As Burma Turns West, China Looks North

 China's Vice President Xi Jinping is flanked by Burmese President Thein Sein and Laos's Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong during the opening ceremony of the China-Asean Expo in Nanning, China, on Sept. 23, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

China’s Vice President Xi Jinping is flanked by Burmese President Thein Sein and Laos’s Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong during the opening ceremony of the China-Asean Expo in Nanning, China, on Sept. 23, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

Even though Burma has insisted that its fast-improving relationship with the United States will not come at the expense of ties with its huge neighbor to the north, China doesn’t seem to see it that way.

Since last year, China has seen its once rock-solid relations with Burma’s former ruling junta crumble under a wave of reforms in the one-time pariah state. Seen from Beijing, however, the changes in Burma are not primarily about the democratization of a country that has spent 50 years under military rule, but about American efforts to hem in China’s growing influence in the region.

Last week’s announcement by US defense officials that Washington is planning to take “nascent steps” toward military cooperation with the Burmese armed forces was just the latest sign that Burma is rapidly slipping away from its erstwhile patron. Coming just weeks after a historic visit by US President Barack Obama, the move has cemented perceptions in China that its southern flank has grown dangerously vulnerable.

Since the beginning of this year, when the Obama administration started shifting Washington’s attention to China’s backyard, the alarm bells have been going off in Beijing. Speaking at the Pentagon on Jan. 5, Obama announced a new American military strategy, including “leaner” US forces and a renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific region. Following the strategic vision outlined in a defense report titled “Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century,” Obama declared that the US would reduce the size of its armed forces and its military presence in Europe, but commit more resources to maintaining “security and prosperity” in the Far East.

This “rebalancing” act is not a complete break with the past. The US has been heavily involved in Asia since the end of WWII, forming military alliances with countries throughout the region and basing tens of thousands of troops in areas considered key to regional security. Even after the end of the Cold War, Washington continued to regard East and Southeast Asia as strategically important. But following 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Asia-Pacific region was put on the security back burner—a development that prompted Obama, in the final year of his first term in office, to declare his “pivot” back to East Asia.

The reason for this reorientation is clear: China’s growing influence in the region is increasingly seen as a threat to the US and its allies, and has even pushed non-allies such as Burma and Vietnam closer to Washington, which hopes to reestablish itself as the chief guarantor of security in the region.

“America uses its power to undercut Chinese influence in Asia in a clever way,” Li Kaisheng, a professor of international politics at China’s Xiangtan University, told The Irrawaddy. “They make full use of long-existing problems between China and its neighboring countries, getting involved in disputes to dilute Chinese influence in the region.”

But even as China’s troubles enable the US to strengthen its position in Asia, Washington also has problems of its own that will make it difficult for it to exert too much influence.

“The financial crisis in the United States still has a strong impact on its military strength,” said Ni Feng, deputy director of the Institute of American Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Moreover, added Ni, the situation in the Middle East is still far from settled. “The Arab-Israeli conflict, the [Iran] nuclear issue, Afghanistan, Syria, terrorism and the wave of violent anti-Americanism are still giving the Americans a lot to worry about.”

At the same time, the Asia-Pacific countries are also wary of the growing rivalry between Washington and Beijing now that China has become the largest trading partner of most of its neighbors, and an important mutual investment partner with many.

“Mutual benefit is the essence of the relationship between China and neighboring countries. Generally, [China’s neighbors] don’t want to see a serious collision between China and the United States, which would force them to pick sides,” Ni added.

Regarding Burma, China still sounds fairly confident that it can retain a position of some influence in the country. Speaking recently about Sino-Burmese relations, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei reiterated that the two countries have a long-term friendship that won’t be easily broken. “We are looking forward to continuing the strategic partnership between our two countries,” he said.

But just in case things do take a turn for the worse for China in Southeast Asia, Beijing is actively courting closer ties with Russia, another country with which it has had a long and sometimes rocky relationship.

During a Dec. 19 meeting with a United Russia Party delegation led by Boris Gryzlov, the chairman of the party’s supreme council, Xi Jinping, the general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, said that China is “ready to work with Russia to develop a bilateral comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination, ensuring that new CPC leaders will adhere to a friendly policy towards Russia and prioritize the development of China-Russia ties.”

Just one day later, Russian President Vladimir Putin also stressed that Russia-China relations are “at a very high level” and that the two countries should continue their effective cooperation in international affairs.

The Chinese government mouthpiece The Global Times pointed out that the armed forces of both China and Russia are sufficient to defend their own interests, and that a joint collaboration between them is conducive to regional stability. But analysts say that the significance of strategic cooperation between China and Russia lies not only in dealing with specific coordination in international affairs, but in breaking the interference of foreign powers in regional affairs.

“First there was the Libya war, and now there’s Syria. This pattern of instability shows that the international situation has become quite serious,” said Wu Xinbo, the deputy director of the Center for American Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University. “Without cooperation between [China and Russia], regime change in sovereign nations due to external interference is likely to become the new norm. This is a dangerous and insecure situation,” he said.

6 Responses to As Burma Turns West, China Looks North

  1. The Burmese government may still want to be friend with communist China, but the people do not even want to hear the name “CHINA”.

  2. I don’t think the Chinese are giving up on Burma. It’s such a convenient vassal state for Peking. They are using the 2B-tactics (bullying and bribery) together with the 2Y-strategy (surplus of Yuan and Y -chromosomes (one-chld policy) to invade Burma with illegal “business immigrants” who will destroy the environment (not just at Letpadaung and Hpakant) but also rip apart the traditional social fabric of Burma (drug-trafficking, human-trafficking, casinos, brothels, etc.). This has already happened to a large extent around Mandalay and in the border areas.

  3. China is a big country with a lot of people therefore a lot criminals, if these criminals are not in power, they are targeted, they escape China, Burma is an lawless and easy target, no surprise, nothing new. Russia/China relations are just talk, again nothing new. China’s real front is Japan and S.China Sea, we dont need a cold war proxy between China and US, the world needs healing not more wounds, Burma is big enough and has enough problems for both Chinese and West to help solve.

  4. It is wasting our time to blame all foreign countries , particularly China , USA, India and Singapore. All know that there is no free lunch in the world. Bama king also invaded and bullied Mon &Thai in history when bama king was powerful. When bama military thugs are powerful, those thugs are killing and raping Burmese ethnics. When USDP (unethnical sithar-solider disorder party ) is weaker than China, but stronger than all in Burmese, USDP needs to clean Chinese and Russian shoes for their survival. In fact, Burma is rich of natural resource as well as rare of natural disasters, compared to other Asia countries (Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Philippines ). Therefore, Burma itself does not need to knee down any other foreign countries for our own economy. All Burmese learned or learn to be living poor because of teaching of self-fish, unethical bama military rulers ( among them, than shwe is the most cruel ) on us. In addition, during British occupation in Burma , old Burmese said it is a good century ( Khit-Kong in Burmese language ) when they compared with the all bama rulings ( from U Nu to now) after bama independece. Late General Aung San called for the help of Japan and British alternately to use his political maneuver to gain Burmese independence. Unfortunately and ultimately, it becomes bama military independence. Now, NLD (non-capable lady dynasty) is applying “the rule of law” in Burma to gain democracy. Rule of law is not applied in Panglong agreement but in Rohingya issue and copper mining . China declares that it deals with bama military thugs in all businesses according to bama laws as well as consideration of the sake of poor Burmese. 2-B (bribe and bullying ), drug, human trafficking, Casino, brothel and etc are everywhere in the world as it is not started from China. See the reason of Hong Kong, 100 years occupied by British in the loss of opium war for China. However, Hong Kong is still good for democracy , compared to China but deteriorating gradually (see Hong Kong housing policy).
    China 2-Y (Yuan-dollar and one y-son chromosome policy ) is good enough for becoming giant China in future. Bama military thugs is implementing x-policy (x-girl chromosome policy ) for selling all ethnic girls to Chinese farmers as well as other neighbor countries for making money (kyat). Ethnic males (Y-chromosome ) can transforming ethnic fighting rebels so kill them as possible as than shwe and thein sein can. Importing and welcome to Chinese male (y) to Burma is benefit for their partners, crony. Bama military economic “kyat” policy (k-policy) is in failure because of too much rubbish (copper, jade mining and Myitstone power plants ) , pilling by corrupted , thief than shwe and his crony. General Aung San’s “kyat slogan speech” (k-policy) is effective to persuade all Burmese ethnics for bama independence from “good century”(khit-kong) to dark century of all Burmese ethnics. Let see what is the outcome of our bama military “k-x policy” in future with the help of NLD (non-capable lady dynasty) although bama military thugs are copying General Aung San’s tactics (alternating shining Chinese and USA shoes for bama military survival instead of Japan and British ).

    • All Irrawaddy allowed as ‘reader’s comments’ are pro-Western, pro-American, anti-Chinese ones. We all know it’s funded by you-know-who. We aren’t born yesterday, you know. “Fair and balanced” to paraphrase a certain right-wing American TV channel, it is not!

  5. “A good neighbor (especially the world’s largest population and a rising superpower) is better to have than a distant relative (are Americans relatives?)”

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