Challenge and opportunity for Myanmar as it assumes 2014 ASEAN chair


A country with over 52 million people, Myanmar continues to address social, political, and economic issues in its recent transition toward liberalization.

Is Myanmar ready to lead ASEAN? What are the most critical challenges (both internal and external) that Myanmar will face as the ASEAN chair in 2014?

It is conventional to think of Myanmar as being "tested" by the need to prepare in 2014 for the declaration of the existence of an ASEAN Community by the end of 2015. And that of course is a plausible focus for anyone who would reply to the given questions. But it might also be interesting to think beyond ASEAN's schedule and ask what "black swans" could be swimming, e.g. in the South China Sea. Beijing has stated that its declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over contested parts of the East China Sea could be repeated for other airspaces, including presumably the huge block of air above the South China Sea.

So far ASEAN has managed to keep a low (and divided) profile on the imbroglio over who owns what in the South China Sea. Myanmar, if it is chairing ASEAN when China announces its South China Sea ADIZ, will face pressure from inside ASEAN to do more than merely reassert faith in the delayed segue from a Declaration of Conduct to a Code of Conduct.

Various scenarios are of course possible, including a decision in Beijing not to pivot southward, at least not until the anger over its eastward ADIZ has subsided. But one should not assume that the success of Myanmar-in-the-chair in 2014 will be a function solely of its ability to help welcome a "white swan," i.e. to oversee preparations for celebrating the inauguration of a regional community to which no one really objects.

This commentary was originally carried by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University (Singapore) in their bulletin, Multilateral MattersIssue 10, January 2014.