Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 2

The regional reverberations from the recent regime shake-up in Burma continue to be felt in Beijing, New Delhi and in most ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) capitals. After barely 15 months in office, Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt was sacked in mid-October 2004. Since Khin Nyunt happened to be the chief architect of closer China-Burma strategic ties during the 1990s, his sudden removal has been interpreted as a major setback for China’s strategic goals in Burma. The Chinese had been trying to bolster his position through generous business deals and soft loan packages.

Winners and Losers

While General Than Shwe, Chairman of the military junta, also known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), remains the key figure, a new triumvirate of traditional Burmese nationalists comprising General Maung Aye, General Thura Shwe Mann and Lt. General Soe Win is emerging to run the country. In fact, the military junta continues to exploit ASEAN’s internal divisions and regional fears of the country’s pro-China tilt, to take the heat off its human rights violations and to further consolidate its rule. The “constructive engagement” pursued by ASEAN has given the regime some legitimacy, and also won it membership in the Asia-Europe Summit without the regime having to give anything in return. Much like Pakistan’s military rulers, Burmese generals believe that their impoverished and pariah country is of great geopolitical importance, and will earn them significant geo-strategic “rent” and make the international community turn a blind eye to their appalling behavior.

India and China also closely monitor each other’s moves vis-à-vis Burma. Alarmed that its eastern neighbor was sliding into China’s strategic orbit, India since 1993 has abandoned its support for Suu Kyi, and supported ASEAN’s policy of “constructive engagement” to develop commercial and political contacts. New Delhi’s coddling of the military junta is thus motivated by geo-strategic concerns of combating cross-border terrorism, drug-trafficking and weaning Burma away from China, as well as the economic imperatives of exploiting trade and investment opportunities. The two fastest growing economies are also eyeing Burma’s gas wealth. Neutralizing Chinese presence and influence in Burma has been the key factor that has determined India’s policy toward its eastern neighbor for almost a decade. It also dovetails well with India’s “Look East” policy of establishing closer ties with Southeast Asia to prevent the region from becoming an exclusive Chinese sphere of influence. For their part, the Chinese have made their displeasure over Southeast Asian countries’ recent attempts to draw India into the region known to ASEAN capitals.

Great Expectations

Not surprisingly then, the Indian government rolled out the red carpet when SDPC Chairman General Than Shwe paid his first-ever head of state visit in late October 2004, less than a week after pro-China Khin Nyunt’s dismissal. With the ouster of Khin Nyunt, the Indian media and strategic analysts concluded that “the balance had tilted in India’s favor” and that “New Delhi just might be able to breathe easier.” Khin Nyunt, incidentally, had also developed close political and business links with China’s ally and India’s nemesis, Pakistan. It is in this context that Than’s India visit is interpreted as an attempt by the SPDC to use India as a counter to China. In short, Khin’s dismissal has been welcomed in some regional capitals as signaling a shift toward a more balanced approach in Burma’s foreign policy.

However, jubilation in some quarters over Khin Nyunt’s fall from power notwithstanding, China-watchers maintain that predictions and expectations of a major strategic shift in Burma’s foreign policy may well be pre-mature and unwarranted. While it is true that the dismissal of Beijing’s man in Rangoon took the Chinese Foreign Ministry by surprise, the fact remains that General Than Shwe took care to keep Beijing informed of the unfolding developments in mid-October. More importantly, within days of Than Shwe’s visit to India, the military junta scheduled official visits to Beijing by the new Prime Minister Lt. General Soe Win and Chief of General Staff General Thura Shwe Mann in November to reassure China that its interests would be well-protected under the new political dispensation. It is argued that Burma cannot afford to antagonize the only country in the world that can seriously threaten its vital national interests. An objective and realistic assessment of China’s strategic and economic needs and Burma’s predicament shows that Beijing is unlikely to easily give up what it has already gained in and through Burma.

Chinese Checkers

Since the early 1990s, Rangoon has relied on China for diplomatic, military, and economic support. For China, the payoff went beyond economics to geopolitics, gaining access through Burma to the Indian Ocean. While the Burmese military regime’s pro-China tilt in the early 1990s was certainly not the result of some “grand plan” in Rangoon (but because it had nowhere else to go), Beijing’s forays into Burma were definitely a part of China’s grand strategy in the 21st century. India and ASEAN’s “constructive engagement” policy notwithstanding, China still remains Burma’s main trading partner, arms supplier, and a steadfast supporter in international forums such as the UN Security Council (UNSC). Neither ASEAN nor India can compete with China either in providing military assistance or in offering trade and investment benefits. Despite its intent to steer a more balanced foreign policy, the SPDC may not find much room for maneuver. As one Burma-watcher has argued: “China is developing such a hold on Burma’s economy and armed forces that it will constrain the Rangoon regime’s ability to act independently in the future.” Given Burma’s dependence on China for military hardware, financial assistance, industrial equipment and diplomatic support, Beijing can apply considerable pressure on the regime to prevent its defection from China’s camp.

More importantly, resource scarcity in the 21st century would see nations engaged in intense competition, confrontation, and conflict, and China’s future naval operations would be undertaken with a view to securing the country’s oil supply routes. Nearly 75 percent of China’s trade is carried by sea through the Strait of Malacca, the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal – and the predominance of the Indian and U.S. navies along these sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) is viewed as a major threat to Chinese security. China’s future naval plans include permanent deployments into the Indian Ocean as soon as the Taiwan issue is resolved to Beijing’s satisfaction.

In fact, competition for resources has already provoked elbow-bashing in the region – witness, for example, the rush to extend claim and counter-claim to the oil and gas that lie under the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Central Asia. An intrusion into Japanese territorial waters by a Chinese nuclear submarine and the seizure in the same week of two Chinese spying ships that were doing magnetic resonance imaging of the seabed in the vicinity of the Andaman islands on which India plans to station a part of its strategic forces, once again illuminates growing maritime competition in the Pacific and Indian oceans and nearby seas. As a major trading nation and a future world power, China is now laying the groundwork for a naval presence along maritime chokepoints in the South China Sea, the Malacca Straits, the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf through acquisition of naval bases in Cambodia, Burma, Bangladesh and Pakistan to protect its long-term economic security interests.

The strategic context in which China views its relationship with Burma is as a close ally both for southward expansion and to counteract the moves of rival powers (India, Japan and the United States). China sees itself as being engaged in a long and protracted competition with other major powers and counts Burma, along with Pakistan and North Korea, as its military allies in Asia. Since influence over Burma is the key to China’s future strategy for South and Southeast Asia, Beijing will use all means available to keep Burma under its thumb. Clearly, Beijing did not provide diplomatic protection, arms, aid, and finance – all on very generous terms – to Rangoon in its hour of need for nothing.

Proximity and complementarity also work in China’s favor. In confirmation of the classic “dependency theory” school of international economic relations, Burma plays the role of exporter of raw materials, timber, minerals and energy resources, while China exports finished manufactured goods, from rice cookers to electronics, heavy trucks and railway equipment that fit Burma’s level of development and spending power. If Burma’s attempts to steer an even-handed course undermine China’s economic and security interests in the region, Beijing could resume assistance to ethnic insurgents fighting for independence or help engineer a coup by the down-but-not-out pro-China faction within the Burmese military. China, after all, has a reputation for using threats and bluff to force other states (friends and foes alike) to accede to its will.

Last but not least, Beijing would not like to see any political change that might lead to the installation of a less friendly regime to China. Political change in Rangoon in the future, for example the coming to power of an Aung San Suu Kyi-led democratic government, could also lead to a situation where the Chinese military is denied access to the infrastructural facilities it is now building in Burma. Nor is it in China’s interests to see Burma becoming a liberal-democratic state. At the most, Beijing would prefer another Pakistan-like quasi-democracy, where civilians hold power so long as the military tolerates them – especially if the military is paranoid of its neighbors and therefore remains heavily dependent on China for weapons, training, and support.

The increasing Chinese domination of northern Burma’s economy has demographic, cultural, economic, security, diplomatic, and political repercussions. Burma’s rulers know too well that Beijing’s bark can be worse than its bite. Than Shwe and company would have noticed that in the same week the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman was singing paeans on “China’s peaceful rise” while accusing others of displaying “Cold War mentality”. At the same time, Beijing stalled UNSC action against Sudan over the atrocities in Darfur, opposed any moves to refer Iran’s nuclear program to the UNSC (ostensibly to protect hard-won Chinese oil concessions in the two pariah states), and sent its naval vessels on spying missions to Japanese and Indian territorial waters.

Looking into the future

Needless to say, in the long term, Burma’s strategic interests lie in counterbalancing China’s influence and power through its ties with India, ASEAN, Japan and the West. However, unless a vertical split emerges within the Burmese military into pro- and anti-democracy factions (along the lines of the Philippines Armed Forces in the mid-1980s) and until Beijing adopts a posture of strict neutrality in Burma’s domestic politics, no popularly elected civilian government is likely to emerge in Rangoon. So, for the foreseeable future, the SPDC seems likely to maintain its iron-grip on power. With the UN-brokered talks on political reconciliation having reached a dead end, it might be worthwhile to start afresh with a dialogue framework of ASEAN+3 (ASEAN plus China, India and Japan) on Burma. This would also put to test China’s oft-stated commitment to multilateralism and its penchant for “Asian solutions to Asian problems”.

Mohan Malik is a Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. The views expressed here do not reflect the official policy or position of the Center or the US Department of Defense.