In a Nov. 2 meeting with State Counsellor and Foreign Minister of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised a massive financial aid plan of 800 billion yen over five years. The pledge comes with an eye on China's growing influence in Southeast Asia, and is intended to advance "values-based diplomacy" hailed by Abe while promoting economic cooperation.
"As a friend of Myanmar, Japan will give the new government its full support across the public and private sectors," Abe told Suu Kyi at the beginning of the meeting. "I want us to join hands in advancing our bilateral relationship in leaps and bounds." After shaking hands with Suu Kyi, Abe pointed to "freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law" as values that the two countries hold in common, signaling his enthusiasm for strengthening the Japan-Myanmar relationship.
Japan is expected to take a "values-based" diplomatic approach with Suu Kyi -- who for years headed Myanmar's democracy movement -- as a partner sharing the same values as Japan. Myanmar has long had a close relationship with China from its years under military rule. But since Myanmar established a civilian administration for the first time in about half a century in March of this year, Japan is bent on distinguishing itself from China as a collaborative partner and bolstering its relationship with the Southeast Asian nation.
Myanmar nominally shifted to a civilian administration in 2011, but former general Thein Sein took the post of president at the time. This past March, however, the National League for Democracy (NLD) political party led by Suu Kyi captured a majority in parliament and hence the administration, making it easier for Japan to openly promote values-based diplomacy with Myanmar.
In the latest meeting, the two leaders agreed on nine categories of cooperation -- including public welfare assistance and urban development -- many of which, according to a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official, are a priority for the new de facto leader of Myanmar. Yen loans that were agreed upon for repairs and upgrades to hydraulic power generators are also believed to be out of consideration for Suu Kyi's emphasis on hydro-electric power generation over coal-fired plants.
In addition to funds, Japan is set to offer support to Myanmar in other ways. Unlike countries in the West that imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar during its military rule, Japan has connections with former military figures because it continued to provide support during those years due to historical and economic reasons.
"Suu Kyi is pushing toward reconciliation with the military in order to allow for smooth government administration," the aforementioned Foreign Ministry official points out, "and Japan can support that reconciliation process in a way that the West can't."
Still, China's presence looms large over Myanmar. Not only is it Myanmar's biggest trade partner, its cooperation is indispensable for Suu Kyi to reach a peace agreement with armed ethnic minority groups -- a political issue whose resolution Suu Kyi considers a top priority. In fact, ahead of visits to Japan and the U.S., Suu Kyi paid a visit to China in August of this year. It was the leader's first visit to a foreign country outside of Southeast Asia after she assumed power.
Myanmar is a country with over 130 ethnic minority groups. Since the country won independence in 1948, some groups along the border have militarized, demanding autonomy in a civil war with national troops. Some 20 insurgent groups refused to agree to a ceasefire deal signed by the previous Thein Sein administration in October 2015, and fighting between national troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), based in the north of the country, continues to this day.
China, which shares a some 2,200-kilomter border with Myanmar, has had deep historical and economic ties with ethnic minorities in the area, and is believed to have influence over armed groups there. According to a senior NLD official, Suu Kyi's visit to China was a political one, with hopes that it would boost peace negotiations with these groups.
At the same time, however, some NLD insiders and supporters harbor deep-rooted distrust toward China, which supported the former junta. There is talk of murky ties between Chinese corporations that expanded into Myanmar during the country's military rule and the military's corporate cronies. Amid such trust issues, Suu Kyi is expected to attempt striking a delicate balance, seeking cooperation from China in the peace process, while stepping up collaboration with Japan in foreign diplomacy and economic development.