Treading between major powers, Myanmar is likely to continue its diplomatic balancing act

Aung San Suu Kyi was quick to congratulate U.S. president-elect Donald Trump on his recent victory, but there is no doubt that Myanmar’s state counselor, her government and probably most of the country would have preferred to see Hillary Clinton installed in the White House next year.

Not only was Clinton a driving force behind President Barack Obama’s successful and farsighted policy of “pragmatic engagement” with Myanmar, but she was familiar with the country and established a personal rapport with Suu Kyi. Under a Clinton administration, Myanmar would have been treated very sympathetically by the U.S., which would have been appreciated by the state counselor and her fledgling National League for Democracy government as they struggle to cope with Myanmar’s modernization and democratization.

Naypyitaw has other good reasons to be grateful to the Obama administration, and Clinton in particular. During Suu Kyi’s visit to Washington in September, for example, it was announced that economic sanctions against Myanmar would be lifted, in order to unleash the country’s “enormous potential.” Earlier, Obama had notified the U.S. Congress that he would be reinstating preferential tariffs for Myanmar under the Generalized System of Preferences, which provides duty-free access for goods from poor and developing countries.

The future of the bilateral relationship under a Trump presidency is more difficult to predict. Specific policies are either unknown, or the subject of inconsistent statements. Some positions taken by the president-elect during his campaign have already been subject to unexpected reversals. A number of key executive appointments have yet to be made. Even so, it is possible to speculate about some Myanmar-related issues that are bound to arise after Trump takes office in January.

The basic fundamentals of U.S. policy toward Myanmar are unlikely to change. Washington will continue to place a high priority on the development of a truly democratic, stable and prosperous Myanmar. It will encourage Naypyitaw to negotiate a nationwide peace agreement with armed ethnic groups and address questions of social justice. Suu Kyi enjoys strong support from powerful Republicans in Congress like Mitch McConnell and John McCain, which will help maintain the current levels of engagement and cooperation.

Please click here to read the full “Will Obama’s Myanmar legacy survive under Trump?” article in the Nikkei Asian Review by Griffith Asia Institute Adjunct Associate Professor, Dr Andrew Selth.