Bertil Lintner: ‘China is the Most Important Foreign Player in the Peace Process’

By The Irrawaddy 17 August 2016

It’s complicated: In an interview with The Irrawaddy, longtime Burma expert Bertil Lintner assesses the many interests at play during State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to China on Wednesday.

As a Burmese government delegation led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi leaves for a state visit to China, what can the Burmese expect from this trip?

It is quite possible that China would want to restart the Myitsone project, but that would be political suicide for any Burmese government. If China wants to improve its tarnished image in Burma, it should drop Myitsone altogether, and also make a public announcement to that effect.

The Burmese have always been concerned about China interfering in Burma’s internal affairs. In the North, China continues to support ethnic rebels including the Wa and Kokang. At the last ethnic summit in Mai Ja Yang, the Chinese envoy said that it supports and backs all forces working to achieve internal peace in Burma. It seems Beijing wants to see more stability along the border.

It is important to remember that China, not some Western, self-appointed peacemakers and interlocutors, is the most important foreign player in the peace process. China wants peace and stability along the border, but it will not give up the leverage it has inside Burma by severing ties with the UWSA [United Wa State Army], the MNDAA [Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army], the NDAA [National Democratic Alliance Army, also known as the Mongla Group] and other ethnic armed organizations. China’s relations with those groups gives it bargaining chips, and a much stronger position in the peace process than any Norwegian, Swiss or Australian entity could ever hope for.

Do you think China is more pragmatic in dealing with Suu Kyi? In the past, Beijing officials reportedly complained about Burmese generals’ intransigence and corruption. Can you tell whether Suu Kyi and President Xi Jinping are prepared to turn a new page? What are the key challenges in improving ties?

It is obvious that China, at least for the time being, seems more comfortable dealing with Suu Kyi than the Tatmadaw, which is eager to re-establish military-to-military relations with the West in order to lessen the dependence on China. But at the same time, China knows that the military, not the elected government, is the country’s most powerful institution. The military controls the Defense, Home and Border Affairs ministries, and the Tatmadaw is an autonomous institution that takes orders from the commander-in-chief, not the president or the state counselor. China would have to play a delicate balancing act here, and, perhaps, even play the government against the military.

How do you see China evaluating and viewing the substantial rise of Western influence in Burma? Beijing seemed to be caught off guard when the country began opening up in 2011 and 2012. But since last year, it has been more aggressively engaging Burma and has launched more public relations offensives, inviting opposition members—including Suu Kyi—to Beijing. Last week we saw Song Tao, the head of the International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China meet almost every key leader in Burma.

China is no doubt worried about Western inroads into Burma, especially the possibility of military-to-military relations with the US, which was suggested by William C. Dickey, ex defense attaché to Burma, in a recent article. Dickey stated that “moves by other Western as well as Asian countries to develop bilateral military ties with Myanmar suggest it is time for the US to change its approach and actively assist in transforming the country’s armed forces—just as Washington has successfully done with other Southeast Asian military forces.” Many would argue that the US has a very poor record of transforming its allied military forces into more democratic institutions, just look at Thailand, Egypt and Turkey. Although Dickey doesn’t mention it, it is clear to any observer that he is talking about getting Burma away from its hitherto heavy dependence on China. Regional security issues, not human rights and democracy, are at the top of Pentagon’s priorities in the region.

Western governments, including the US, usually take the moral high ground by maintaining sanctions and making statements on human rights issues. But it seems Beijing is more pragmatic and more focused on not losing its important geopolitical strategic partner and business interests at all costs. Who is going to be winner in this so-called “great game” over Burma in the end?

Although human rights are not the most important issue for the US, it can’t ignore such concerns and it has to raise objections if human rights are being violated. China has no such problem, and would not risk losing the influence it still has in Burma because of any human rights issue. That’s a severe dilemma for the US and the West.

How do you see Suu Kyi rebalancing Burma’s foreign policy with rest of Asia and beyond, as she has been seen as pro-West in the past? She once said that she wants to make friends with the rest of the world.

It remains to be seen how she, as Burma’s foreign minister, is going to balance relations with China and Japan and the West. But one has to remember that China is an immediate neighbor with vital strategic interests in Burma. The US, and even Japan, are far away. It would be impossible for any government in Burma to ignore the importance of China.

Aside from controversial Myitsone project, the oil and gas pipeline and proposed rail link between Sittwe and Yunnan is much more important. With it, China will gain access to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. To China, Burma will serve as a geo-political strategic buffer zone. Do you see India and Japan as major players in the future to counter China’s comprehensive strategic ambition?

Absolutely, and we can see how the prime ministers of the two countries, Shinzo Abe in Japan and Narendra Modi in India, are becoming close friends and allies. What they have in common is concern over the rise of China. India has long considered the Indian Ocean their “lake,” and do not want China to establish footholds there. Japan is worried about China’s increasingly assertive policies in the entire region.