As Burma Turns West, China Looks North

By Echo Hui 28 December 2012

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.