Myanmar, when I lived here last, was among the most comfortable and affluent nations of Southeast Asia, as a major rice exporter to the world. Today its per capita GDP of only 1700 dollars is less than half that of neighboring India, and ranks only 201st on earth. Its rate of mortality due to tuberculosis is 28 times Japan's, and three times the global average, while that for maternal mortality at childbirth is over 30 times that of Japan. Some 23 percent of Myanmar's people lack sanitation facilities and 14 percent lack access to potable drinking water -- problems that are virtually unknown in Japan and the United States. Overall, the World Health Organization recently ranked Myanmar last among 190 nations studied in terms of healthcare performance.
The humanitarian rationale for helping Myanmar is clear. Yet the geopolitical and diplomatic arguments are very clear also. The country is located strategically between China's southwestern province of Yunnan and the Bay of Bengal, thus commanding China's approach to the Indian Ocean, and greatly shortening its access routes to India and the Middle East. China has built a pipeline across the country from Myanmar's western coast, to supply Yunnan and Szechuan with oil. It has also made massive investments in infrastructure and natural resources, some of which, such as the Myitsone Dam and the Letpachaung copper mine, have been quite controversial, due to environmental problems, inadequate compensation, and arbitrary land-seizure tactics.
Although China's political-economic presence in Myanmar is substantial, and most locals see a stable relationship with their huge neighbor as unavoidable, they also desperately want to balance China, to preserve their independence and future leverage. The best -- and perhaps the only effective -- balancer to China, in the view of virtually every Burmese to whom I have spoken, is Japan, for three basic reasons. First, and perhaps most important for the emotional Burmese, Japan is considered a long-time friend, that has consistently supported their national aspirations insofar as it could. They know well that Gen. Aung San, father of the well-known opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and the father of independence in the country, was friendly toward Japan during World War II, and that Japan supported the concept of their independence long before British colonial power was willing to recognize it. The Burmese also recognize that Japan has, over the half century and more since Myanmarbecame the first Asian nation to conclude a post-World War II reparations agreement with Japan (1954), been by far the most generous donor of development assistance toMyanmar.
Burmese political realists also note Japan's formidable economic, financial and technological power. They recognize that Japan, as the largest free-market economy in Asia, has enormous potential to supply Myanmar's developmental needs, both on a concessionary and if need be on a commercial basis. They point out that in some areas there are attractive commercial opportunities for Japan, precisely due to their country's painful state of underdevelopment. They note that Burmese pharmaceutical sales -- to cite just one commercially attractive area --increased by around 19 percent last year, and that growth of 15-20 percent annually is forecast for the foreseeable future.
Burmese geo-politicians also note the advantages that geography brings to theMyanmar-Japan relationship. Japan is far enough away that it is not involved in sometimes bitter local rivalries, such as that between Myanmar and its two relatively small neighbors, Bangladesh and Thailand. Further, Japan has no immediate strategic designs to dominate their land, as they fear from the two neighboring giants, China and India.
For many Burmese political and business leaders, Japan also offers one additional attractive plus: its non-ideological approach to their developmental needs. It is a democratic nation, which clearly welcomes their slow but steady evolution toward democratic rule and market accountability under President Thein Sein. Japan appears to Burmese leaders, however, to be more pragmatic and less demanding in its requests for specific sorts of leadership and procedural changes than the United States. They also see Japanese interest in Myanmar, beyond the soon approaching 2015 Presidential elections here, when Aung San Suu Kyi may well run, to be more enduring than that of the much more distant and unpredictable United States.
For Japan, increased priority for Myanmar in Japanese foreign policy could yield broader diplomatic dividends as well, not least in Washington, D.C. The transition to democracy and closer ties between Myanmar and the G7 nations has been one of the proudest foreign-policy achievements of the Obama administration, capped by the euphoric welcome accorded President Obama when he spoke at Yangon University right after his re-election in November, 2012. The Myanmar initiative also deeply involved former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who visited Myanmar twice and has engaged intensely with Aung San Suu Kyi. So the success or failure of the Obama-Clinton initiative in bringing full democracy to Myanmar will inevitably be an issue in Clinton's likely 2016 run for the US Presidency. Japan's support for a soft landing inMyanmar is thus likely to be highly welcome in Washington, even in the face of clear, if discreet, U.S. misgivings about the Abe administration's approach to history.
An increasingly proactive Japanese policy toward Myanmar would also be appreciated in Southeast and South Asia, especially given recent developments there. Recent Chinese actions in the East and South China Seas, such as the erection of an oil-drilling rig in disputed waters just off Vietnam, have sent off alarm bells across the region, making expanded Japanese involvement increasingly welcome. Political turbulence in Thailand, including a military coup, has made stability in Myanmar all the more important. And a revived India, under dynamic, if conservative, President Narendra Modi, will no doubt also welcome greater activism by Japan. Deepened Japanese involvement in Myanmar is thus, as the philosopher William James would put it, "an idea whose time has come," for a rich variety of humanitarian, geopolitical, and diplomatic reasons. (By Kent E. Calder, Director, Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies SAIS/Johns Hopkins University, Washington, D.C.)