Commentary

Myanmar Seeks Advanced Weapons from Russia, but China Remains the Key Player

By Aung Zaw 25 January 2018

Myanmar’s generals have not hidden their displeasure with the quality of Chinese military hardware and jet fighters, but they know that a more assertive and powerful China remains a key player while Myanmar faces mounting international pressure over the crisis in Rakhine State.

Myanmar will seek a more balanced diplomatic approach toward powerful neighbors such as China and India as well as Russia, a UN Security Council member, to provide it with diplomatic cover.

While some remain in denial, top officials and generals are increasingly paranoid over the crisis in Rakhine State and possible international intervention. It is as though Myanmar is reverting to the days when it was ruled by the much-condemned generals, who were constantly worried about Western pressure and UN intervention.

Last week, news media reported that Russia agreed to sell six Su-30 fighter jets to the Myanmar Army during Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu’s visit to the country.

“The planes will become the main fighter aircraft of Myanmar’s air force to protect the country’s territorial integrity and repel any terror threats,” Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant General Alexander Fomin was quoted as saying by Russian news agency TASS.

The Su-30 is a twin-engine, two-seat supermaneuverable fighter jet developed by Russia’s Sukhoi Aviation Corporation and was deployed during Russia’s military intervention in war-torn Syria.

In the region, Indonesia, Malaysia, India and Vietnam also purchased Su-30 jet fighters from Russia.

Myanmar’s air force has advanced MIG-29s and ageing F-6s, F-7s and A-5s that need replacing soon.

To replace its obsolete jet fighters, Myanmar has purchased JF-17s and is in “advanced negotiations” with Pakistan to license-build third-generation models. The JF-17 is co-developed by the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex and China’s Chengdu Aerospace Corporation. These jet fighters can engage in air-to-air battles but also have ground-attack capabilities allowing them to deliver dumb bombs and precision-guided munitions. These jets are suitable for Myanmar, where armed conflict with ethnic rebels is frequent.

Equipping Myanmar’s air force with Su-30 twin-engine jet fighters that can carry out air-to-air and air-to-ground missions means the country is looking to protect its territory and preparing for foreign threats.

The price tag on the jets has not been revealed. Sources close to the deal believe those negotiations may still be ongoing.

A Russian Su-30 fighter jet.

A Bigger Defense Budget

The Myanmar Army has long wanted to build a modern military, and this year the Defense Ministry asked Parliament for a budget of more than 1.3 trillion kyats (US$1 billion) for a six-month period.

Last week, Deputy Defense Minister Major General Myint Nwe told Parliament that his ministry was expected to earn 31.76 billion kyats in normal revenue; that its capital expenditures was expected to total 611.09 billion kyats; that its normal expenditures would be 723.11 billion kyats; and that total expenditures for the six months would therefore be 1.33 trillion kyats.

“The money is used to implement plans to strengthen the structure of soldiers, weapons, equipment for perpetuity of sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Union,” he said.

It is likely that the budget will be approved. The defense budget has never been trimmed, but rather increased.

National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmakers said the budget requested by the Ministry of Defense made up 12.56 percent of the total proposed budget, while the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health and Sports asked for 7.56 percent and 3.93 percent, respectively, adding up to only 11.49 percent of the total budget.

As Myanmar expands its naval and air forces, the generals are hoping to deter external threats and possible terrorist attacks.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and the visiting Russian defense minister spoke about boosting military cooperation. The general reportedly thanked Russia for its stance on Myanmar’s handling of militant attacks in Rakhine State, which has come under heavy criticism from much of the international community, including the UN and US. The Russian defense minister said the attacks were assumed to have political links.

It has been reported that since 2011 military relations between Moscow and Naypyitaw have gone from strength to strength. Under the military rule of the previous decades and the Western sanctions it brought on, Myanmar depended heavily on military hardware from China. But it steadily backed away as the generals complained about the quality of Chinese weapons.

Myanmar began to diversify its search for more advanced weapons and training, and Moscow was ready to assist. Hundreds of Myanmar officers have been sent to Russia for trainings since the  2000s. During the Russian defense minister’s recent visit, Fomin said more than 600 of Myanmar’s military personnel were currently studying at Russia’s higher military education institutions.

In a June 5 interview with the state-run Myanma Alinn newspaper, Russia’s ambassador to Myanmar, Nikolay Listopadov, said about 6,000 army students had graduated from prestigious Russian universities and that some have received post-graduate and doctoral degrees.

But Big Brother Is China

Myanmar’s generals have had their problems with China over the quality of its military hardware and its support for some powerful ethnic armed groups in the north. But when Myanmar faces international criticism and UN resolutions over major crises such as the one in northern Rakhine State, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the generals seek China’s diplomatic backing.

China has promised to assist in Myanmar’s peace process, and a Chinese special envoy, Sun Guoxiang, helped negotiate a trip by members of several armed ethnic groups in the north to Naypyitaw so that they could attend a government-sponsored peace conference.

In November, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing went to Beijing separately. But first Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi came to visit Myanmar, shortly after the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Congress. It was a clever move. While Western governments put pressure on Myanmar over the Rohingya crisis, China has shown its solidarity and demonstrated a spirit of long-time friendship and strategic partnership.

After Wang Yi’s visit, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi went to Beijing and was followed by Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

Myanmar Military Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and Gen. Li Zuocheng of China’s Central Military Commission pose for documentary photo together with the senior military officers from both sides on Nov 22 in Beijing. (Photo: Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing / Facebook )

It is a well known fact that the two do not get along. Diplomatic sources believe that China made a strategic decision to invite both of them to Beijing to assure them of its support and to discuss the situation in Rakhine State while Myanmar moves away from Western allies over the crisis there.

Beijing suggested a three-stage strategy for Myanmar and Bangladesh to work out the Rohingya crisis: Ensuring a ceasefire and restoring stability; talks between the two countries to create a workable solution for repatriation; and poverty alleviation in order to achieve a sustainable solution.

Chinese President Xi Jinping received Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. The issues they discussed included international criticism over the Rohingya crisis, Chinese investment in Rakhine State, and China’s new proposal for an economic corridor in Myanmar.

Beijing assured them of its support and is believed to have expressed its concern for the problems in Rakhine State.

After her visit to Beijing, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi reportedly held discussions with senior members of her cabinet and some former ruling generals about China’s proposal and Rakhine State.

During Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s visit, Myanmar and Chinese military leaders discussed “promotion of cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries.” Li Zuocheng, a member of China’s Central Military Commission, said, “In the face of a complex and changeable regional security situation, China is willing to maintain strategic communication between the two countries’ militaries.”

China wanted greater contact between the two armed forces, deeper training and technical exchanges, and more defense cooperation along their common border to ensure peace and stability, Li added.

It is ironic to see a repeat of recent history as Myanmar now moves closer to its old allies while its honeymoon period with Western governments draws to a close. Myanmar will seek more diplomatic cover from China, but it will no doubt continue to diversify by buying more advanced weapons from elsewhere.

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