An Uneasy Alliance
By Kyaw Zwa Moe 4 April 2015
Myanmar and China have long stressed the “pauk-phaw” or “fraternal” nature of their bilateral relationship. But the comforting catchphrase belies the often uneasy reality. While at pains to maintain strong ties with its giant neighbor, successive Myanmar leaders have often viewed the country with which they share a 1,250 mile border as a potential threat.
On March 13, relations faced their latest source of tension when, according to Beijing, a Myanmar aircraft dropped a bomb on a sugarcane field in Yunnan province, killing five civilians and wounding eight others. The Myanmar military has been engaged in heavy fighting with a Kokang rebel group, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, in the town of Laukkai, close to the Chinese border, since Feb. 9.
Some observers have voiced concern that the ongoing conflict in the Kokang Special Region, right on China’s doorstep, would ratchet up tensions between the two nations. This is possible, but leaders on both sides will likely seek to hose down concerns and protect their shared economic and strategic interests.
While Naypyitaw obviously remains the younger sibling in the so-called fraternal relationship, equally, China cannot afford to lose or neglect its weaker yet strategically invaluable neighbor.
Chinese economic interests in the country run deep and Beijing is acutely aware of the importance of keeping Naypyitaw on-side. Beijing-backed projects in Myanmar include the Kyaukphyu to Kunming oil and gas dual pipelines; a string of planned controversial dams; the Letpadaung copper mine project; and the now suspended Myitsone dam.
Many of these projects were signed off under the previous military regime, when Myanmar was still perceived as a villain on the world stage.
Naypyitaw’s old guard may in fact retain a sense of gratitude toward China, which continued to funnel investment into the country while the Myanmar Army was internationally ostracized for committing gross human rights violations against its population.
For its own geopolitical motives, China was one of the country’s few staunch supporters and served as a shield—both economically and in international forums such as the UN Security Council—to protect the repressive military regime.
While a Western bloc led by the United States and the European Union imposed sanctions for more than two decades, China built up ties extending not only economic support but also military weapons and training. Without Beijing, the junta would have struggled to survive.
In December 1949, Myanmar was the first non-communist country to recognize the communist-led People’s Republic of China, shortly after it was proclaimed. Under Prime Minister U Nu in the early 1950s, a few years after Myanmar regained its independence from the British, the term pauk-phaw was first used to describe the brotherly Sino-Myanmar relationship.
Behind the rhetoric, Myanmar leaders were always attuned to the pragmatic realization that the country’s much larger, stronger neighbor could seek to assert its influence through threats or force. The researcher Maung Aung Myoe wrote in his book “In the Name of Pauk-Phaw: Myanmar’s China Policy Since 1948” that in December 1970, dictator Gen. Ne Win had remarked that “the real threat for Myanmar was China.”
Maung Aung Myoe wrote that Gen. Ne Win cautioned the military to maintain a defensive posture in its military operations along the border with China and to avoid provoking any direct Chinese military intervention. The general insisted that the military should not launch any offensives near the Sino-Myanmar border.
This chronic distrust was one of the reasons that the country pursued a foreign policy of neutrality and non-alignment; it was an assurance that Myanmar would not become entangled in alliances hostile to Beijing.
After 1988, relations with China entered a new, stronger phase. Respective violent crackdowns against pro-democracy demonstrators—Myanmar in 1988 and China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989—brought to mind the “birds of a feather flock together” phrase. The post-1988 military regime in Myanmar tried to strengthen its position by allowing China to exploit the country’s natural resources while generals reaped the profits.
But a relationship built on this kind of shared despotism left fertile grounds for anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar.
After President U Thein Sein’s government assumed power in 2011, relations shifted again. The military-turned-civilian government began a reform process which has opened the door to the West.
U Thein Sein’s decision to postpone the China-backed Myitsone dam project after facing widespread public opposition shocked Chinese leaders who, perhaps for the first time, felt they might lose a long-term partner.
Since then, China has actively tried to engage with the public as well as opposition groups to ensure its ongoing economic primacy in the country. As Myanmar courts more partners abroad, perhaps Beijing has calculated that the old ways of courtship, based primarily on economic inducements, will no longer suffice.
Despite the often fractious nature of relations, brought to light not least by the recent ongoing conflict along the Sino-Myanmar border, leaders from both sides of the political spectrum in Myanmar will endeavor to maintain pauk-phaw relations with Beijing while simultaneously reconnecting with the West.
The intersecting economic and geopolitical imperatives of both sides mean the stakes could hardly be higher.
Kyaw Zwa Moe is the editor of The Irrawaddy English edition. This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.