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    Southeast Asia
     Feb 11, 2005
Yangon still under Beijing's thumb
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - While the sacking of Myanmar's prime minister Khin Nyunt in mid-October last year might have taken China by surprise, his exit from the power structure appears not to have weakened - as India had hoped - Beijing's influence in the country. China's influence in Myanmar seems well protected by the significant dependence of the military junta in Yangon on Chinese weapons and investment.

Khin Nyunt was widely regarded as pro-China. His arrest and subsequent ouster for "corruption" was therefore seen in Delhi as the removal of a big obstacle in the path of India's growing quest for influence in Myanmar. India and China, Myanmar's two large neighbors, are competing for influence in the country. But unlike India's more recent wooing of Myanmar's generals, China's ties with them are well-entrenched.

In fact, Myanmar's close relations with China go back several decades. And analysts have often drawn attention to the fact that Myanmar's ties with China are marked with several "firsts". Myanmar was the first country outside the communist bloc to recognize the People's Republic of China in 1949, the first to conclude a Treaty of Friendship and Mutual Non-Aggression with the nation, the first to achieve a boundary settlement in 1961, and one of the first to patch up relations with China after the Cultural Revolution which was officially declared over in 1977.

Since 1988, when Myanmar's army seized power in a bloody coup, China has been the military junta's staunchest ally. The ruling junta is shunned by the West for its abysmal human-rights record and for its stubborn refusal to hand power to pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy won around 80% of the seats in the 1990 elections. China has been among the few countries that have refrained from criticizing the ruling generals for the bloody coup or for their utter contempt for democratic norms since then.

Myanmar's generals see China's substantial economic, military and political support as vital, in a world where they have few powerful friends. China is officially Myanmar's third-largest trading partner after Singapore and Thailand - though the figure probably underestimates the substantial informal trade that takes place across their shared border. China has provided Myanmar with more than US$200 million in economic assistance. It has helped with the development of Myanmar's infrastructure - the construction of roads, railroads, airfields, ports and dams throughout the country. And China is believed to be the largest foreign investor in Myanmar, though the size of this investment is not recorded and not visible in international statistics.

China is also Myanmar's most important defense ally, supplying most of its military hardware and training. Over the past decade, China's military sales to Yangon, which include jet fighters, armored vehicles and naval vessels, have been valued at around $2 billion. This has made the Myanmar military - the second largest in Southeast Asia after Vietnam - much more technically sophisticated. It has enabled the army to expand from 180,000 men to more than 450,000 today.

Khin Nyunt is believed to have played a substantial role in expanding and deepening this relationship with China, and his departure from Myanmar's political scene was therefore seen as a setback to China's role in Myanmar. This perception was further strengthened by the junta's top leader, General Than Shwe, who is also the commander-in-chief of its defense forces, going ahead with his visit to India - the first by a Myanmarese head of state in 25 years - within a week of Khin Nyunt's ouster.

A significant warming in the India-Myanmar relationship was visible during Than Shwe's visit, contributing to some jubilation in New Delhi that its decade-long efforts to woo the generals were slowly paying off. The exit of Khin Nyunt, especially in light of Than Shwe's visit to India, was viewed in Delhi as likely to result in a possible tilt in Myanmar's equations with its two giant neighbors in India's favor. Such hopes have, however, been dismissed by analysts such as Mohan Malik, professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, who warn that "expectations of a major strategic shift" in Yangon's foreign policy are "premature and unwarranted".

Indeed, while Than Shwe indicated through his India visit that he was willing to romance Delhi, the military junta quickly took steps to reassure China of its friendship. Within days of Than Shwe's visit to India, the new prime minister, Lieutenant General Soe Win, visited China. Myanmar's Chief of General Staff General Thura Shwe Mann went to China soon after. During his visit, China and Myanmar signed a memorandum of understanding on the establishment of a border defense talks mechanism and the management of border affairs.

These events indicate that notwithstanding Khin Nyunt's exit, Myanmar, on account of its substantial dependence on China's political, diplomatic, economic and military support, is unlikely to disturb its relationship with Beijing. While it might be keen to improve ties with India and has shown considerable sensitivity to India's concerns regarding anti-India insurgents taking sanctuary on Myanmar soil, this is not going to be at the cost of its ties with China.

How Beijing benefits
It is not just the junta that is keen on not shaking the Myanmar-China relationship. Beijing too is anxious to ensure that its influence in Myanmar is not eroded. Economic ties with Myanmar are viewed in Beijing as vital to the economic development of its own impoverished provinces in the southwest - Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou. More importantly, Beijing sees Myanmar as an important path through which it can expand its strategic influence into Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.

Malik argues: "An objective and realistic assessment of China's strategic and economic needs and Burma's [Myanmar's] predicament shows that Beijing is unlikely to easily give up what it has already gained in and through Burma ... Beijing will use all means available to keep Burma under its thumb. Clearly, Beijing did not provide diplomatic protection, arms, aid and finance - all on very generous terms - to Rangoon [Yangon] in its hour of need for nothing."

Two reasons why China will double its efforts to ensure its influence in Myanmar are India's growing role in Myanmar and also Myanmar's declining dependence on Beijing. Sources in India's Ministry of External Affairs maintain that while China is miles ahead of India in the race to woo the generals and is nowhere near dislodging China as the junta's staunchest ally, India's influence in Myanmar is growing. They admit that China is unlikely to sit back, while India slowly builds its ties with the generals.

Besides, today Myanmar is not quite so friendless. At one time it had no other choice than to be completely dependent on China. Today, it has other options. It can look to India, Japan and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and has been diversifying its economic and defense partners. Moreover, it is said that members of the military junta, especially people such as Maung Aye, the second most powerful man in Myanmar, are keen to reduce the country's dependence on China.

Another factor that has prompted the generals' growing wariness of China's influence in Myanmar is the serious influx of ethnic Chinese into the country. There are stretches of land in Myanmar that are completely peopled by Mandarin-speaking ethnic Chinese and more than a million Chinese are said to have moved into Myanmar over the past decade. This influx is believed to have changed the demographic makeup of the country's north. Myanmar people are said to be very unhappy with the influx of Chinese, a development that they blame on the junta's embrace of the Chinese government.

This, added to the groundswell of discontent against the generals in Myanmar, is prompting the junta to rethink its excessive dependence on China and it's encouragement of Beijing's role in the country. An attempt to break out of China's control was visible from the late 1990s onwards. China responded by twisting the generals' arms. For instance, it insisted that Myanmar pay interest on loans that had originally been granted interest-free when the junta sought closer defense ties with other countries in the region.

The exit of Khin Nyunt is sure to have unsettled China. And China is unlikely to take the development quietly. Neither is it likely to be comforted by mere assurances from the generals that the Sino-Myanmar relationship will remain unchanged under the new dispensation in Yangon. It will expect Myanmar to show its loyalty to Beijing by not moving too enthusiastically in India's direction.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent researcher/writer based in Bangalore, India. She has a doctoral degree from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Her areas of interest include terrorism, conflict zones and gender and conflict. Formerly an assistant editor at Deccan Herald (Bangalore) she now teaches at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.

(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)


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