To remind readers of the shifting sands upon which regional and international relations are built, we revisit David I Steinberg’s special report for The Irrawaddy magazine’s May 2013 issue on the state of Myanmar-China relations in 2013, a time when the government of then-President Thein Sein appeared to be seeking closer ties with the US at China’s expense.
An impressive memorial to Sino-Burmese friendship in the Chinese town of Mangshi, Yunnan Province, commemorates the paukphaw (sibling) friendship that idealizes relations between these two countries.
This relationship was also captured in an emblematic Chinese poem from 1956 about the two peoples drinking the same river water, living by the rivers and climbing the mountains; they “share everlasting happiness.” A symbolic statue of two ethereal figures carrying water frames one of the border crossings, representing both countries. Zhou Enlai, the first prime minister of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and U Nu, Burma’s first prime minister under the 1947 Constitution, developed a close, warm relationship.
And yet, when the cultural revolution came to Rangoon a decade later with riots, the public’s economic and political frustrations against Burma’s government were redirected at the local Chinese population, leading to dozens of Chinese deaths and extensive looting. The Chinese privately deplored Gen Ne Win’s Socialist ideology, known as the “Burmese Way to Socialism,” which they described as state capitalism and anti-Marxist despite official endorsement.
Following these riots, China actively supported Burma’s Communist Party that sought to overthrow Ne Win’s administration, reasoning that party-to-party relations were quite different from state-to-state relations. China did not criticize Burma’s government for the repression of nationwide pro-democracy protests in 1988; the next year, Burma did not condemn China over the Tiananmen Square protests.
In the era of Burma’s State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which later became the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), collaboration between both countries intensified to an unprecedented magnitude. China opened borders, increased trade and provided massive investment in military equipment and training, infrastructure and extractive industries. The illegal migration of about two million Chinese into Burma with their business acumen increased China’s negative visibility. This relationship culminated in May 2011 when both countries signed a comprehensive strategic economic partnership.
Relations were, however, circumspect. To China, Burma was “a beggar with a golden bowl,” asking for aid despite extensive natural resources. The Burmese, always careful about their northern neighbor, developed a saying: “When China spits, Burma swims.”
To the West, especially in journalistic circles and even some governments, Burma was known as a “client state” of China. This was, however, a simplistic analysis, equating money and presence with dependence.
True, China was a “protector” of Burma in 2007 when it joined Russia in vetoing a US-introduced resolution that claimed the Southeast Asian pariah state was a threat to regional peace and security. Meanwhile, as a condition of Chinese diplomatic recognition, Burma stated from its inception that there was only one China, which included Taiwan.
David I. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.
There were other mutual bonds. Burma’s government wanted Chinese protection against what it anticipated might be a US invasion, with worries stemming from US policies of “regime change,” or recognition of the National League for Democracy’s sweep on the 1990 elections, under former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Although ludicrous to Americans, this was a palpable fear in Burma, perhaps providing a partial rationale for moving the capital from Rangoon to Naypyidaw, an air command from Mingaladon to Meikthila in central Burma, and a naval regional headquarters from Sittwe inland to An.
China wanted access to the Bay of Bengal and Burma’s natural gas and hydroelectric power, along with the ability to bypass the vulnerable Malacca Strait, which is subject to bottleneck by any power attempting to contain China. A strong Chinese position in Burma might also strengthen China’s claims to the disputed 96,000 square kilometer area of Arunachal Pradesh, occupied by India.
Although Burma’s contemporary relations with China seem to mirror the traditional Confucian Sino-centric tribute system under which the court at Mandalay sent delegations to Beijing, there are significant differences. Other factors now play critical roles. Burma won the border dispute with China, whose Nationalist and Communist governments both claimed large areas of northern Burma as Chinese territory. In the settlement of 1960, negotiated by Ne Win but signed by U Nu, China wanted to show the international community that it was not a predatory state, and Burma was the easiest country with which to demonstrate this attitude.
Today, Chinese critical investment in Burma is not like that of a developed state seeking low-cost, labor-intensive sites for its industries; companies cannot quickly pull out their sewing machines or equipment and move to other, even lower-cost labor markets. Rather, major Chinese investments are permanent structures coordinated with China’s national developmental plans and investment. The productivity and usefulness of these investments to China depend on good relations with Burma. Burma thus has a distinctly advantageous position; China needs it more than it needs China.
Because of the attempted isolation of Burma by the United States and the European Union through incremental sanctions policies, China assumed a far larger role than might otherwise have been the case, but the East Asian superpower never had a free hand in Burma.
Burma’s government quietly vetoed a Chinese plan to turn the Irrawaddy River port of Bhamo, near the Chinese border, into a container site for shipments into the Bay of Bengal. More obvious was the example of President Thein Sein’s decision to stop construction of the Myitsone dam in 2011 on the basis that he was listening to negative public opinion. This $3.6 billion dam was intended to supply power to Yunnan Province, but public outcry on environmental and emotional grounds was too great.
China was disconcerted by that event, not believing public opinion in Burma could play an important role after some half-century of military control and repression. Beijing unofficially but authoritatively blamed the United States for fomenting anti-Chinese sentiment through Burma’s NGOs. The level of trust between China and Burma seemed to have precipitously dropped after that time.
This distrust was exacerbated by Burma-US relations, which improved as Burma’s government continued to liberalize, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visiting the Southeast Asian country in December 2011 and President Barack Obama stopping by in November last year.
The Chinese formal response to these changed international relations have been judicious and moderate, but in the country’s controlled press, one paper said the Clinton trip was “undermining the [Chinese] wall in Myanmar [Burma].”
Considerable speculation exists as to why Thein Sein’s government has so assiduously endorsed improved relations with the United States. Many factors seem likely, but one relates to the Burma-China relationship, which some in Burma have regarded as too close. An improved US relationship not only brings US assistance, but more importantly opens lending by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. It also encourages large-scale assistance from Japan, which views too close a Burma-China relationship as inimical to its long-term interests by strengthening China in East Asia.
To the Chinese, US direct assistance cannot replace or even compete with Chinese support. One Chinese wrote that US aid was likely to be as “beautiful moonlight on the river,” nice to view but ephemeral and unsubstantial.
Burma had a tradition of neutralism that was important to its survival during the Cold War. Although the policy was anathema to both China’s Chairman Mao and US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, it was a sound approach to, as they say, “living in a dangerous neighborhood.” Burma was always neutral, but “in China’s shadow.”
The current movement toward the United States, which has resulted in the best US-Burma relations since independence in 1948, will likely evolve into a more balanced, more modern neutralist stance, although China continues to perceive US relations with Burma as part of a US “containment” policy.
Still, China’s interests are partly served by the reforms on which improved US-Burma relations are based. China likely fears two potential events in Burma. The first is a general uprising along the lines of the failed people’s revolution in 1988. This chaos, whatever the result, would jeopardize Chinese infrastructure security, especially at two vital pipelines for offshore Burma gas and Middle Eastern and African crude oil. It would also limit the development of Yunnan Province, which is now effectively dependent on trade with Burma to improve low standards of living.
Although Burma’s political and economic reforms have strongly reduced the possibility of a popular uprising, they are a double-edged sword: The reforms improve the business climate with positive impacts on the Chinese, but they will also increase international competition. More liberal censorship policies may placate the public, but they also allow freer expression of anti-Chinese sentiment.
The second issue is minority unrest and insurrections in Burma that directly affect important Chinese infrastructure. For example, fighting in Burma’s Kachin State between armed rebel groups and the government army have caused instability along the Chinese border, with an influx of refugees and shells falling into Yunnan Province. The unrest has become a major hindrance to Chinese businesses.
A large percentage of the Yunnan population are also ethnic and linguistic cousins of the Kachin people; Beijing does not want the conflict to result in ethnic problems in China or the potential support of Jinghpaw (Kachin) people in Yunnan Province to their brethren in Burma.
So, despite China’s continued insistence that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of neighboring states, it has moved somewhat uncomfortably to participate in the negotiating process (“intervening but not interfering”) between Kachin rebels and Burma’s government. In addition to resolving a potential danger, perhaps China has gotten involved in negotiations in a bid to prevent the United States from doing so.
Burma’s army, the Tatmadaw, is said to be highly nationalistic in Kachin State toward both the Kachin people and the Chinese. China may have a vested and economic interest in tranquility there, but they cannot be seen as weak or subservient to internal or external pressure.
Burma must obviously act gingerly with Beijing, as it has always done, but the strong nationalism of its diverse peoples will prevent it from becoming a pawn of any state, even one as powerful as China, the colossus looming over their northern frontier.