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The great and the good have said that as the “American century” draws to an end, the new dawn will belong to China. Its influence and capital will span and alter the globe with the ubiquity of the red and white of Coca-Cola or the desktop windows that computer users hurdle on a daily basis.
So far this prognosis has built and built, but as in Burma, Asia is witnessing a reassessment – from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Hindu Kush, a storm is growing, and at its centre could be the Myitsone Dam.
That Myistone has become a symbol of democratic reform in Burma is a surprise to many, but the “suspension” of the project, whatever that truly means, should be viewed more as astute politics rather than bowing to democratic consensus.
Burma has relied on China following the international condemnation its military has attracted since it cracked down on democratic activists in the late 1980s. “China’s continued diplomatic and economic support for the current regime helps immunise it to U.S.and international pressure,” noted a 2003 US embassy cable. Such a relationship was mutually beneficial. But for the Burmese this was a knee jerk, temporary measure; as ever the nation is balancing internal and external threats to the hegemony that its leaders enjoy.
The internal threat, now that the serious ideological internal revolt has largely been neutralised by sham elections, is strongest from ethnic rebels, as the evolution of the state mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar indicates: mantras such as the “sky full of liars” that littered its pages have now lost their daily box, in favour of an ‘enlightening’ few lines on the “union spirit”.
In keeping with a reform agenda, ground must be seen to be given, and peoples appeased. But in the terror of losing position or power, ground that only foments power should be allowed. This is a natural response of the nationalist. As Ne Win’s behaviour following his coup testifies, one stokes the flames of xenophobia to appease the people, and the “union spirit” develops.
Author Bertil Lintner noted in his book, ‘Burma in Revolt’, that the anti-Chinese riots of 1967 “were clearly orchestrated by the authorities” who did not intervene until the mob reached the Chinese embassy, but who stood by whilst “many” Sino-Burmese were slaughtered.
Ne Win’s methods, as academic Robert A. Holmes noted in 1967, was to “squeeze” out non-Burman businessmen through nationalisation drives – actions that Ne Win described as “socialist” and non-discriminatory, in keeping with the vision of socialism prevalent in Germany’s Kristallnacht in 1938.
Holmes for his part attributed Ne Win’s motives to “xenophobia among the highly nationalistic members of the Burmese Revolutionary Council government who want to eliminate the vestiges of the old dominant foreign cultural and economic influences and to begin a process of Burmanization.”
That attitudes have changed little inside Burma can be attributed to these same people. These attitudes are exemplified in the business world by the likes of flamboyant military crony, Tay Za, who described competitor, Steven Law, as not “pure Burmese” in an interview with Forbes magazine. Indeed Law was born in the Kokang autonomous region on the Sino-Burmese border to an ethnic Chinese drug dealer dad. In many cases this would make him unequivocally ‘Burmese’.
Burmese foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin is already in Beijing on a damage-limitation exercise, as is Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo, whose career has been defined by China– in fighting communist insurgents, Tin Aung Myint Oo was given the title Tihar Thura, a bravery award in 1980.
As one US cable notes of such men, “It is the Burmese military, particularly those officers with direct experience confronting the PRC-supported Burmese Communist insurgency, which remains the most wary of China’s motives.”
That China receives a backlash now is in all probability no coincidence. In search of energy security, massive investments have been made not only on Burma’s unexploited rivers but also in the Shwe pipeline, which now puts Burma in a position of huge power. The military may have sold the country’s most valuable commodity, natural gas, but now has unsurpassed bargaining power over Asia’s largest economy. The strategic imperative that China also sought via a southwest corridor through Burma will now place some six percent of the oil imports to the world’s key economy in the hands of Naypyidaw as well as potentially massive quantities of freight.
China however is unsurprisingly making its presence felt in disaffected ethnic areas, where economic allegiance to Beijing is often more practical. As another US cable notes, in some ethnic border areas the “PRC renminbi, rather than the Burmese kyat, is the currency of choice.”
China is further desperate for alternative sources of electricity. Professor Shuije Yao of the UK’s Universityof Nottingham told DVB that, “China is quite desperate to diversify the kinds of energy sources, but especially the renewable sorts”. The country’s economic rise sees an extraordinary increase in carbon emissions, a rate that Professor Yao fears is growing while “energy efficiency has declined”.
This is not just a Chinese problem. China’s economic rise has been built on labour and energy-intensive cheap manufacturing exports, namely to the west. Manufacturing makes up some 46 percent of the Chinese economy. The cheapest way to source energy is from coal, which now accounts for 80 percent of electricity generation. China is expected to overtake the US as the largest economy in the world within the next decade.
Between 1990 and 2008, according to a 2010 International Energy Agency (IEA) report, “China more than doubled its per capita emissions”. Indeed in the preceding decade the per capita tonnage of carbon emissions went from a rate of 2.7 tons per head in 1998 to 5.3 in 2008. The US’ rate has averaged 19 tons over the last 20 years.
“To produce $US10,000 worth of GDP, China has to consume 1,250 kilowatts of electricity [whereas] India has to consume 780 and Britain 320. If the Chinese GDP is going to double, the Chinese demand for electricity and energy is going to double,” Professor Yao told a recent conference hosted by the Financial Times.
Needless to say much of Burma will cease to exist if China’s per capita emissions continue to increase at the current rate towards that of the US. In 40 years this could be a reality. Bearing in mind that China’s population is now 1.3 billion and the US’ stands at a fraction of that, at roughly 300 million, should China’s 1.3 billion people each emit 19 tons of carbon per year, the country’s total carbon emissions would reach approximately 24.7 billion tons. The current world total is in the region of 29 billion tons.
China then is in a bind. The Burmese can now turn their back on the Chinese and take comfort that the west will slowly warm to the PR-savvy Thein Sein regime, sated in the knowledge that, as US Senator Jim Webb feared, the country would not become a “satellite of China.”
“The Administration, including both President Obama and Secretary Clinton, wants better relations and a stronger U.S. presence in Southeast Asia,” he tellingly said in 2009.
That fear of China is being combated across Asia, with perennial Chinese rival, India, mounting its own challenge alongside strategic regional powers such as Vietnam and Indonesia, with whom Delhi has sought joint naval operations.
China is now the largest trade partner with virtually every major nation in Asia, even those with long-standing military ties to the US such as Taiwan and Japan. Taiwan’s bid to upgrade its airforce by replacing its outdated F-5s and a Japanese-Filipino joint exercise was met by a stern warning from China that, “Certain countries think as long as they can balance China with the help of US military power, they are free to do whatever they want.”
Professor Yao believes these countries “feel vulnerable … even Japan must feel vulnerable”.
The US for its part made an accurate assessment about the dissent that Myitsone decision would elicit. A 2010 cable said that “an unusual aspect of this case is the role grassroots organisations have played in opposing the dam, which speaks to the growing strength of civil society groups in Kachin state, including recipients of Embassy small grants.”
This is the acknowledged goal of the two largest democracies on the planet, the US and India, that China’s influence must be stemmed. Former spy master Khin Nyunt was quoted in a US cable as saying, “America will be able to use Myanmar [Burma] as a staging ground to penetrate China,” a position that he believed China would not accept from Burma.
The suspension of the Myitsone dam then serves multiple purposes, with “union spirit” looming large as the eventual end. Even if the cryptic language of the dam “suspension” means that it will continue, the current administration is attempting to unite beleaguered ethnics with the Burman government of Naypyidaw.
The wider reform trend is buoyed by moves such as the Myitsone suspension, which cancel out critics who demand regime change. It also galvanises the xenophobic sentiments of a deprived people, perhaps one of the Burmese rulers’ few shared values with their subjects. The move will placate those who rightly see the exploitation of the ethnic regions as unacceptable, and opens the floodgates for the west to compete with China in a scrap that could define our troubled, young century.