What role does Burma really play in Beijing’s policy plans?
Eleven bilateral agreements. A commitment to cooperate in the war on drugs
and cross-frontier crime. And a large measure of mutual praise. Those were the
official and much-publicized results of the week-long visit to China in mid-July
by Burmese Prime Minister Gen Khin Nyunt.
But a week is a long time in politics. Were the high-level talks confined to
adding the finishing touches and signatures to documents on which the ink had
probably already dried? Or were the wider and deeper issues attached to Burma’s
role in China’s forward foreign policy planning addressed behind the heavy,
ornate doors of Beijing’s palaces of power?
Central to China’s regional concerns is its very real interest in seeing a
stable and economically viable Burmese state on its western frontiers. Some
Chinese officials have openly linked stability to "democracy", and Chinese
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue is on record as urging a "good internal
and external environment for Myanmar’s [Burma’s] democratization".
Beijing’s concept of "democratization" doesn’t yet embrace an open acceptance
of Burma’s opposition National League for Democracy, or NLD. The Chinese Embassy
in Rangoon, for instance, keeps a demonstrative distance from the NLD.
Nor is there any open Chinese sympathy for the plight of its leader, Aung San
Suu Kyi, held under house arrest at her home outside Rangoon for more than a
year. Yet Suu Kyi’s name appears regularly in Chinese media reports on Burmese
Within Burma, critics of NLD policies call for greater efforts to forge ties
between the Burmese opposition and China, arguing that such a strategy would
undermine the military regime’s propagandistic claim that Suu Kyi is just a
puppet of the West.
It can’t have escaped Beijing’s notice that Suu Kyi has never openly
criticized China or its ties with Rangoon. Chinese foreign policy pundits must
also be aware that Suu Kyi has also never expressed clearly pro-Western
sentiments. Her aides describe her as a nationalist and maintain she would
never, for instance, allow an American military presence in Burma—another source
of comfort for Beijing.
Earlier this year, China’s vice prime minister, "iron lady" Wu Yi, urged the
Rangoon government, during an official visit to Burma, to push the country’s
political situation in a more positive direction. She told junta chairman Sr-Gen
Than Shwe that Beijing wanted to see Burma consolidate economic development—and
at the same time achieve political stability and national harmony.
Wu Yi's pragmatic political approach highlighted the differences in style
between the Beijing and Rangoon leaderships—the Chinese power structure of
autocrats, politicians and bureaucrats contrasting starkly with a Burmese
executive system rooted in a rigidly military framework, built around inflexible
men in uniform with little idea of economic and investment policies.
For Burmese observers, this goes a long way towards explaining the success of
Chinese economic policies and the miserable state of affairs in Burma.
China’s interest in a stable Burma was clearly in evidence last year when it
sent a delegation to the Thai-sponsored "Bangkok Process". Its stand on Burma is
also being closely monitored in other regional and international arenas,
particularly in its relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations,
or Asean, and its work at the United Nations, whose special envoy Razali Ismail
one year ago called directly on Beijing to help break political deadlock in
Burma. Some dissidents even expect a Chinese abstention if a resolution calling
for sanctions against Burma is ever put to a Security Council vote.
For now, national interests dictate Beijing’s stand on Burma, and these are
principally economic and military-strategic.
Burma offers China a direct route to the Indian Ocean, and railroad and oil
pipeline projects are under scrutiny in Beijing and Rangoon.
The oil pipeline would connect Kunming, capital of China’s southwestern
Yunnan Province, and Sittwe on the Burmese coast, cutting 1,200 km from the
present sea route between the Persian Gulf and China’s Guangdong Province, via
the Straits of Malacca. More than 60 percent of China’s oil travels this
Relations between Burma and China haven’t always been this positive. They
began well enough when in 1949 Burma became the first country outside the
Communist bloc to recognize China. Rangoon still pursues a "one China" policy (a
stand which won the thanks of President Hu Jintao during Khin Nyunt’s visit),
despite the presence of 300 Taiwanese firms in Burma. Less than 20 years later,
however, relations went into a tailspin.
The bad patch began in 1967, when thousands of Chinese demonstrated in
Rangoon against a Ministry of Education decree banning students from wearing
"unauthorized badges". The ban came at the height of the Cultural Revolution,
when virtually all pro-regime Chinese—at home and abroad—sported Mao badges.
More than 1,300 Chinese residents of Rangoon were arrested during the
demonstrations, sparking protests by the Chinese Embassy. Demonstrators turned
their anger on the embassy and attacked the compound.
China claimed several hundred people were killed in the clashes. Official
Burmese sources put the figure at 50.
The political consequences were grave. Diplomatic relations were effectively
severed, Chinese aid programs were suspended, Chinese technicians working in
Burma were recalled, young Burmese studying in China were ordered home.
The unrest—which some said was stirred up to divert attention from severe
rice shortages—came one year after a visit to the United States by Burmese
leader Ne Win. The visit, at the invitation of President Lyndon Johnson, rang
alarm bells in Beijing, and Chinese party chairman Liu Shao-Chi and Foreign
Minister Chen Yi flew to Rangoon with the reported purpose of trying to persuade
Ne Win to cancel the trip.
Relations between Burma and China were paradoxically complicated by a
generous aid program initiated by Beijing in the early 1960s. Former Deputy
Prime Minister Kyaw Nyein, even though known for his pro-Western views, praised
the Chinese aid, which came with no conditions attached. Some of the aid went to
Rangoon’s greatest internal enemy, the Communist Party of Burma, or CPB, based
along the China-Burma border.
Rangoon wasn’t at all happy to see Chinese armaments and military advisers
bolstering the strength of the CPB. Beijing backed off in the face of a further
setback to good relations with Rangoon, and support for the CPB dwindled from
the 1980s onwards.
In 1989, a year after the military junta came to power, the CPB collapsed.
Most of the ethnic groups born out of that split reached ceasefire agreements
with the new regime.
In the same year, Rangoon gave tacit approval to the bloody suppression of
dissident demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square—a kind of reciprocal act
for China’s disapproval of the 1988 democracy uprising in Burma.
In 1990, the first major shipment of arms and ammunition from China arrived
in Rangoon. One year later, 11 Chinese-made F7 jet fighters were delivered, part
of a billion dollar arms deal that included tanks, armored personnel carriers,
naval patrol boats, anti-aircraft guns, missiles, light arms, ammunition and
other military equipment.
There are reports that Rangoon has failed to meet the terms of the arms deal,
and that China is refusing to provide new loans to the Rangoon regime. The
Chinese reluctance to advance more financial aid to Burma is even being ascribed
to American pressure on Bejing.
If that’s the case, and if additional
American pressure can lead to a Chinese abstention in any UN Security Council
vote on Burma, a new scenario emerges in the Burmese political stalemate. And
the outlines of that scenario were undoubtedly apparent behind closed doors at
the July talks in Beijing.