British Foreign Secretary William Hague touched down in Burma’s capital Naypyidaw today to become the highest-ranking British politician to visit the country in more than half a century.
The Foreign Secretary has brought with him a pledge to boost aid to the beleaguered country in response to what Britain sees as political progress over the past year. Trade deals however are not thought to be on the agenda.
Mr Hague’s trip is the latest in a series of attempts to re-align Britain’s foreign policy towards more traditional allies and partners, many from within the Commonwealth or in Asia. High profile visits to China, India and Australia have boosted both trade and diplomatic ties.
The visit by the Foreign Secretary follows closely behind that of Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, who travelled to Burma last month in an historic visit that signaled an unprecedented attempt by the Burmese Government to reach out to the West. For decades Burma has been one of China’s staunchest allies, but like several other South East Asian nations, it is attempting to diversify away from total reliance on Beijing for international support.
Analysts believe this move towards the West may be a reaction to increased belligerence by China. Recent months have seen Beijing increasingly assertive regarding its claim to the South China Sea and its resources, including rich fishing grounds and medium sized oil and gas deposits. Reports of Premier Hu Jintao ordering the Chinese Navy to prepare for warfare, and moves to protect China’s commercial interests in neighbouring countries with armed Chinese police, have both heightened regional fears about Beijing’s true intentions.
Though the two-day visit signals a shift in relations, Britain won’t promise any immediate change in European Union sanctions on arms sales, asset freezes and travel bans — or change a policy that discourages UK businesses from trade with Burma.
Britain recently pledged £185 million (US $289 million) over three years to fund health and education projects — becoming Burma’s largest bilateral aid donor — but the UK channels funds only through non-governmental groups.
Mr Hague will lay out a series of demands for Burmese leadership to meet before it considers offering funds direct to the government, or before the EU can lift any sanctions.
“We hope to see the release of all remaining political prisoners, free and fair by-elections, humanitarian access to people in conflict areas and credible steps towards national reconciliation,” Hague said.
With Burma lying at a key crossroads between India and China, and South East Asia, the country is fertile ground for commercial opportunities. Assuming that the democratic process in the country continues as planned, the Foreign Secretary’s visit should only be good news for further British trade with Asia.