US turns to China to
By Drew Thompson
When US President George W Bush met with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the
Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Sydney on September 6, trade and
Taiwan appeared to dominate their agenda. Little notice, however, was taken of
one of Bush's talking points: Myanmar.
The US government has long sought to isolate Myanmar because of the persistent
human-rights abuses that have occurred since the military junta refused to
recognize the results of a 1990 election. Recent protests over rising fuel
prices in Myanmar's main city of Yangon resulted in the detention of protesters
dissidents, ensuring that Bush would raise the issue during his relatively
brief face-to-face meeting with Hu.
US officials expect that they can encourage China to use its long-standing
political and economic influence with Myanmar's ruling generals to improve its
human-rights practices and release the winner of the 1990 elections, Aung San
Suu Kyi, from house arrest. Unfortunately, a significant gap remains between
Chinese and US interests in Myanmar and there is little likelihood that China
will abandon its realist approach to its neighbor and become embroiled in
Myanmar's domestic politics at the behest of the United States.
Late last month, protesters in Yangon took to the streets to protest recent
fuel-price increases. The government responded swiftly, arresting dissidents
associated with opposition leader Suu Kyi, ensuring that what has been a
low-grade crisis for the past 20 years features more prominently on the US
Burma, as the US State Department continues to call Myanmar (the junta
officially renamed the country in 1989), has been in a constant state of
disarray stemming from economic sanctions, political isolation and government
mismanagement. In addition to ethnic unrest and widespread poverty, the country
faces a constant energy crisis at home, despite oil and gas reserves both on
and offshore. Trucks, taxis, buses and private cars spend hours each week in
long fuel lines, while black-market fueling stations line highways beyond city
limits. Electricity outages are a daily occurrence, and generators dot the
sidewalks in front of shops in Yangon and Mandalay.
A member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) since 1997,
Myanmar's erratic leadership has long caused embarrassment to the other
members, in addition to challenging the grouping's desire to be a relevant and
effective regional force. Bound by treaty and shared principles not to
interfere in one another's internal politics, ASEAN members are determined to
employ a "constructive engagement" strategy with Myanmar.
Additionally, both Chinese and US interests have to be taken seriously by ASEAN
member nations. As China's economic and political presence increases steadily,
ASEAN nations have to be particularly cautious not to get caught between an
increasingly assertive China and the dominant power, the United States.
Growing competition from India
China has significant historic, political, and economic ties to Myanmar, while
India struggles to catch up. Burma was the first non-communist country to
recognize the People's Republic of China in 1949. The China-Burma border
dispute was settled in 1960, in contrast to the China-India border that remains
China has been a staunch supporter of the current military junta, providing
arms and diplomatic support in the United Nations, as well as aid for
infrastructure and projects to increase cross-border commerce. Moreover,
northern Myanmar has a large ethnic-Chinese population, creating cultural ties
that facilitate trade, both legitimate and illicit, between the two countries.
China considers Myanmar be securely within its sphere of influence and sees
India's attempts to increase its presence as a direct challenge.
With proven natural-gas reserves of about 2.48 trillion cubic meters,
representing 1.4% of the world supply, and little capital or infrastructure to
exploit it, Myanmar is increasingly at the center of a growing competition
between India and China to develop and transport offshore natural gas to their
respective home markets.
Compared with China, India's growing need to import energy is often overlooked.
Indian economic growth is second only to China's, with increases of about 9% in
gross domestic product in each of the past two years, and like China, India is
dependent on oil and gas imports to fuel its expanding economy.
India is the sixth-largest energy importer, and its import growth rate is
climbing faster than China's. Last month, India's oil minister publicly
expressed his concerns that it is losing out to China in the race to ensure its
energy security. Though subsequently disputed by other parties, the minister
illustrated his point by announcing that Myanmar had awarded China the right to
build a pipeline from two offshore gas fields in which Indian state-owned
companies hold a 30% minority stake.
Regardless of the accuracy of the minister's remarks (or the poor transparency
of the award process), Indian concerns about the success of Chinese investments
in Myanmar's infrastructure and energy sectors are genuine. Chinese media have
recently announced agreements to develop three offshore gas fields and to build
a pipeline connecting the port of Sittwe with southwestern China.
This competition for regional influence and resources is shaping geostrategic
perceptions in both China and India. India, which straddles the vital sea lanes
linking the Persian Gulf to Asia, is concerned about a growing Chinese presence
in the Indian Ocean and the Middle East.
Chinese-funded ports and bases reportedly under construction in Myanmar,
Bangladesh and Pakistan increase India's concerns that China might someday
challenge them in the Indian Ocean, validating their desire to build another
aircraft carrier. China's opaque military buildup is an additional cause for
India's concern as China's academics debate the geopolitical impact of having
its own aircraft carrier and People's Liberation Army officers consider the
technical complexities of building and operating one.
Myanmar is not Sudan
China, as opposed to India, faces considerably more pressure from the
international community to use its influence in countries such as Myanmar and
Sudan. China's permanent seat on the UN Security Council, an expanding global
economic footprint, and its comparable success over India in the
energy-security "race" exposes it to greater censure. While Indian officials
are questioned about their ties to Myanmar, which include military aid to the
junta, India's democratic government and comparably better human-rights record
shield it to some extent (though India's own human-rights record is far from
Although India imports 3 million tonnes of "equity crude" per year from Sudan
and holds a 25% stake in the production consortium, India has received much
less criticism from US activists. China National Petroleum Corp holds a 40%
controlling stake in the venture and imports more than twice India's volume of
crude oil. While China had previously resisted pressuring the Sudanese
government to address the Darfur issue, it has become more proactive in
supporting a peacekeeping plan, winning public support from the UN and even
some US officials.
Just as China has demonstrated some flexibility interpreting its long-standing
"non-interference" ideology with Sudan, there are some indications that China
will also seek to play a positive role in Myanmar. China is particularly
sensitive to criticism in the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, which
has provided a platform for activists advocating for various interests.
US First Lady Laura Bush has been vocal about the political repression in
Myanmar and sees China as a logical instrument with leverage to drive political
change. She has met with activists and called UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon
to discuss the issue of Myanmar.
In a recent interview reported by the Wall Street Journal, the first lady
stated her strategy: "China does have a huge amount of influence over Burma,"
she said. "They share a border, for one thing. But also, they ... use the
natural resources out of Burma," and in the end "they prop up a government that
- a failed state, really, is what they're propping up, just like in the Sudan."
Mrs Bush added, "Right now, after cooperating with China in the six-party talks
with North Korea, and with the Chinese Olympics coming up, I think this is a
really good time for activists and advocates for Burma and the Sudan and other
countries to put pressure on China."
As in Sudan, China has recently taken an interest in ensuring that US interests
in Myanmar are considered. This June in Beijing, a senior US State Department
official met with Myanmar's minister of foreign affairs in an unusually direct
meeting brokered by the Chinese. The last time a similar senior-level
US-Myanmar meeting took place was in 2003.
However, there are undoubtedly limits to China's willingness and ability to be
a "responsible stakeholder" in the case of Myanmar. While China enjoys good
relations with the ruling Myanmar junta, guanxi (networking) alone is
unlikely to cause political reforms to take place. Myanmar is not wholly
dependent on China for trade and international political protection and can
afford to say "no".
In addition, Myanmar's generals view China's growing political and economic
influence in the region with increasing discomfort, and India's interest in
Myanmar's energy sector offers a convenient hedge, and an opportunity to obtain
better economic terms for licensing access to its energy.
Mindful that its leverage is not as strong as critics might suggest, China has
been careful to point out that, while not antagonistic, it does not necessarily
share ownership with US interests. One Chinese official, when informally
queried about human rights in Myanmar, stated the Chinese position succinctly,
saying, "This is your issue." That said, the United States and China do have
some mutual interests in Myanmar, such as anti-narcotics efforts and other
humanitarian and non-traditional security issues, which can form a basis for
The United States, ASEAN, India and China are all aware that the people of
Myanmar suffer from extensive poverty induced by horrendous governance, though
there is no consensus about how best to address that challenge. Fostering
change will require continued US attention and dialogue with regional friends,
including ASEAN members, India and China to influence Myanmar's ruling generals
to implement meaningful political reforms. Collaborative efforts that improve
the human-security situation in Myanmar remain one potential avenue for
cooperation that will ease suffering and contribute to long-term efforts to
improve the political situation.
Washington must recognize, however, that China and India have a growing need
for energy, and Myanmar is a strategic consideration in both countries'
calculations. A US strategy to promote democracy and human rights in Myanmar
should recognize that ASEAN, Chinese and Indian interests do not necessarily
coincide with its human-rights agenda.
For instance, India, the world's largest democracy, has shown little interest
in "exporting" its political system. Likewise, the US must recognize that
China's influence in Myanmar has its limits, particularly as India wages its
own effort to woo the generals. Finding common ground on political as well as
energy issues will increase the likelihood of success in bringing political
reform and stability to Myanmar while at the same time providing for China and
India's energy security.
Drew Thompson is the director of China studies and Starr senior fellow at
the Nixon Center in Washington, DC. He was formerly the national director of
the China-MSD (Merck Sharp & Dohme) HIV/AIDS partnership in Beijing and the
assistant director of the Freeman chair in China studies at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies.