January 30, 2023
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Playing chess with Myanmar

Elections in Myanmar last week brought drastic change to a nation previously under authoritarian military rule. But the elections mark just as much domestic as diplomatic reform. And geopolitically, these changes are significant to the United States and China’s game plans in the region.

Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won an overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats in the elections, marking an unprecedented political shift. For years Myanmar was run by a military dictatorship that the United States and Europe adamantly opposed.

With sweeping domestic change came international diplomatic change, too. The U.S. announced that they are not only easing travel bans on Myanmar’s leaders and lifting some financial restrictions to facilitate U.S. investment, but they are also naming an ambassador to Myanmar and setting up an office for its Agency for International Development. For a nation that was plagued by U.S. diplomatic isolation and western sanctions, these moves are huge.

The speed with which the U.S. has normalized relations with Myanmar last week is extremely telling of the country’s strategic significance in the region. With China as one of Myanmar’s largest trading partners and biggest source of foreign investment, the U.S. has to reassert their influence in Asia, moving to woo Myanmar so as to keep a check on China’s regional rise.

What is delicate here is how easy it is to applaud the U.S.’s moves to engage with Myanmar and take them out of international isolation. But viewing this as a good thing is also normalizing the U.S.-China geopolitical rivalry. This rivalry certainly works out for Myanmar because they’re being courted by two of the world’s most influential nations. The danger here, though, lies in how a positive move toward pluralism in a nation previously gripped by militaristic authority is being manipulated to suit the geopolitical chess game that is U.S. and China relations today.

The changes in Myanmar should be nurtured for the good of the nation and its people. The U.S. lifting sanctions and re-establishing diplomatic ties with Myanmar is great; the nation will no longer be internationally isolated. That being said, there should be no ulterior motive that turns Myanmar into an American — or Chinese, for that matter — pawn in the region.

Shaza Elsheshtawy is a junior journalism and politics major. Email her at selshes1@ithaca.edu.