Power play: President Hu Jintao (left) welcomes Burma's President Thein Sein to Beijing and both inspect honor guards (top); Burmese protest China's role in the Myitsone project
CHIANG MAI: During his November trip to Bali to attend the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, US President Barack Obama announced that America was back and sent a clear signal that Uncle Sam would not cede anything to China. With this announcement, the 21st century version of the Great Game was on, and strategically-located Burma instantly became one of its focal points.
Soon thereafter Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed to Burma, a country long assumed to have become a virtual client-state of China. Despite the fact that the US had isolated the country for more than two decades, Clinton received a warm reception and the blessing of Aung San Suu Kyi, the charismatic pro-democracy leader who in the past was accused of being an obstacle to improved Burma-US ties.
“We are so happy that Secretary Clinton had a very good meeting in Naypyidaw [with President Thein Sein] and we are happy with the way in which the United States is engaging with us,” Suu Kyi said during a joint-press briefing with Clinton. During the briefing, she said that Burma wanted to maintain "good, friendly relations with China, our very close neighbor, and not just with China but the rest of the world."
For the most part, the Chinese leadership played it coy. Its foreign minister even voiced tepid support for the renewed US-Burma relationship. But overall, the tight-lipped comments belied Beijing’s displeasure at being upstaged in its own backyard. And while Thein Sein and Suu Kyi both gave public assurances that Burma would maintain good relations with Beijing, given the direction the winds are blowing in the Asia-Pacific region, those assurances may not be sufficient to soothe the giant dragon.
The US secretary of state visited Burma
The Global Times, a mouthpiece for the Chinese government, wrote during Clinton’s visit that China has no resistance toward Burma seeking an improved relationship with the West, but wouldn’t accept this “while seeing its interests stomped on.”
Since Burma achieved independence in 1948, its relationship with China has seen ups and downs. In the early 1950s, the two countries agreed to abide by the “five principles for peaceful coexistence” in international relations, including non-interference in each other's internal affairs and mutual respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty. Burma had many “firsts” with China – the first nation outside the Communist bloc to recognize the People’s Republic in 1949 and the first to conclude a Treaty of Friendship and Mutual Non-Aggression in 1961.
Later in the 1960s, China called Burmese dictator Ne Win a “fascist” and backed efforts of communist insurgents to topple his regime, which ultimately failed. Burma also experienced anti-Chinese riots in 1967. Despite these difficulties, Ne Win’s foreign policy remained “neutral” during the Cold War.
Relations turned warmer when a new military regime took power in Burma, cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators, placed Suu Kyi under house arrest and ignored the results of the 1990 election. While Western governments slapped sanctions on the junta, China stepped in to fill the void by supplying military hardware, aid, loans and diplomatic cover for Burma.
In return, the Burmese gave China sweetheart deals, particularly for exploiting the country’s natural resources. With Western powers on the sidelines, China had virtually no competition in securing lucrative contracts. Burma became a mostly reliable ally for China, cementing what the Burmese call a paukphaw relationship, or “brotherhood,” with frequent state visits by national leaders.
US sanctions pushed the junta generals into Beijing’s waiting arms. China, however, may have overplayed its hand.
But most ordinary Burmese people were repulsed by China’s support for the brutal regime and China’s extraction of natural resources with little regard for the environment and local populations. Burmese government officials were increasingly unhappy with Beijing’s condescending attitude as well.
As a result, anti-Chinese sentiment grew. Most Burmese viewed China’s support as intended only for exploiting Burma’s natural resources and gaining strategic access to the Indian Ocean.
The two decades of Western sanctions had the ironic side-effect of pushing junta generals into Beijing’s waiting arms. China, however, may have overplayed its hand – providing the West a chance to turn the tables.
The groundwork for this opportunity was laid in 2009, when the Obama administration adopted its policy of constructively engaging Naypyidaw while maintaining sanctions on the regime. At first the new policy appeared to pay few dividends. But when President Thein Sein took office earlier this year, he sent clear signals that he sought international legitimacy and the lifting of sanctions.
Most significantly, Thein Sein and his government invited Suu Kyi to a meeting in Naypyidaw. They followed up by easing media restrictions, releasing political prisoners, starting local ceasefire discussions with ethnic armed groups, passing a new labor law and amending the political-parties registration law to allow Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy to register and compete in elections. Thein Sein sent his foreign minister to Washington and welcomed visits by US special envoy Derek Mitchell.
Meanwhile, in October Thein Sein announced suspension of the China-funded Myitsone Dam in Kachin State, a project that provoked strong public opposition. He sent the commander-in-chief of Burma’s armed forces, General Min Aung Hlaing, to visit China’s historical adversary Vietnam before sending him to Beijing. In addition to visiting China soon after being elected, Thein Sein went to India as well – a strong indication of Burma’s efforts to diversify its portfolio of strategic partners in the region.
Chinese leaders recognize that a peaceful, stable Burma will benefit the region, particularly China.
Results of these shifts soon became evident: ASEAN agreed to give Burma its chair in 2014, Suu Kyi and the NLD agreed to register and take part in the upcoming by-election, Obama agreed to send Clinton to Burma, and she delivered carrots in the form of relaxed restrictions on both foreign aid and international banking advice.
One purpose of Clinton’s visit was to endorse Burma’s reform path and maintain its momentum, and her presence in Naypyidaw certainly boosted Thein Sein’s desire for international and domestic legitimacy. Of course, Burma’s reform process remains brittle, and the president faces hardline elements within his own government who reportedly resist changes.
Still, China has reason to worry its influence in Burma could wane.
Burma’s generals are well-versed in the art of playing international powers against one another. Just before Clinton arrived in Naypyidaw, Burma sent a counterbalancing message to the US: Min Aung Hlaing flew to China to meet with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, expected to become China’s president in 2012. The military chief signed a defense cooperation agreement, and the two sides talked of enhancing their “comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation.”
Thein Sein delivered the message to Clinton that Burma would continue its relationship with China while strengthening ties with other countries. He pointedly called Beijing a strong, geopolitically important partner that had encouraged Burma to improve its relationship with Western countries.
In fact, China had expressed deep frustration over the behavior of Burma’s past regime and the intransigence of its generals. China’s leaders recognize that a peaceful, stable Burma will benefit the region, particularly China.
But on the flip side, as Burma improves its human rights record, it won’t have to rely on China to act as a shield at the UN, and if more international investment comes to Burma, Naypyidaw will have greater leverage in negotiating deals.
Therefore, if Burma continues on its path to democratic reform and determines which relationships offer the most benefits, China will be forced to adjust its policies and approach for a new Great Game.