Why Should the United States Government Require Economic Intelligence on Myanmar?
In order to maintain U.S. primacy, while securing its diplomatic, military and economic access to this most populous region, it is a matter of vital interest for the United States Government (USG) to seek economic intelligence on Myanmar.
Since its independence from British colonial rule in 1948, the state of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) remains challenged by competing political ideologies (Dash, 2020). After the separation of Burma from Britain’s Indian Empire in 1937, complex internal relationships between various ethnicities and religious minorities have led to a tug of war between the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s powerful military junta and the leadership of the National League for Democracy (NLD); which, founded by Aung San Suu Kyi in 1988, won the general elections in 2015.
As a country in transition and seeking to break with military rule amidst multiple conflicts, the ongoing coup staged by the army has resulted in further fracturing Myanmar’s delicate relationship with its western allies. Coupled with a declining economy due to the after-effects of the Covid 19 pandemic, and an ongoing humanitarian dilemma unfolding on its western borders in Rakhine State, rife with reports of human rights violations against one of its Muslim minorities, Myanmar today stands at the crossroads of repeating yet another cycle of violence and conflict.
Despite these irregularities and issues, Myanmar’s geographic location makes it vital to the national security objectives of the United States and its allies. The country is currently acknowledged as an important future partner in the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy against China’s growing sphere of influence in that hemisphere.
American Economic Intelligence
Since late 1776, the United States government has been collecting economic intelligence on a variety of topics of interest (Zelikow, 1997). Approaches towards gathering intelligence increasingly recognise that “economic strength rather than military might,” is linked towards achieving national (and international) security objectives (Cormac, 2014). The importance of assessing economic performances of rivals, potential partners and allies has been of extreme importance, particularly since the CIA’s estimates on the Soviet Union.
During the 20th century, the United States was concerned about the Soviets catching up and advancing their communist model. In the 21st century, the United States faces China, a rival with a competing, albeit different political and economic ideology. With China’s geographic proximity to Myanmar, and the establishment of 71 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries, recent Western cooling towards the latter has culminated in the two neighbors signing over thirty different trade agreements. All agreements are related to infrastructure development, trade, manufacturing, and special economic zones tied to Beijing’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative, or China’s vision of the 21st century silk roads.
Myanmar’s Strategic Importance to China (and the United States)
As the United States implements its Indo-Pacific Strategy with its partners, Myanmar still has the potential to become an important partner in the years ahead. The national security challenge for the United States would be to maintain primacy in the region with its own liberal market model, rather than to have its rival China continue to influence its neighbor with its own economic system.
By continuing to isolate Myanmar because of its human rights record against its minorities, risks it having to “rely internationally on a few countries” which are more than willing to overlook human rights violations due to their own broader strategic objectives (Marsten, 2020). It makes sense then to continue to support a transition to democracy which could continue to enhance U.S. economic security.
In 2017, during the height of the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine State, Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to Beijing and agreed to the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Years earlier, in 2009, when he was the Vice President, Xi Jinping had visited Myanmar to focus on the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone and deep-sea port. Unsurprisingly, this special economic zone (SEZ) is a particularly underdeveloped area which runs through Rakhine State. Beijing argues that the development of this impoverished area will improve the economic conditions for a relatively large population who have to consider traveling to the bigger cities in order to find employment.
The benefits of developing this corridor will also serve Beijing’s geostrategic plans. It will give access to shipping lanes to transport raw materials, particularly crude oil from the Middle East. Most importantly, access to the Indian ocean from Kyaukphyu provides Beijing with an alternative route to that of the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait, which are “susceptible to maritime frictions with other major powers” (Marsten, 2020).
The Trump administration’s declassified report on Myanmar outlines a significant awareness of China’s vital interests in the region. It also states that Myanmar’s path to success should rely on inclusive, sustainable economic growth, and that “it must integrate its economy into regional and global markets” (Reuters, 2020). In order to continue establishing ties with Myanmar, the United States must continue to assist the NLD party in building institutional support for the country, as well as contribute towards its path to democracy while increasing bilateral trade and investment.
Timely and precise economic intelligence collection should focus on positioning U.S. interests, making it a partner of choice for Myanmar and its neighborhood. In this case, the U.S. must continue to refocus on soft power instead of using its sanctions regime, since even Myanmar’s military commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has expressed keen interest in the “strategic importance of Chinese investment and the vital role Beijing has played in supporting Naypyidaw,” especially during the onset of the crisis in Rakhine State (Marsten, 2020).
Assessing Myanmar’s economy and its linkages with China, should be easier for experts in the West today, unlike during the Soviet era. Analysts should be able to predict the enormous changes taking place in Myanmar with several methods or the INT collection disciplines which have become increasingly sophisticated and accurate over the past few decades.
During the U.S. confrontation with the Soviet Union, estimating its economy had proven critical for the CIA, despite the fact that the agency’s reports were questioned by various analysts and became the subject of substantial debate. Critics of the CIA estimates often dwelled on the constant changes in their analysis, particularly from the 1960’s to the 1970’s. It was felt that the agency had failed to assess the political, military and economic state of the Soviets.
Therefore, failing to accurately assess Myanmar’s economy, its partnership with China and its military junta will result in the failure of U.S. preeminence in the region while weakening its ability substantially to further its own economic goals and interests. Notably, China will exploit any vacuum or opportunity created by “diminished bonds” (Trump, White House).
Myanmar remains politically challenged by complex internal relationships between various ethnicities, religious minorities and competing ideologies. This has led to a tug of war between the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s powerful military junta, against the leadership of the pro-democracy opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi. As the United States implements its Indo-Pacific Strategy with its partners, Myanmar still has the potential to become an important partner in the years ahead. The national security challenge for the United States would be to maintain primacy in the region with its own liberal market led policies, rather than to have China continue to influence its neighbor with its own business model. Isolating Myanmar because of its human rights record against minorities risks it having to rely internationally on a few countries. In order for the USG to achieve its global interests it becomes a matter of vital importance to gather precise economic intelligence on Myanmar and its partner, China’s business relationship.
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.