Wednesday, August 5, 2009

China edgy over Burma’s nuclear ambitions

by Brian McCartan

Bangkok (Mizzima) - Another round of revelations concerning Burma’s nuclear ambitions and its nexus with North Korea has thrown up renewed international interest. Combined with comments by the United States of its concern over the growing cooperation between its pariah neighbours, China must be growing increasingly uneasy.

The revelations came about in a report in The Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday and are based on two years of research by Desmond Ball, a strategic studies expert and Burma watcher at the Australian National University and freelance journalist Phil Thornton. Much of their information comes from the testimony of two defectors, who claim to have been connected to the nuclear programme, and from radio intercepts. While reports on Burma’s nuclear programme have been circulating for some time among the opposition media and Burmese activists, Ball and Thornton claim their research indicates with some certainty that two reactors are under development and that the regime is developing a nuclear weapons capability.

According to their research a 10 megawatt reactor is being developed with Russian assistance at Myaing in Magwe Division and another “secret” 10 megawatt reactor is being developed with North Korean help at Naung Laing in Mandalay Division. In addition, North Korea facilitated the construction of a uranium refining and enrichment facility at Thabike Kyin. Although both reactors are small, security analysts have noted that North Korea developed its runaway nuclear programme from a similar reactor at Yangbyon.

Of a more sinister nature, Ball and Thornton also claim that testimony from the defectors indicates that a programme is already underway to develop a viable nuclear weapon. Should the defectors testimony prove true, they say, then the “secret” reactor could be capable of “producing one bomb a year, every year, after 2014.”

Although a weapons programme would require more external support than is currently being provided, Pyongyang has shown a willingness to export technology and know-how to other reclusive and anti-Western regimes. In Burma’s case, that know-how and technology could be traded for fissionable nuclear material to continue the development of North Korea’s own weapons.

The voyage of a North Korean cargo ship, the Kang Nam 1, last month believed to be heading to Burma, aroused suspicions of cooperation between Pyongyang and Naypyidaw on the development of ballistic missiles. Opposition sources claim the junta may have already acquired Scud-type missiles or is testing its own designs with the help of North Korean advisors. These claims have not been independently verified, but a visit by General Thura Shwe Mann, SPDC Number 3, to North Korea seemed to partially confirm the claims when he and his entourage inspected a Scud production facility.

In early July, reports emerged that Tokyo police had arrested three Japanese executives for allegedly trying to sell equipment to Burma which could be used in ballistic missile construction. The Hong Kong-based New East International Trading Ltd. which had ordered the parts has been linked to the North Korean Pyongyang Worker’s Party.

Burma’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon and the development of ballistic missiles to deliver such a device will surely raise the regional security temperature and has the potential to spark a new Southeast Asian arms race. Following Saturday’s report, Thai National Security Council head Thawil Pliensri ordered officials to look into the reports.

Such a situation would almost certainly not be favoured by Burma's main international patron. Considerable effort has been spent by China in developing Burma as a source of cheap natural resources to supply its growing industrial base, as a trade gateway to its remote and landlocked southwestern region and as a strategic conduit for oil and gas shipments from the Middle East.

Work is scheduled to begin next month on an oil and gas pipeline that will carry 20 million tons of crude oil and 12 billion cubic meters of gas every year across Burma to the southwestern city of Kunming. The proposed pipeline will allow Chinese oil rigs to bypass the narrow Malacca Straits, where over 80 per cent of its current fuel imports pass and viewed as a potential strategic chokepoint in any conflict with the US.

The last thing China wants, say analysts, is to see its new commercial arteries put at risk by US concerns over a nuclear Burma. China has to varying degrees been propping up Burma’s military regime since it withdrew support for the Burmese Communist Party in the late 1980’s Beijing’s support through massive arms shipments has been key to the generals’ ability to rapidly expand their military to an estimated 500,000 soldiers.

China’s influence has also been key to deflecting criticism of Burma in international fora, including at the United Nation's Security Council. Since the 1980s Beijing has spent considerable effort and money making economic inroads and securing lucrative concessions over Burma's rich natural resources for Chinese companies.

Subtle signs have already surfaced of China’s growing annoyance with Burma’s brinksmanship with the international community. That assumed concern would no doubt grow if Burma were to acquire ballistic missiles or a nuclear-grade weapon. Australian Burma expert Andrew Selth wrote in a 2007 paper, "Beijing is unlikely to be happy about the prospect of the SPDC acquiring a nuclear weapon, given [Burma's] proximity to China, its internal instability and the unpredictable behaviour of its leaders."

While China has so far tolerated North Korean conventional weapons shipments and links to supplying ballistic missile and nuclear technology to other regimes considered unsavoury internationally such as Syria and Iran, that goodwill may be stretched by having that same technology shared with its nearby neighbours. This would be particularly the case if it sours ties with greater Southeast Asia, where it has recently dedicated considerable diplomatic and commercial energies in a so-called "soft power" campaign.

Maintaining regional stability is a paramount Chinese concern. Burma's possession of ballistic missiles or a nuclear capability would risk the spread of weapons of mass destruction technologies in a region where no state has acquired nuclear weapons. A regional arms race would likely ensue as Burma's neighbours sought deterrence options.

As Selth wrote, "In this atmosphere of fear and suspicion, the security stakes in the region would go up, raising the prospect of other countries feeling obliged to expand their own inventories of strategic weapons. Beijing would also worry about the possible response of the US to closer [Burma]-North Korea ties." If Burma were to acquire ballistic missiles and substantive evidence was found of a nuclear programme, Washington would likely be forced to re-evaluate its Burma policy towards more direct engagement.

During a regular press briefing on Monday, US Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, Philip J Crowley, said America was concerned by “the nature of cooperation between North Korea and Burma.” Although he did not elaborate on what type of cooperation and refused to comment on questions related to any underground nuclear complex, many observers believe the US is taking a renewed interest in Burma’s nuclear designs.

According to Andrew Selth in an article on August 3 in ‘The Interpreter’, the weblog of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, the Obama administration has conducted a thorough investigation of Burma’s nuclear programme as part of its ongoing review of its Burma policy. The US has, however, so far been cautious in its statements on the matter and seems to be waiting for more solid evidence before making a formal statement.

Continued leaks of information and the resultant media attention on military links and possible nuclear cooperation between Naypyidaw and Pyongyang will only serve to maintain and even heighten US interest in Burma. The Obama administration has already shown a renewed interest in Southeast Asia, making it in China’s best interest to reign in the ambitions of its southern neighbour.

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