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September 25, 2017

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US-Myanmar ties force China rethink

BANGKOK -- After years of almost unchallenged dominance, China's influence in Myanmar is under threat as the United States and other nations seek closer ties with the former pariah state, experts say.

The Asian economic powerhouse has long helped keep Myanmar afloat through trade ties, arms sales, and by shielding it from U.N. sanctions over rights abuses as a veto-wielding, permanent member of the Security Council.

In return, China was assured of a stable neighbor and access to Myanmar's oil, gas and other natural resources.

But since Myanmar's military ceded power last year, China has lost some of its leverage over the country formerly known as Burma.

European and U.S. firms are no longer banned from doing business there, leaving them scrambling to catch up with rivals from China, India and elsewhere in Asia in the competition for its resources and consumer markets.

U.S. President Barack Obama's historic visit to Yangon this week was the clearest indication yet of the sea change in relations under way between Washington and Myanmar.

Myanmar is now in the process of reversing its long-standing dependence on Beijing, said Renaud Egreteau, a Myanmar expert at the University of Hong Kong.

"It's clear that the monopoly era is finished," he said, while adding that "strong influence will remain."

The U.S. diplomatic offensive, part of a strategic "tilt" towards the Pacific in the face of a rising China, became clear with a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a year ago and has frayed nerves in Beijing.

"America will use more nonmilitary means to slow or obstruct China's rise," according to Yuan Peng, director of the China Institute of Contemporary International Affairs.

Washington will pursue its goal "by strengthening alliances and upgrading partnerships and driving wedges in China's relationships with North Korea, Pakistan and Myanmar," he wrote in a commentary earlier this year.

China and Myanmar's "deep-seated" relationship will not disappear overnight, however, said Professor Chen Qi, a foreign relations expert at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

"If Myanmar is gaining international support, then China will need greater diplomatic skill to maintain its relationship."

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