Amanda Fang, Harvard College ’18

Abstract

This paper addresses the question of how far Myanmar’s foreign policy towards China has been determined by global geopolitical concerns in the period 1988-2012, or whether domestic political factors have been more important. It begins by providing an overview of the relationship between Myanmar and China in the period 1988 to 2012, focusing on the diplomatic and economic ties between the two countries before critically engaging with the academic debate surrounding Myanmar’s relationship with China. This debate has predominantly argued that Myanmar’s foreign policy has been determined chiefly by global geopolitical concerns; namely the country’s efforts to maintain its autonomy within an international political system dominated by the US and China, a policy which it is believed encouraged Myanmar to seek a close relationship with China throughout the 1990s and start of the twenty-first century, before seeking to loosen the ties with its powerful neighbor as it became concerned of its increasing dependency on China. Although there is some validity in this argument, this paper concludes that in order to understand Myanmar’s foreign policy towards China, far greater focus must be on the domestic political concerns of the Myanmar government. Perspectives that claim Myanmar-Chinese relations are significantly dependent on geopolitics actually misrepresent the country. By neglecting how domestic issues shape Myanmar’s international actions, this misrepresentation could blind international understanding of the East Asian political situation. By analyzing these domestic political factors, which are explored in the third and final section of the essay, I argue that contrary to the predominant viewpoint, Myanmar’s foreign policy towards China has been determined by geopolitical concerns to only a limited extent, with domestic political concerns having a much more significant role. Alongside an extensive review of secondary literature the arguments developed in this paper are based upon an extensive set of face-to-face interviews conducted by the author with Myanmar and Chinese political and economic elites, international non-government organizations (INGOs), UN representatives and Myanmar civil society organizations in Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, in August 2012.

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