Chair.  That assistance needs to come in during 2013, and in copious quantities.   Fortunately the change in US sanctions policy means that all of the major aid donors can now support ASEAN efforts in Myanmar; the USAID is rapidly ramping up its presence in the country.

In any event, the increased interaction of Myanmar with the outside world, and its continued (and somewhat surprising) success in doing so makes me more optimistic about its turn as ASEAN Chair in 2014.  Let’s hope that both Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi can continue to lead the country’s reform efforts in 2014 and beyond.