The Great Game Over Burma

By Aung Zaw 11 April 2013

This is the last of three special reports about shifting Burma-China relations as the former pariah state opens up to the rest of the world. The first two reports were published earlier this week.

The recent political opening in Burma surprised many neighboring countries, including China. The government’s reforms have no doubt received welcome applause, but for Burma’s traditional friends and foes, they have also created room for new competition in the country. The rules of the game have changed quickly in Burma, and the world is watching to see how international relations, particularly with China, shift in turn.

Since Burma regained independence from the British in 1948, leaders and diplomats at the Foreign Affairs Ministry have devoted most of their time, energy and resources to improving ties with China. We have seen rocky relations as well as honeymoon periods between both countries.

In the past, China has openly supported Burma’s banned Communist Party. At points, the East Asian superpower even dispatched troops to the northern territory of Kachin State—forcing Burma to set rounds of border demarcation meetings in the 1950s and 1960s. Burma also saw anti-China riots in 1967, as Beijing stirred up disturbances by encouraging Chinese agents to support Communist cells in the country during the Cultural Revolution period.

Although both countries signed a treaty of friendship and mutual non-aggression based on five principles of peaceful coexistence, China has sometimes breached these core principles to test the paukphaw relationship, while Burma has avoided antagonizing its northern neighbor.

Though many Burmese political observers dislike Gen Ne Win, who came to power through a coup in 1962 and ruled Burma with an iron fist until his regime was ousted in 1988, some give him credit for playing a “neutral” foreign policy during the Cold War, which they say saved Burma from becoming the puppet of any giant power in the region or the West. For the Chinese Communist Party, Burma served as a buffer zone to deter proxies of the West along with India and the Soviet Union.

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]dy.org.
Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

Certainly, however, in the back of their minds, Burma’s leaders have always feared China. Burma’s late Prime Minister U Nu, who held numerous meetings with Chinese leaders to settle several disputes, once publicly expressed this fear in a statement after the Chinese Communist Party assumed power in 1949. “Our tiny nation cannot have the effrontery to quarrel with any power,” he said. “And least among these, could Burma afford to quarrel with new China?”

But the situation is changing now. Last weekend, Burma’s President Thein Sein visited China, where he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. During his three-day visit for the Boao Forum, a summit of government and business leaders, Thein Sein played relatively safe but firmly stressed that Burma would practice an independent and active foreign policy while still adhering to the five principles of peaceful coexistence. He said Burma would focus more on developing ties with other countries in the Southeast Asian region. He also urged China to invest responsibly Burma and to earn the trust of local Burmese people.

As Burma’s leaders continue to forge close relations with the West and other Southeast Asian nations, the Chinese, like everyone else, are preparing to adapt.

Recently, the outgoing Chinese ambassador publicly met democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw. Chinese diplomats have acknowledged previous meetings between them. To handle Burma going forward, China has appointed a veteran diplomat in Asian affairs, Yang Houlan, who served in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and South Korea. His appointment is reminiscent of the past. In 1963, a year after Ne Win took power, China appointed Geng Biao as vice foreign minister to Burma. Geng Biao was a senior diplomat who had served missions in Europe soon after the formation of the People’s Republic of China.

In the face of rising Western influence, it is likely that China will employ “soft power” to win back the hearts and minds of the Burmese people. During a previous visit, Thein Sein confessed a fondness for Chinese television dramas. “Since childhood, I’ve been watching Chinese television,” the president told China Radio International.

On the political front, Yang Houlan’s appointment as ambassador and China’s involvement in ceasefire talks between Kachin rebels and the Burmese government are signs that Beijing is serious about settling Burma’s lingering ethnic conflicts, which have threatened border stability as well as Chinese gas pipelines and a railway project in the country. Kachin military leader Gen Gun Maw, who is now involved in ceasefire dialogues with the Burmese government, told The Irrawaddy that Kachin leaders asked international observers including the United States, the United Kingdom and the United Nations to observe the peace talks, but that the Chinese did not want any outsiders (i.e. Westerners) getting involved. Instead, China invited the Burmese government and Kachin leaders to hold a series of meetings on Chinese soil.

A stable and prosperous Burma will no doubt benefit everyone. However, Burma’s improved relations with the West, and particularly with the United States, will complicate relations with China. The more Burma improves ties with the West, the more Western influence in the country is expected to rise.

Burma has seen growing anti-China sentiment at home. Most ordinary people in the country were repulsed by Beijing’s support for the previous brutal regime, and many continue to protest against China’s extraction of natural resources with little regard for the environment and local populations. Some critics say China has only given its support to exploit Burma’s natural resources and gain strategic access to the Indian Ocean.

China is Burma’s largest investor, channeling between US $14 billion and $20 billion into the country since 1988. Energy-hungry China has poured money into hydropower projects in the country’s ethnic regions, and its three major oil corporations have a strong foothold. Many Burmese worry that Chinese investments and aid programs are like a Trojan horse. However, given the government’s suspension of the China-funded Myitsone dam project and public protests over the controversial Letpadaung copper mine, it seems likely that civil society groups will target many more Chinese-backed projects in the future and that these investments will become political time bombs.

The fact is that Burma no longer needs to hide behind China. Nevertheless, pundits argue that Beijing will not let go easily. When former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Burma for the first time in November 2011, Chinese leaders played it coy. The Global Times newspaper, a mouthpiece for the Chinese government, wrote during Clinton’s visit that China did not resist Burma’s attempts to improve relations with the West but would not accept “seeing its interests stomped on.” The message was clear: China would not tolerate Burma becoming an ally of the United States.

In October 2011, Burma announced its decision to suspend construction of the Myitsone dam in Kachin State, a project that had provoked strong public opposition. China was bewildered by the announcement, which came just five months after Thein Sein’s first official visit to Beijing, where he signed nine cooperation agreements including a $765 million credit package and a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.

But the question remained, would Burma turn against China? The answer is simple: no. Burma doesn’t yet have that luxury.

It will be interesting to watch how Burma handles the delicate balancing act between China and the rest of the world, maintaining its old alliance while proving it is not a satellite state. Burma’s generals are well versed in the art of pitting international powers against one another. But if Burma falters at the game this time, the country’s leaders will no doubt face accusations of playing with fire.

Just before her trip to Burma in 2011, Clinton, who announced the US policy of a pivot toward Asia, received a counterbalancing message from Naypyidaw: Gen Min Aung Hlaing, commander in chief of Burma’s armed forces, flew to China to meet with then Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping. The military chief signed a defense cooperation agreement, and the two sides talked of enhancing their comprehensive strategic partnership.

At home, Thein Sein told Clinton that Burma would continue its relationship with China while strengthening ties with other countries. He pointedly called Beijing a strong, geopolitically important partner that had encouraged Burma to improve relations with the West. Ironically, China secretly hosted a rare meeting between Burma and US officials in Beijing just four years earlier, in 2007.

In September 2012, before making his first official visit to the United States, Thein Sein traveled to China. Ne Win, the former dictator, likewise received Chinese leaders in Rangoon before making trips to the West, and they urged him not to make political commitments to the United States.

Washington is also being careful not to upset China. During his historic visit to Burma in November last year, President Barack Obama said in a speech that the United States welcomed China’s peaceful rise. And when asked whether US policies in Burma centered on relations with China, US Ambassador Derek Mitchell told The Irrawaddy that his country’s increasing engagement was “about Burma.”

“It’s always been about Burma,” he said.  “There’s a misunderstanding in China, and even among some commentators, that everything we do in Asia is about containing China or encircling China, but that’s simply not the case. Our policy toward Burma has been about Burma for 20 years, 25 years, before China was so-called rising or reemerging. Our policy toward Burma is evolving because Burma itself is evolving.”

Burma and the United States both understand they must not agitate China. But almost everyone else in Burma, except for those embedded with the Chinese, seem more than ready to welcome the West. They know it is the best way to counter Chinese influence.

Though it has sparked ongoing debate in Naypyidaw among top leaders and opposition members, Burma’s bid to escape China’s shadow is obvious. Last year, Min Aung Hlaing visited China’s historical adversary Vietnam before going to Beijing. In addition to visiting China soon after his appointment to the presidency, Thein Sein went to India, indicating a desire to diversify Burma’s portfolio of strategic partners in the region. His former boss Snr-Gen Than Shwe did the same, making two state visits—to China and India—before leaving his throne.

Burma also seeks to expand defense ties with its neighbors. In the past, Burmese leaders allegedly allowed China’s listening posts and a radar facility on Burma’s Great Coco Island, reportedly to monitor regional military activities, especially air and naval movements in the Bay of Bengal, and to conduct surveillance of India’s strategically important tri-service facilities at Port Blair on South Andaman Island. But in March, Burma and India conducted joint naval exercises and patrols in the Bay of Bengal, while India also reportedly ran a training program for Burma’s armed forces, including exercises for pilots of the Russian-built Mi-35 helicopter gunships.

In February, Burma also sent its two frigates, UMS 561 and UMS 562, to the Thai island of Phuket for the first time in 18 years. Thanasak Patimaprakorn, supreme commander of the Thai armed forces, said in Bangkok that the visit of the Burmese ships was intended to celebrate 65 years of diplomatic ties between both countries, with expectations for closer military ties going forward.

Since improving relations with the West, Burma has been invited by the United States to observe the annual Cobra Gold military exercise in Thailand. In the near future, the United States will likely provide non-lethal training to Burma’s army officers. And last month, Australia announced it was lifting restrictions on military engagement with Burma in recognition of the country’s democratic reforms.

Burma will probably bolster relations with Japan as well. Ties between both countries date back to the World War II era, and Japan’s interests run deep in Burma. Not wanting to miss the train now, Tokyo recently decided to resume aid in Burma, and more Japanese companies and NGOs will soon play a counterbalancing role against Chinese influence.

As a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Burma could also assume a proactive role in the regional grouping, as it did during the golden days of the 1950s. Ironically, Asean allowed Burma to join in 1997 because it wanted to pull the pariah state from China’s sphere of influence, but Burma’s reliance on its northern neighbor deepened. Now 15 years later, Burma must act with urgency to develop a foreign relations strategy for the world—not just China—as it integrates more with Asean, India and the rest of Asia.

Of course, Burma must get its house in order first, paying serious attention on the domestic front to its northern territory, where the national government has never been able to establish its law and order. (In 2010, Burma could not hold elections in the Wa region, and soon afterward fierce fighting broke out in Kachin State.)

But as the country continues opening up, Burma will test its independent and active foreign policy when it hosts Asean foreign ministers in 2014 at a summit in the country. Everyone will watch to see how the former pariah state exerts its emerging international status to placate neighbors and new friends from the West.