Is Burma Still Exercising a ‘Neutral Foreign Policy’ with China?

By Aung Zaw 24 April 2017

Burma’s de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will attend China’s New Silk Road summit in May. It will be her third official visit to China.

After the visit, the State Counselor plans to hold the second round of the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference.

Her push for peace has been bolstered by assurances from China that it will persuade some ethnic armed groups in northern Burma, including the powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA), to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA).

China’s Special Envoy for Asian Affairs Sun Guoxiang told Wa leaders that China no longer has any commitment to back the UWSA and reportedly asked the Wa to consider signing the NCA.

The Wa remained defiant and surprised observers by denouncing the NCA at a summit of ethnic armed groups in the Wa Self-Administered Division capital of Panghsang in February.

Bao Youxiang, chairman of the UWSA’s political arm the United Wa State Party (UWSP), criticized the government-led peace process and called on ethnic armed groups to develop a new ceasefire agreement.

It is difficult to say how China will exert its power and influence to pressure the Wa into entering more meaningful negotiations with Burma’s government.

Despite a number of connections between China and ethnic armed groups—through respective militaries, diplomats, cultural and community groups, and businesses—China was unable (or unwilling) to prevent coordinated attacks on military targets in northern Shan State by the Northern Alliance in November last year.

China’s Premier Li Keqiang with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China in August 2016. (Photo: REUTERS / Jason Lee)

Whatever the influence China has over Burma’s ethnic armed groups, the country will continue to be a key player in Burma as it searches for peace and stability under the civilian government.

But Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is facing mounting criticism that Burma is coming to rely on China.

Since she became de facto leader of the new civilian government last year, China’s active engagement in the country has been visible and one can also see Burma’s strategic rebalance toward its powerful neighbor.

During President U Htin Kyaw’s first visit to China, the two countries agreed to promote cooperation in trade and investment, infrastructure development, hydropower and energy projects, and border economic cooperation zones.

China and Burma also signed an agreement on a crude oil pipeline running from Kyaukphyu port in Arakan State to southwest China’s Yunnan Province. President Xi Jinping also promised to play a constructive role in Burma’s search for peace.

China and Russia voted against a UN Human Rights Council resolution on a fact-finding mission to investigate alleged human rights abuses by security forces in Arakan State.

It is ironic that Burma’s civilian government led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi continues to rely on China to avoid scrutiny of human rights by the UN.

Looking at recent engagement between the two countries, can we say that Burma remains under the shadow of China as in the past?

And if so, how will the current government manage simmering anti-China sentiment in the country due to China-backed mega projects and their exploitation of natural resources?

The Elephant and the Lamb

In the past, Burma was distrustful of its giant neighbor. Former prime minister U Nu once famously described China and Burma as “the elephant and the lamb,” and expressed fear of China’s aggression and potential invasion of Burma in the early 1950s.

Thus, Burmese leaders conceived not to antagonize Beijing, but to adopt a policy of “peaceful co-existence.” This fear and apprehension also shaped Burma’s foreign policy of neutralism during the Cold War.

U Nu and Mao Zedong in Beijing in 1954. (Photo: Unknown)

Burma was once active in the non-aligned movement, known as NAM. This policy was to assure communist China that Burma was not interested in joining a Western bloc.

The policy was not entirely smooth sailing.

Under Gen Ne Win there were anti-China riots in 1967 whereby both Beijing and Rangoon recalled their ambassadors. Gen Ne Win visited Beijing several times to mend ties.

A year later, China-backed Burmese communist troops crossed the border and waged war against Ne Win’s regime. Historically, there has been significant distrust of China by Burma’s generals.

In the last two decades of Burma’s military regime (1988 to 2010), relations between the two countries warmed.

China provided political and diplomatic support to the repressive regime and supplied arms, infrastructure development, and aid.

The international community, including China, waited to see whether Burma was neutral to Beijing when ruling leaders opened up the country in 2011.

Gen Ne Win and Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou En Lai are welcomed by an honor guard in this undated photo. (Photo: Unknown)

Since then, Burma’s active and independent foreign policy has been in full swing.

Relations with the West were normalized and EU and US sanctions were lifted. Leaders U Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visited the White House. On a visit to Burma, former US President Barack Obama praised Burma’s reforms and cemented ties.

Burma is no longer a pariah in international diplomacy. Appearing to move away from China’s orbit, U Thein Sein suspended the controversial Myitsone hydropower dam project when he came into power.

Interestingly, newly appointed military commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing selected Vietnam as the location for his first official international visit in 2011, conspicuously not choosing to go to China like his predecessors had done.

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing visited Germany and Austria this month and last year was invited to take part in the European Union Military Committee meeting in Belgium. It would not be surprising if he was invited to visit the United States soon.

The United States and Burma have had limited military engagement—in 2014 Lt-Gen Anthony Crutchfield addressed the Myanmar National Defense College in Naypyidaw and in March this year US navy ship USNS Fall River made the first port call by US forces since World War II.

Under Gen Ne Win, Burma would seek Beijing’s green light when it wanted to engage the West, but today this ceases to be the case.

Burma no longer practices a neutral foreign policy with China. The situation is still that of U Nu’s elephant and lamb, but the geo-political strategic re-balance between China and Burma is on full display as it unfolds.