By Rahul Kumar
New Delhi, Dec 9 (IANS) Japan has taken up the difficult task in strife-torn Myanmar, of broking peace between the military and the Arakan Army (AA), amid spiraling rivalry with China in the Indo-Pacific.
The AA is active in the Rakhine state, a province of great strategic importance to China and India. Keen to minimise the usage of Malacca Straits, which are dominated by the United States and its allies, China has developed the port of Kyaukphyu in the Rakhine province. The new port bypasses Malacca by transiting imported oil and gas to Kunming, the capital of its Yunnan province, through a twin energy pipeline.
China’s inroads into a country, with which Tokyo has historical ties and geopolitical interests, appears to have animated Japan’s activism in Myanmar. Consequently, it has appointed Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of the Nippon Foundation as its point person to pull out its chestnuts in turbulent Myanmar.
The man doing the peace-making job in Myanmar is Yohei Sasakawa, special envoy of the government of Japan for national reconciliation in Myanmar, who has visited the country twice in two months—a signal that Japan is taking the mediating role seriously.
Sasakawa has met both—State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmarese army chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. He also successfully brokered a ceasefire between the AA and the Myanmar Army—the Tatmadaw so that elections could be held properly and people have representation in voting. This ceasefire happened for the first time in two years since fighting broke out in 2018.
The timing of Japan’s intervention in Myanmar’s internal politics is interesting. It comes at a time when fissures between Myanmar and China are widening. Hlaing told journalists in Russia in June this year that there should be stronger international cooperation to fight terrorism. Hlaing’s oblique comments made the international media realise that he was referring to China, which was caught supplying arms to the AA and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army—both active in the Rakhine state.
Immediately after his Russian visit, the Myanmar army chief met Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh over strengthening military ties including counter-insurgency operations along the 1,468-km-long Indo-Myanmar border.
The Nippon Foundation is providing emergency assistance to people in Rakhine. Regarding funding, Sasakawa told Myanmar media organisation The Irrawaddy: “The estimated amount will be $200,000 (264.6 million kyats). The military has said that it will provide air transport for the emergency humanitarian assistance. We will discuss in detail with locals what kind of supplies they are going to need.”
Earlier, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi had met Myanmar State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi in late August to strengthen cooperation and bilateral relations. The talks were over combating the coronavirus pandemic and initiating business travel between the two countries. Motegi also pledged loans of $283 million and $141.50 million for support to small and medium industry.
Significantly Motegi took up the issue of Rohingya refugees with Suu Kyi to ensure that Myanmar works on implementing the provisional order of the International Court of Justice to end the persecution of the country’s Rohingya minority in Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh.
The Japanese Foreign Minister also took up the case of building democracy in a country which has seen the army run the country in global isolation. Japan wants to see Myanmar as a democratic nation so that the country does not face sanctions from the West again. In other words, the idea is to wean away the country from China, which happened during decades of military rule when the junta in Myanmar was staunchly opposed by the democratic nations.
Japanese news website, Japan Forward, is clear about how Japan has to counter China in Myanmar. In a recent editorial it says: “China cannot be allowed to steadily insinuate itself into Myanmar and draw it into the authoritarian camp. Consequently, the Japanese government should support the NLD administration and seek to promote democracy and reconciliation with Myanmar’s minorities. At the same time, it is important to encourage the Myanmar military to distance itself from politics.”
Japan’s deepening interest in Myanmar is part of its free and open Indo-Pacific strategy, which has India, the United States and Australia as its key partners. All the four countries are joined at the hip to prevent China from dominating the trade arteries in the Indian and the Pacific oceans.
(This content is being carried under an arrangement with indianarrative.com)