Australia’s establishment of a defense attache in Myanmar was an expected step in the normalization of relations, but Canberra’s growing naval concerns in the region make the move more notable. Australia will now have an office in Myanmar specifically dedicated to coordinating defense matters and reducing any frictions.
Australia’s HMAS Childers, an Armidale class patrol ship, was set to leave Thilawa Port, Yangon, on Jan. 23, the first such visit since 1959. It will next call on Chittagong, Bangladesh, and then participate in India’s Exercise Milan 2014 in the Andaman Sea. On Jan. 20 Royal Australian Navy Capt. Jonathan Dudley became Australia’s first defense attache to Myanmar since 1979. While Canberra and Naypyidaw have a history of distrust and bilateral defense relations are restarting at a low level, Australia views Myanmar and the Indian Ocean Basin as an increasingly strategic region for its future interests, and Myanmar views Australia as a potential foreign benefactor as it emerges from decades of relative isolation.
Australia has maintained some links with Myanmar throughout the years, but the two countries began to normalize relations in recent years after Myanmar launched political reforms that enabled it to open its doors to trade and resume diplomatic relations with the outside world. Naypyidaw promulgated a new constitution in 2008, held national elections in 2010 and by-elections in 2012 that brought key opposition figures such as Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament (marked by her celebrated visit to Australia in late 2013), redesigned its regulatory regime to promote trade and investment and released political prisoners. Although the military remains the dominant player in politics, Myanmar has undertaken enough reforms to give the Western world the ability to respond by lifting some sanctions and resuming relations.
Australia has joined the United States and European Union in reducing punitive measures. In June 2012 Australia suspended the last remaining unilateral sanctions it had imposed on travel and financial transactions by Myanmar’s generals. In late 2012 Australian bank ANZ received permission to open an office in Myanmar. In March 2013 Australia received Myanmar’s president for the first time since 1974, pledged to increase development aid for the country’s education and health and promised to bring in a defense attache and trade commissioner. Meanwhile, Woodside Petroleum gained permission to explore for offshore oil and natural gas in the waters of Myanmar. Australia envisions further access for its energy, mining, construction, agriculture and financial firms.
Both remain distrustful
Still, both Australia and Myanmar remain distrustful, and cooperation is nascent and vulnerable to disruptions. Canberra maintains an arms embargo and continues to call for the regime to reduce the military’s role in politics, provide more freedoms and welfare to its citizens and better manage its regional and ethnic conflicts, particularly to avoid driving more Rohingya refugees to Australia’s shores. As Canberra shifts its immigration policy to focus more heavily on using naval ships such as the HMAS Childers to manage asylum seekers, the small but rising number of citizens from Myanmar attempting to enter Australian territory will cause Canberra to urge Naypyidaw to improve its internal policies, however little luck it may have in motivating Myanmar or any of its neighbors to invest more into stopping the flows.
Meanwhile, in Myanmar, the economic opening and democratization processes remain subject to institutional weakness and the military-led regime’s difficulties in maintaining internal unity. The regime is attempting to forge a nationwide cease-fire among ethnic rebel groups and to preserve itself amid mounting public demands for more extensive economic, social and political reforms. These pressures will only increase as the 2015 elections approach, increasing the likelihood that the regime’s behavior will not live up to Australian expectations.
Strategic reasons for normalizing
Nevertheless, there are solid strategic reasons for normalizing the relationship. Myanmar has an interest in improving its naval capabilities as it builds out its ports, both for its growing export sector and to secure its role as a transit corridor to northeastern India and southwestern China. Strategically, it has also become more inclined to seek friendly relations with foreign powers so that it can attract aid and investment. Emerging from isolation brings risks to the regime because it gives foreigners more chances to meddle in internal affairs, but it may also come in handy when dealing with much greater powers such as China and India or regional rivals such as Bangladesh and Thailand, though Australia would be wary of any commitments that would create problems with the greater powers.
Australia cannot afford to be left out of a newly opening market for its advanced service industries, and it wants to bring Myanmar fully into the fold of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in order to improve the bloc’s integration and economic development. Any trade improvements require a parallel security component to make them durable. Canberra’s defense planners view the Indian Ocean as a strategic arena critical to the country’s security in the future—first to defend Australia’s long western coastline, with its offshore oil and natural gas production and other commodity export hubs, and second to secure its sea lines of communication to the entire ocean basin.
Australia envisions India as eventually becoming a critical partner in the region, but forming defense relations with smaller states such as Myanmar helps to create a network to expand non-war operations and training opportunities that improve its capabilities all around. A resident defense attache at the Australian Embassy in Myanmar, though a small step in itself, will make it somewhat easier for both Australia and Myanmar to coordinate naval visits and humanitarian, peacekeeping and counter-piracy drills and also create a better channel to reduce frictions and misunderstandings. More important, it symbolizes Australia’s adjustment of diplomacy to match its expanding strategic horizon to the west.
Republishing by The Manila Times of this analysis is with the express permission of Stratfor.