Tuesday, September 1, 2009

China’s Troublesome Little Brother

The Irrawaddy News

Behind displays of friendship, Beijing is showing signs that it is losing patience with Burma’s politically inept ruling generals

When Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye, the second most powerful figure in Burma’s ruling junta, led a high-level delegation to Beijing in mid-June, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency dutifully reported that the visit—the general’s third in six years—was aimed at strengthening friendly and cooperative ties between the two neighboring countries.

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, left, holds a welcoming ceremony in honor of Gen Maung Aye, right, vice-chairman of Burma’s ruling junta at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 16, 2009.
(Photo: www.english.cpc.people.com.cn)

Behind the scenes of the outwardly amicable visit, however, the story was not so simple. According to businessmen close to the regime in Naypyidaw, before departing for Beijing, Maung Aye complained that China was meddling in Burma’s affairs. A former commander of the Burmese army’s northern region who once fought several fierce battles against the Chinese-backed Communist Party of Burma in the 1970s and 1980s, Maung Aye has never really trusted Beijing. Now, he grumbled, Chinese leaders were trying to tell Naypyidaw how it should deal with Aung San Suu Kyi, who was facing imprisonment on charges of violating the terms of her house arrest.

On the Chinese side, too, feelings were far more ambivalent than the Xinhua report would have us believe. Since the 2004 ouster of former Prime Minister Gen Khin Nyunt, Beijing’s relations with the Burmese regime have been on a less secure footing. Unlike the relatively open-minded Khin Nyunt, the current leadership in Naypyidaw consists entirely of dyed-in-the-wool xenophobes. Even a friendly word of advice was likely to strain the relationship carefully built up over the past two decades.

In the end, Maung Aye’s visit passed without incident. Although Beijing had earlier joined Burma’s other neighbors in calling for the release of Suu Kyi, and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told the Burmese regime’s No 2 that he hoped the military would help to promote democracy in Burma, the pro-democracy leader herself was not mentioned directly in discussions between the two sides. Significantly, however, news of the international outcry over the trial of Suu Kyi aired on Beijing television during Maung Aye’s visit, perhaps sending a message that world opinion could not be ignored, even in Communist-controlled China.

Despite such subtle hints, however, it is clear that Beijing is not about to depart from its long-held policy of noninterference in Burma’s political affairs—a policy that it has maintained even under more trying circumstances.

Chinese workers seal the pipeline along the 1,272-kilometer transnational natural gas pipeline in Luoyang in central China’s Henan Province on Dec 11, 2008. China’s demand for oil and gas has expanded rapidly in recently years to fuel its double-digit economic growth, as the country imported nearly 200 million tons of oil in 2007, up more than 10 percent from 2006. (Photo: AFP)

When Burmese troops and security forces were killing monks on the streets of Rangoon in September 2007, provoking international outrage, Beijing made it clear that it wasn’t going to join in the chorus of criticism. Instead, it reacted by issuing an anodyne statement calling on all parties to exercise restraint—and for the rest of the world to mind its own business. Soon after the dust settled, the Burmese regime’s leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, returned the favor by sending an envoy to Beijing to explain the situation. And so the whole episode was reduced to a mere bump in the road of Sino-Burmese relations.

It came as no surprise, then, that when a Burmese court sentenced Suu Kyi to a further 18 months under house arrest on August 11, Beijing did not deviate from its script.

“International society should fully respect Myanmar’s [Burma’s] judicial sovereignty,” said a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, adding that Beijing would not back any calls for UN action against the Burmese regime. Two days after the sentence was announced, the UN Security Council, of which China is a permanent member with veto powers, expressed “concern” over the court’s ruling and reiterated its call for a “genuine dialogue” aimed at achieving national reconciliation.

During Maung Aye’s visit to China, Burma’s state-run press noted with evident satisfaction that Beijing is the regime’s staunchest defender on the international stage. But why has China remained such a faithful patron of this miscreant regime? The answer, quite simply, is that Burma is a resource-rich country with the means to help China satisfy its hunger for energy and raw materials.

Maung Aye’s visit highlighted this key aspect of the bilateral relationship. While he was in China, the two countries signed three documents—an agreement on economic and technical cooperation, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the development, operation and delivery of electricity from hydropower projects in Maykha, Malikha and upstream of the Irrawaddy-Myitsone river basin, and an MoU relating to the development, operation and management of the Burma-China crude oil pipeline project.

Around the same time as Maung Aye’s trip, Burma’s Ministry of National Planning and Development released a report showing that foreign investment in Burma had jumped from $172.7 million in the 2007-2008 fiscal year to $984.9 million in 2008-2009. The ministry said 87 percent of the total invested in Burma came from China.

China’s investment in Burma is focused mainly on energy and natural resources—hydropower, mining and oil and gas projects. Construction of the pipeline, which will transport gas and oil from the port town of Sittwe on the Arakan coast to China’s landlocked southwestern province of Yunnan, is set to begin in September.

In exchange for access to Burma’s resources and strategically important ports, China provides not only diplomatic cover, but also soft loans for the regime and weapons for its oversized army. It hopes in this way to ensure that Burma remains a part of China’s long-term strategy for economic growth. Although Beijing professes to refrain from interfering in Burma’s political affairs, it is clearly determined to protect its interests by providing the regime with the military means to maintain stability. If the junta proves incapable of containing unrest, Beijing will reconsider its backing; but until then, the generals can count on Chinese support.

China has little interest in promoting Burma’s democratization, but it has been happy to play along with UN efforts to end the country’s political stalemate. When UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon traveled to Naypyidaw in June, Chinese officials said they welcomed the move. But when the regime refused to allow Ban to meet with Suu Kyi, China’s deputy UN ambassador, Liu Zhenmin, said it was “understandable” under the circumstances. He also said that the Burmese regime should be treated with less arrogance and prejudice, and ruled out any possibility of Beijing using its influence to persuade the regime to change its ways.

By the time Maung Aye returned from his visit to China, his misgivings about Beijing’s reliability as an ally appeared to have vanished. Soon after his trip, he visited the Sino-Burmese border and announced plans to build an international airport there. He also reportedly told local businessmen and accompanying ministers that if Burma’s relationship with China continued to grow, Burma would have no need for Western—particularly US—assistance.

This must have been music to Beijing’s ears, but it seems to have done little to allay Chinese concerns about potential US rivalry for influence in Burma. Despite its policy of isolating the Burmese regime, Washington has played a very active role in Burma, primarily through its support for Suu Kyi and pro-democracy groups inside and outside the country. Chinese officials who regularly travel to Thailand to meet exiled Burmese groups often ask them questions about the support they receive from the US.

To offset Washington’s role as the primary sponsor of the democratic opposition, China has expanded its network of contacts within the exiled dissident community. Chinese officials from various government departments based in Yunnan Province, which borders Burma, have been meeting with exiled Burmese groups in Thailand with increasing frequency. More remarkably, they have even allowed conferences and seminars on Burmese issues to take place in China. This is something the Chinese have learned from watching exiled Burmese civil society groups operating in Thailand.

For their part, Burmese dissidents realize that although they already have strong political backing from the West, they also need to lobby China to reconsider its policy toward the repressive regime. The National League for Democracy (NLD), Burma’s main opposition party, has sent several letters to the Chinese embassy in Rangoon, signaling that it sees China as a potentially positive influence. However, there has been no official response to these letters, which were signed by NLD Chairman Aung Shwe, and which expressed a desire to forge a “fraternal relationship” with China and asked for Beijing’s support in Burma’s stalled national reconciliation process.

This lack of a response contrasts starkly with China’s overtures to the NLD in 1990, when the party had just won a landslide victory in Burma’s last democratic elections.

Chinese leaders were among the first to congratulate the NLD on its convincing win and called on the Burmese regime to release Suu Kyi from house arrest. But when it became clear that the junta had no intention of honoring the results of the election, China changed its tune, remarking on the military’s role in winning Burma’s independence from colonial rule—implying that this gave the junta a mandate to hold onto power.

Nearly 20 years later, Beijing may have few regrets about its decision to throw its weight behind the junta, but it is growing increasingly wary of the cost of backing a regime that has failed to resolve any of the potentially explosive issues that continue to threaten stability on China’s doorstep. As Chinese analyst Wen Liao wrote in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Burma is an unreliable client for China. The fact that the Burmese regime is morally reprehensible is not an issue for Beijing, but the overwhelming evidence of the ruling generals’ incompetence is a serious cause for concern, Wen wrote.

Beijing is not only worried about being dragged through the mud every time Burma’s rulers commit a new outrage. Naypyidaw’s secret missions to Pyongyang and its shady nuclear ambitions are emerging as a new threat to regional stability, and Burma’s restive ethnic ceasefire groups, many based along the Sino-Burmese border, are becoming a major headache for Beijing. As Wen wrote, despite Burma’s importance as part of China’s so-called “string of pearls” policy, which attempts to build naval and intelligence bases around the Indian Ocean, the benefits of those strategic assets have come at a price.

While Washington’s review of US policy on Burma has attracted considerable attention in recent months, perhaps it is time to ask if Beijing is also re-examining its approach. According to Wen, Chinese leaders are now considering the possibility that Suu Kyi’s party may be a more reliable partner for long-term bilateral cooperation after all.

It seems unlikely at this stage that Beijing will actually make another dramatic shift like it did in the 1980s, when it withdrew its all-out support for the Communist Party of Burma. But don’t be surprised if Beijing begins to introduce subtle policy changes that could undercut the alliance that has been the junta’s main lifeline for the past two decades.

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