By Al Santoli
Superficially, the May 30 mob violence and the detention in Burma of Aung San Suu Kyi, Asia’s revered champion of democracy, appears to be a case of business-as-usual by one of the world’s most reviled military juntas–a group that, for over a decade, has maintained a state of war against its population. However, the site of the incident, which occurred near the historic city of Mandalay, now largely controlled by ethnic Chinese, is symbolic of a larger strategic trend in the region. The military junta has little support among ethnic Burmese and the numerous tribal peoples in the rural areas. However, the brutal generals have held on to power since the 1989 national election–which was won overwhelmingly by Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party–thanks to military support from the region’s most powerful non-democratic power, the People’s Republic of China.
The Chinese communist leadership has forged aggressive military and political alliances in support of dictatorships along its border areas, from Pakistan to Burma to Laos and Cambodia to North Korea. Indicative of this support was the emergency shipment of military supplies to Cambodian dictator (and former Khmer Rouge officer) Hun Sen at the time of the 1998 pro-democracy movement in Cambodia. These supplies came at a critical juncture, after Cambodians in Phnom Penh had protested a second national election that was stolen by Hun Sen and his political cronies.
For Beijing, the strategic aim of these alliances is, at one and the same time, to prevent the emergence of any sort of democratic movement in neighboring countries that might influence or empower democratic movements inside of China, and to encircle India, its principle rival in the region. A third objective is to prevent the United States from gaining any additional footholds or setting up any new bases in the region. These could be used to contain the expanding reach of the Chinese military, as well as to pressure America’s allies in the region.
Since 1999, Chinese military advisory teams in Burma have overseen air-land-sea-communications exercises carried out by forces of the SLORC [or SPDC] military junta. These exercises have taken place along the coast of the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, some 300 nautical miles from India, and within 450 miles of the strategic Straits of Malacca. In these exercises, such as those that occurred in August 2000, the PLA teams were joined by observers from the military of Pakistan, which, along with China, supplies fighter aircraft and other military supplies to Burma. These exercises have demonstrated not only the significant progress that the PLA has made in its hi-tech military modernization program, but also Beijing’s success in consolidating alliances with non-democratic anti-Western nations along its massive border, from Central Asia to the Pacific.
In addition, the Chinese media has openly published a description of the PLA’s warship patrols and the ultra-modern network of “fortresses of the sea” being built in the Spratley Islands, which are contested by neighboring countries. Burma’s geographical location is adjacent to the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean, as well as to the Strait of Malacca, the most vital maritime “choke point” in all Asia. The asymmetrical multi-dimensional capability posed by the Beijing-Islamabad-SLORC alliance threatens Asian democracies, such as India, Thailand and the Philippines.
Covert PLA efforts aimed at fostering regional instability are further demonstrated by the PLA’s direct or indirect support for military aggression, terrorism and narcotics trafficking across southeast Asia. Thailand’s main national security threat at present is the rapid expansion of meth-amphetamine narcotics trafficking by the PLA-backed 25,000-strong Wa tribal army[UWSA] in Burma. The UWSA is expanding trafficking routes to the central and southern Burma-Thai border with the support of the SLORC. In addition, the Wa have moved army members to the border with India, where they are trafficking in PLA weapons with rebel tribal groups, such as the Nagas.
Beijing is conducting a “double-edged” diplomatic strategy to further its strategic goals in the region. This is demonstrated in China’s political/military pursuit of control over the South China Sea. When pressured internationally, Beijing has used negotiation tactics to keep neighboring governments hopeful of peaceful compromise while the PLA continues its determined military build-up of permanent “fortresses” in the Spratley Islands. Regional security experts believe that Beijing is determined to have a long term presence on Burma’s strategic waterways to the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean, for both economic and strategic purposes. There are numerous reports of increasing numbers of Chinese migrants and security personnel, who now dominate the banks of the strategic Irrawaddy and Salween Rivers.
In maintaining military alliances intended to intimidate regional democracies, Beijing feels most comfortable with non-democratic regimes as allies. The Burmese junta’s intelligence chief, General Khin Nyunt, is Beijing’s closest Burmese ally. Nyunt is dependent on the Wa and the drug trade in his campaign to succeed General Tan Shwe as junta supreme leader. He is challenged by political rivals who are not as close to Beijing or the Wa. In addition, the Wa army, which was formerly the militant arm of the Beijing-backed Burmese Communist Party, has been commanded by Han Chinese PLA military officers since the 1950s.
In addition, and as is reflected in Beijing’s military partnership with Pakistan (the creator and still the chief weapons supplier of–and military advisor to–the Taliban), Beijing seeks to keep narcotics and Muslim fundamentalism from entering its territory. But it does this while tolerating campaigns by fanatics of just this sort aimed at destabilizing or terrorizing rival nations. A serious development in this context is the growing presence of al Qaeda-related Muslim insurgents on the Thai-Burma border, in areas that have been taken over by the PLA-backed Wa drug armies. New militant Islamist communities are being reported near both Mae Aey District, of Thailand’s Chiang Mai province, and Maesod, in Thailand’s Tak Province. This radical network is spreading south methodically along the Thai border, heading toward indigenous Muslim areas in the Malay Peninsula where increasing incidents of violence are being reported.
Beijing’s support of such tyrannical Asian regimes as Hun Sen in Cambodia and the junta in Burma, which is aimed at persecuting democratic reformers like Aung San Suu Kyi, has a clear strategic goal. The mid- to long-term effect of Beijing’s increasing military, political and economic prowess could be the creation of a situation in which the United States is left without stable or reliable allies in this vital region, which is essential to America and to the economic stability and national security of its Asian allies.
It is imperative that the United States develop a comprehensive Asia -Pacific security policy. It should include:
1. An effort to support and strengthen democratic movements that might replace dictatorial regimes such as those in Burma, Cambodia and Pakistan. An important first step is to secure the safety and freedom of Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders of her National League for Democracy . This must include political pressure on countries that have been providing military assistance to the junta, such as China and Pakistan.
2. The provision of humanitarian and other forms of assistance to U.S. allies, such as the Thai military and counter-narcotics police, as well as to indigenous forces in Burma. The aim is to defeat narcotics traffickers and terrorists such as the Wa and the al Qaeda elements along the Burma-Thai border and the India-Burma border.
3. Actions to encourage and strengthen political openness, and also pro-freedom and democratic groups within China.
Al Santoli is senior vice-president of the American Foreign Policy Council and is director of the AFPC Asia-Pacific Initiative.