Why Should the United States Government Require Economic Intelligence on Myanmar?
The strategic location of Myanmar is of great importance to the national security goals of the United States and its allies. Myanmar is recognized as a significant potential ally in the Indo-Pacific strategy of the United States, which aims to counter China’s expanding sphere of influence in the region. This simply means that securing economic intelligence on Myanmar is a matter of vital interest for the United States Government (USG) to maintain its primacy while preserving its diplomatic, military, and economic access to this highly populated region.
Myanmar, a nation in transition and endeavoring to move away from military dictatorship amidst numerous clashes, is facing severe repercussions due to the ongoing coup orchestrated by its armed forces. The military takeover has led to the deterioration of Myanmar’s already fragile association with its western allies. Furthermore, the country’s economy has taken a hit due to the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, and it is currently facing a humanitarian crisis on its western border in Rakhine State, where there are reports of human rights violations against one of its Muslim minorities. Given these circumstances, Myanmar is at a critical juncture, with the possibility of repeating a cycle of violence and turmoil.
Since gaining independence from British colonial rule in 1948, the state of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has been plagued by competing political ideologies (Dash, 2020). After separating from Britain’s Indian Empire in 1937, the complex internal relationships among various ethnicities and religious minorities have created a power struggle between Myanmar’s powerful military junta, the Tatmadaw, and the National League for Democracy (NLD) leadership, which was founded by Aung San Suu Kyi in 1988 and won the general elections in 2015.
American Economic Intelligence
Starting in late 1776, the U.S. government began to gather economic intelligence on a range of topics deemed of interest (Zelikow, 1997). In recent years, intelligence-gathering efforts have increasingly acknowledged that economic strength, rather than military might, is crucial to achieving national and international security objectives (Cormac, 2014). Assessing the economic performance of rivals, potential partners, and allies has become critically important, especially after the CIA’s estimates of the Soviet Union.
During the 20th century, the United States was concerned about the Soviet Union catching up and advancing their communist model. In the 21st century, the United States faces a new rival, China, with a competing political and economic ideology. Due to China’s geographic proximity to Myanmar and the 71 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries, and the cooling of Western relations with Myanmar has resulted in the signing of over thirty trade agreements between the two neighbors. These agreements are focused on infrastructure development, trade, manufacturing, and special economic zones in support of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is their vision of 21st century silk roads.
Myanmar’s Strategic Importance to China (and the United States)
As the United States and its partners implement the Indo-Pacific Strategy, Myanmar remains a potential significant partner for the future. However, the national security challenge for the United States is to uphold its primacy in the region with its liberal market model rather than allow China to continue influencing its neighbor with its economic system.
In 2017, amidst the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine State, Aung San Suu Kyi visited Beijing and endorsed the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Earlier in 2009, when Xi Jinping was Vice President, he visited Myanmar to focus on the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone and deep-sea port. It is worth noting that this special economic zone (SEZ) runs through an underdeveloped area in Rakhine State. Beijing argues that the development of this impoverished area will improve the economic conditions for a large population that currently has to travel to bigger cities to find employment.
The development of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) will not only bring economic benefits but also serve Beijing’s geostrategic plans. The corridor will provide Beijing with access to shipping lanes for transporting raw materials, especially crude oil from the Middle East. In particular, the corridor’s access to the Indian Ocean via Kyaukphyu will offer an alternative route to the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait, which are prone to maritime conflicts with other major powers, according to Marsten (2020).
- The declassified report on Myanmar by the former Trump administration highlights the recognition of China’s critical interests in the region. It emphasizes the importance of inclusive and sustainable economic growth as well as integration into global and regional markets for Myanmar’s success. To maintain and strengthen its ties with Myanmar, the United States should support the NLD party in building institutional capacity and advancing its democracy, while also increasing bilateral trade and investment.
2. To position itself as a preferred partner in Myanmar and its neighboring countries, the United States should prioritize collecting precise and timely economic intelligence that serves its interests. Instead of relying on sanctions, the US must focus on building its soft power, especially since even the military commander-in-chief of Myanmar, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has acknowledged the strategic importance of Chinese investment and Beijing’s support during the Rakhine State crisis (Marsten, 2020).
3. Continuing to isolate Myanmar due to its human rights record against minorities could result in the country relying solely on a few countries that overlook human rights violations in pursuit of their own strategic goals, as noted by Marsten (2020). Thus, supporting a transition to democracy would make sense, as it could further improve U.S. economic security.
Myanmar’s internal political landscape is complicated by its various ethnicities, religious minorities, and competing ideologies, leading to a power struggle between the military junta, the Tatmadaw, and the pro-democracy opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Despite the complexity, Myanmar has the potential to become an important partner in the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy. However, the challenge for the US is to maintain its own liberal market-led policies and prevent China from influencing Myanmar with its own business model. Isolating Myanmar over human rights violations could force it to rely on a few countries internationally, which is not in line with US global interests. Therefore, it is crucial to gather precise economic intelligence on Myanmar and its business relationship with China in order to position the US as a preferred partner.
1. Archives. Trump White House. “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific.” Declassified. 2021.
2. Aung, Thu Thu; McPherson, Poppy, “Myanmar, China Inks Deals to Accelerate Belt and Road as Xi Courts an Isolated Suu Kyi.” Reuters. January 18, 2020.
3. Cormac, Rory, “Secret Intelligence Economic Security: The Exploitation of a Critical Asset in an Increasingly Prominent Sphere”, Intelligence and National Security, Vol. 29, №1, pp. 99–121
4. Dash, Debasis, “Blood Code Burma.” May 28, 2020. https://asianalyst.medium.com/blood-code-burma-8a1bee73d22a
5. Marsten, Hunter, “Has the U.S. Lost Myanmar to China?” The Diplomat. January 20, 2020.
6. Noren, James, “CIA’s Analysis of the Soviet Economy” in Watching the Bear: Essays on CIA Analysis of the Soviet Union, Gerald Haines and Robert Legette eds. (Langley, CIA, 2003), pp. 17–56.
7. World Bank. Country Overview: “Mynmar” https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/myanmar/overview
8. Xinxua News, “Feature: How the development of Myanmar’s Kyaukpyu port won the hearts of locals.” January 20, 2020. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-01/20/c_138720186.htm
9. Zelikow, Philip, “American Economic Intelligence: Past Practice and Future Principles”, Intelligence and National Security, Vol, 12, №1, (1997) pp. 163–177.