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In light of China and Burma’s mutual irritation with each other, Burmese officials have quietly but decidedly been looking for a partner that could replace China, should the drawbacks of the special Naypyidaw-Beijing relationship ever exceed the benefits.
Any cooling of the relationship between Burma and China could range from the supremely unlikely scenario of a seizure of Chinese assets in Burma and a subsequent embargo of Chinese trade to the much more likely scenario of a slow change in preference for a new partner.
Replacing China is no easy task. A suitable partner needs to be willing to listen to the military government, willing to trade on a massive scale with a Burmese establishment rife with conflict of interest, and not a pariah state.
Furthermore, the Burmese would have to find a partner that could offer a lion’s share of China’s advantages. Investment in Burmese industry and infrastructure would have to continue unabated; goods flowing from China must be replaced by comparable good flows from the new partner. Chinese arms would have to be replaced with arms of comparable quality and effectiveness. The new partner must have similar diplomatic influence with the international community to shield the Burmese military from further condemnation and sanctions. Finally, in an ideal world, the new partner must not be in a position to coerce anything from the Burmese like the Chinese are doing now.
Fulfilling all the criteria on that checklist is a tall order. Chinese investment in the 2009-2010 fiscal year topped $US8.27 billion, mainly in the energy and mining sectors. Hong Kong, the Chinese satellite and counted separately from the mainland, invested $US5.39 billion. Last year, Chinese and Hong Kong investment represented over two thirds of Burmese foreign direct investment and a third of Burma’s official overall gross domestic product.
Official figures state that bilateral trade flows between China and Burma exceeded $US 2.9 billion last year, almost equalling Thailand’s $US3.05 billion. According to The Eleven News Network, Burma exports mainly energy and agricultural products to China and imports iron, steel, machinery, computers, agricultural implements, household goods and other raw metals. A new partner would, in essence, need to be the engine that supplies Burma’s modernisation.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China has facilitated the bulk of the Burmese army’s arms shopping sprees by offering radar systems, aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, short range air-to-air missiles, anti-ship missiles, naval equipment among other things throughout the past 20 years. Those systems would need to be replaced in time with something of comparable quality.
As well as keeping the military well armed, the new partner would have to replace Beijing as the advocate for Burma’s military-sponsored transition to “managed democracy.” Among the public shows of support for the Burmese government, China has moved to quash official international condemnation of the Burmese regime. In 2007, China exercised its veto power against a US-sponsored UN Security Council resolution condemning the Burmese military government for human rights abuses, a power that China has used only three times since 1986.
Finally, on the part of the new partner, there would have to be some interest in putting as much time and effort into Burma as China has. Basically, this country must have some strategic interest in Burma and what it could offer.
The resulting list is not satisfactory.
The US has been the Burmese military’s lead antagonist and renewed sanctions last May, including a stinging clause saying Burma has been “hostile to US interests.” The EU has been similarly skeptical of the Burmese transition to elected government by passing arms sanctions, issuing travel bans for top army officials and condemning human rights abuses and restricted freedoms.
Thailand, South Korea and Japan, major non-NATO allies of the US, would jeopardise their valuable American ties if they engaged with Burma in any meaningful way. As major non-NATO allies of the US, they have access to cooperative defense research projects, first-right-of-refusal for American military surplus, ability to use American financing to make arms purchases, war supplies for potential American defense initiative, the ability to buy depleted uranium anti-tank rounds, reciprocal training agreements, access to the American space program and technology, and permission of home-country companies to bid on selected Department of Defense contracts. Any realignment that would involve a swing to Burma would place all of these privileges in immediate jeopardy since President Obama has openly remarked on Burma’s hostility to US strategic objectives.
India is a tempting partner. The world’s largest democracy certainly has the economy to sustain Burma. According to one US State Department cable dated 30 May 2007, the director of the Indian Ministry for External Affairs admitted to equipment sales to Burma but insisted all military equipment sold were “non-lethal.” Also, according to a State Department cable from 2006, Indian Prime Minister Mammohan Singh refused to condemn Burmese human rights abuses.
But the drawback to India is two-fold: first, India does not have the Security Council veto that China has and would be ill-equipped to combat criticism of Burmese human rights abuses. The second is that India is positioned to coerce access to Burmese resources out of the Burmese government and commit to similar predatory agreements that China has engaged in.
A new partner would then have to be close, but not too close, and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The United States, China, France and the United Kingdom are out. Then there’s the real possibility that the Burmese have been pursuing. The only country in Asia who fulfills all of those criteria is not Asian at all: the Russian Federation.