China strides ahead in the battle for Burma

Thein Sein will have returned from Beijing feeling very satisfied with his first bilateral state visit since taking office in March, such were the friendly overtures between the two governments. But is Burma’s long-held and craftily applied neutralism at stake?

The rhetoric that has come out, like a recording from the ‘courting rituals’ that recently took place between China and Pakistan, reaffirms Burma’s strongest bilateral relationship and even takes it to new heights, as the announcement of a “strategic partnership” suggests.

As Thein Sein told Xinhua, “The partnership is bound to push forward bilateral friendly cooperation in all areas to a new stage.”

Such new areas include increased Chinese investment in the nascent Burmese auto sector, with the planned opening of a Chery motors plant which will look to produce 3000 to 5000 of the company’s QQ3 cars each year for the Burmese market. This was also joined by a supplementary agreement on China Railways’ southern expansion, as Beijing’s influence spreads to where it will really be felt on the Bay of Bengal.

For years Burma’s foreign policy has been defined by a mercurial ability to play off major powers against each other. This is why around half of the US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks and referring to Burma mention countering China, whether coming from embassies in Berlin or New Delhi.

As one cable heading notes, “Concern Over China Outweighs All” – a comment on Indian imperatives that led India to up its efforts to seduce the Burmese generals. These efforts however have, until now at least, been met by a dynamic approach from Naypyidaw, which has enabled New Delhi to retain hopes that they still had a chance with the regime. As one cable notes, “Burmese officials have told Kumar [Indian foreign affairs official] that they ‘hate’ the Chinese and would prefer not to cooperate with China, but do so because they feel Beijing is more reliable than New Delhi”.

The budding “strategic partnership” between Burma and its northern neighbour now asks serious questions of this. Moreover, it begs the question of whether, in what is shaping up to be the 21st Century’s answer to the Cold War, the battle for Burma has been won by China.

For both suitors Burma has rightly been a strategic imperative. The Times of India recently reported that China and Burma had agreed, presumably during Thein Sein’s trip, that the Chinese navy will be able to use Burmese ports in the Bay of Bengal. This is a persistent fear for India that had earlier included uncorroborated suggestions that the Chinese would establish a naval base on Burmese territory in the Coco Islands.

The Bay of Bengal has long been India’s territorial domain, through which much of China’s energy imports must pass. The cement in China’s relationship with her unstable southern neighbour is based on this, epitomised with the building of the Shwe gas pipeline through Burma, which circumvents the Malacca Straits beneath Singapore, a narrow strip of water that can be easily blocked by patrolling US warships.

Burma will now take the strain off the Malacca Straits. When the pipeline opens some $US20 million worth of Saudi oil will daily traverse the country to China’s southern Yunnan province, but that oil will still need to pass through the Bay of Bengal and around the southern tip of India. As a result, the Indian’s view this maritime avenue as distinctly important, with their Andaman and Nicobar islands now the site of secret watching facilities that monitor regional traffic.

So the Chinese have been busily effecting diplomacy in the region, and by all accounts with great success in most key constituencies. The campaign has seen additions to what has become known as her “string of pearls”, with the Gwadar naval base in Pakistan, India’s sworn enemy, all but secure. With tensions still raw between Pakistan and its other great patron, the US, China made swift work in shoring up relations on a recent visit by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Ghilani, which came eerily close to coinciding with Thein Sein’s.

In an embarrassing moment during the trip, Pakistan’s Defence Minister Ahmed Mukthar reportedly admitted to a military nature to the Gwadar base. According to the Associated Press of Pakistan, “Pakistan appreciated that the Chinese government agrees to run the port, but would be more grateful ‘if a naval base is constructed at the site of Gwadar for Pakistan’.” The port was officially meant to have been a commercial entity, but the rumours of Chinese military involvement have persisted.

China has also invested 85 percent of the capital for a deep sea port in Sri Lanka at Hambatota, which the BBC notes is a mere 12 kilometres from the aforementioned shipping lines. Beijing has also made its presence felt in Bangladesh and Nepal, all of whom live with India as the Big Brother in the neighbourhood, but all of whom have veered towards China.

Burma has long maintained a position of neutrality that has encouraged the active efforts of diverse powers to work hard on bilateral relations with the uncompromising generals, as well as deflecting criticism of them in international fora such as the UN. That she now saddles so close to China will inevitably threaten this.

India has worked hard but is already beginning to show fatigue after recent revelations over their efforts with the Tamanthi dam, and after losing out to Thailand with the Tavoy megaproject. India has been keen to open links to important ASEAN trade partners such as Thailand and Indonesia, and in this respect they will have every right to feel that Burma’s rulers have failed them.

As the Times of India notes, India’s National Hydro Power Company (NHPC) has failed to establish high level contacts in the government. Whilst persistent efforts have been made to counter northeastern rebels that allegedly shelter in Burma, commentators note that little tangible results have been seen despite years of trying.

Thein Sein may be making a calculated bet that China will be the pre-eminent power of the current epoch, and he is probably right, but if we note the lessons of history, Burma’s neutralism has maintained autonomy for all comers to power from U Nu to Thein Sein.

Indeed declassified documents reveal that the US under Nixon swapped intelligence on the Chinese with former ‘socialist’ dictator Ne Win. According to US diplomats, Ne Win “proved almost shockingly cooperative.” They understood his ‘socialism’ as well: “Ne Win is not a doctrinaire socialist and he would probably be embarrassed if someone were to ask him to give an ideological explanation of the Burmese Way to Socialism.”

Giving a fascinating insight into the hawks of the day, one diplomat asks Ne Win for his advice regarding the US’ ill-fated invasion of Indochina. The dictator, famed for his disastrous economic management and superstition, tells them to remain firm and that they would definitely win.

Ne Win had the ear of the Chinese too. According to the US he was the man who had the most access to the Chinese in the late 1960s and 70s, and who would actually speak to them.

That Thein Sein has neglected other bilateral relations is a somewhat premature judgement, but his foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, and his own moves in the coming months could be decisive in shoring up support for his nominally democratic government; or, indeed, it could confirm that in the opening salvos of the next cold war, the battle for Burma has ended, but the war has just begun.

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