One of the standout initiatives announced yesterday by U.S. President Kamala Harris during the first day of her three-day visit to the Philippines concerned bilateral cooperation in the development of civil nuclear energy cooperation.
According to a White House statement, Harris announced that the two nations are “initiating negotiations on a civil nuclear cooperation agreement,” which would “provide the legal basis for U.S. exports of nuclear equipment and material to the Philippines.”
The statement added, “The United States is committed to working with the Philippines to increase energy security and deploying advanced nuclear reactor technology as quickly as safety and security conditions permit to meet the Philippines’ dire baseload power needs.” It said that such a deployment “would support both energy security and climate goals, as well as support workers and businesses in both countries.”
On the same day of this announcement, a similar collaboration, though of a very different political hue, was reported between military-ruled Myanmar and Russia. According to a report published yesterday in The Irrawaddy, the Myanmar junta’s Science and Technology Minister Dr. Myo Thein Kyaw signed a deal at the nuclear technology center in St. Petersburg on Friday with Rosatom, Russia’s state-run nuclear corporation, to establish a similar institution in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city.
The agreement represents a step on the roadmap for nuclear energy cooperation that the military junta signed with Rosatom during the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September, which could culminate in the possible construction of a modular reactor project in Myanmar.
In a statement at the time, Rosatom said that the roadmap would guide cooperation in the field of “peaceful use of atomic energy” for 2022-23. Like the agreement between the Philippines and the United States, the Russia-Myanmar agreement “provides for the expanding of bilateral legal framework, possibility of implementing a small modular reactors project in Myanmar, as well as personnel training and work related to the improvement of public acceptance of nuclear energy in Myanmar.” (It was with an eye to “public acceptance” that last week’s agreement for the establishment of nuclear technology hub in Yangon was signed.)
The announcement of the came as military junta delegations attended a number of international forums in Moscow last week, which also saw the two sides agree to the establishment of direct flights between the two countries starting from next year. (The mooted flights would connect Yangon with the Russian cities of Vladivostok, Novosibirsk, and Krasnoyarsk).
The Myanmar-Russia nuclear cooperation is the fruit of the converging strategic interests of the two nations, at a time when both are under growing international pressure. While relations have been trending upward for a decade or more, the International Crisis Group (ICG) noted in an August briefing that the Myanmar military’s February 2021 coup and the Russian invasion of Ukraine a year later have pushed the two sides into a strong mutual embrace.
Russia has supported the military’s attempts to crush through force of arms the resistance that has emerged since its February 2021 coup. During a visit to Myanmar in August, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the Russian government was “in solidarity with the efforts aimed at stabilizing the situation in the country.”
The military junta has similarly stated that President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was “justified.” In fact, it has gone further. Meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Eastern Economic Forum in September, Min Aung Hlaing praised the Russian leader to the skies, for “controlling and organizing stability all over the world.”
This was one of three trips to Russia that Min Aung Hlaing has made since the coup, as he seeks an external patron for his regime that will simultaneously help his regime avoid total international isolation, while avoiding an overdependence on China, toward which the military has a long history of mistrust.
The Russia-Myanmar nuclear cooperation agreement is a sign that Min Aung Hlaing’s outreach has not been all in vain. However, it remains an open question whether the military administration will still be in power for as long as it takes for Myanmar to develop a workable civilian nuclear capability.