Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Southeast Asia
     Oct 6, 2012

A one-sided history
Modern China-Myanmar Relations: Dilemmas of Mutual Dependence
by David I Steinberg and Hongwei Fan
Reviewed by Bertil Lintner

CHIANG MAI, Thailand - Myanmar's ongoing charm offensive with the West, and the West's warm response to the overtures, is without doubt being driven more by China than by a sudden democratic awakening among the country's ruling military elite. Nor are Western powers, despite their rhetoric and posturing,

placing progress on democracy and human rights at the top of their policy priorities. There is hypocrisy on both sides.

Years ago Myanmar's generals came to the realization that they were losing their economic and political independence to China and therefore had to "normalize" relations with the West. But they also realized that a rapprochement with the United States and the European Union, both of which maintained strict sanctions against the regime, would not be viable as long as the country was still ruled by a repressive military junta. To make the break, the junta would have to be replaced by some kind of constitutional government that allowed for more freedoms and civil liberties.

While paying lip service to democracy and human rights, the West has welcomed the "new Myanmar" with open arms, especially after President Thein Sein announced on September 30 last year that his government had suspended a US$3.6 billion joint-venture dam project with China that threatened environmental damage in the country's northern region. Two months later, Hillary Rodham Clinton paid a high-profile visit to Myanmar, the first by a US secretary of state in more than 50 years.

With all of the vaunted rhetoric of new beginnings and friendships, it is hardly surprising that erstwhile Myanmar ally China is now earnestly searching for ways to salvage the relationship. Academic-style journals in China have run several articles analyzing what went wrong with Beijing's Myanmar policy and what could and should be done to rectify it. One proposed measure was to launch a public relations campaign inside Myanmar aimed at overhauling China's current negative image in the country.

Against this shifting backdrop, a serious study of the ups and downs of China-Myanmar relations since the late 1940s - when Myanmar became independent from colonial Britain and communists took over China - would be most timely. US Myanmar scholar David Steinberg and Chinese academic Hongwei Fan attempt to examine that issue in their new volume, but fall short in presenting a credible portrait of the true nature of the often troubled relationship between the two neighbors.

Drawing heavily from official Chinese sources, Modern China-Myanmar Relations: Dilemmas of Mutual Independence contains useful trade statistics and information about China's economic expansion into Myanmar, as well as the rest of the region. While those materials present a new and original contribution to research on China's relations with its southern neighbors, over-reliance on those data is also the book's main weakness.

China does not have a freedom-of-information act that allows journalists and academics to access previously confidential official materials as in the United States. Nor does it have the equivalent of a Right to Information Act, which Asia's other giant, India, introduced in 2005. Official Chinese statements and documents do not reveal what actually happened or was said behind closed doors in Beijing's corridors of power or outlying provincial capitals. As cloak-and-dagger operations have for decades been the hallmark of China's Myanmar policy, official documents tell only a small part of what is a highly complex story.

For instance, Steinberg's and Fan's book perpetuates the myth that China's massive support for the insurgent Communist Party of Burma (which the authors erroneously refer to as "the Burma Communist Party") was prompted by June 1967 riots in the former capital Yangon's Chinatown caused by economic hardships that were blamed on the Sino-Myanmar business community. On January 1, 1968, CPB cadres, supported by Chinese "volunteers", entered northeastern Myanmar and aid started to pour into the Communists' new "liberated area" along the Sino-Myanmar border.

However, it would have been impossible to execute such a grand plan after only half a year of preparation. In reality, San Thu, one of the CPB's leaders in exile in China, began surveying the border for infiltration routes as early as 1963 - a year after an unpredictable general, Ne Win, had seized power and ousted the neutralist U Nu government, with which China maintained good relations. That same year, CPB exiles were introduced to a group of ethnic-Kachin fighters who had retreated from northern Myanmar into China in 1950.

They came to make up the bulk of the CPB's fighting force when it went into insurgent action five years later. Peace talks in Yangon in 1963 gave one of the main CPB leaders in exile in China, Thakin Ba Thein Tin, an opportunity to return to Myanmar and bring with him sophisticated radio transmitters which he secretly handed over to the comrades in the country. When the talks, as expected, broke down, Ba Thein Tin returned to China with the new benefit of direct radio contact between CPB forces at home and exiles based in Beijing.

Economics over rebellions
None of this had anything to do with the 1967 anti-Chinese riots in Yangon; those events merely provided China with a pretext for what was already long planned. In the 1960s and well into the 1970s, China's policy was to lend various kinds of support to communist revolutionary movements in the region, including in Myanmar, Indochina, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. That policy lasted until Deng Xiaoping returned to power in Beijing a few years after the death of revolutionary leader Mao Zedong in 1976. With that leadership transition, China began to promote trade and economic expansion rather than vicious and futile communist rebellions in Southeast Asia.

The CPB collapsed after mutiny among the hilltribe rank and file in 1989 and the aging Myanmar leadership of the party fled to China. The CPB then split up into several ethnic resistance armies, of which the United Wa State Army is by a wide margin the strongest. The UWSA, world-renowned for its narcotics trafficking, still maintains strong ties with China and has procured most of its weaponry, including automatic rifles, machine-guns, rocket launchers and even anti-aircraft guns, from across the border. While courting diplomatic relations with Myanmar's military rulers, China has never confined itself to playing only one card in the ethnically stratified country.

Considering the UWSA's crucial historical and contemporary role, it is curious that the border-straddling militia fails even to make mention in Steinberg's and Fan's book. The volume's trade-based thesis notes only that "in 1989, the collapse of the Burma Communist Party [sic], which had occupied a strategic area in the Wa State on the Chinese border since the 1970s, opened up new portals for Sino-Burmese trade."

There is, of course, no "Wa State" in Myanmar. It is a designation that the UWSA has long fought for but never achieved. The authors also fail to mention that the goods passing through those "new portals" in the Wa area have been mainly narcotics in one direction and guns in the other. China's erstwhile support for the CPB, and later its unorthodox relations with a drug-running outfit like the UWSA, is a main reason Myanmar's military establishment continued to perceive China as a threat to national security despite the development of stronger economic ties. The ruling generals established close ties with Beijing only as a last resort after Western-led sanctions economically isolated the already impoverished country.

China provided Myanmar with US$1.4 million worth of military hardware throughout the 1990s - after the West slapped arms embargoes on Myanmar - in exchange for concessions to strip the country of timber and other natural resources. This crucial dynamic is hardly mentioned in the book, although it clearly stirred widespread resentment, even within ruling military circles. The uneasy relationship between China and Myanmar lasted for more than 20 years, dating from the military's massacre of pro-democracy protesters in 1988 until its overtures to the West in 2011. In retrospect, it was clearly an unsustainable and exploitative arrangement.

Steinberg's and Fan's new book is a worthwhile read for those interested in cross-border trade, however incomplete and highly dubious the official statistics cited. It also coherently outlines China's economic aspirations in Myanmar in a way that makes the volume unique. But the book also studiously steers clear of critically analyzing several important underlying issues, including Beijing's support of ethnic insurgencies, the cross-border narcotics trade, and massive illegal Chinese migration into Myanmar.

Those and other issues must be addressed if Myanmar's sudden shift in policy and the West's enthusiastic blind embrace of those changes are to be fully and rightly understood in the broadest context of China's and Myanmar's long-troubled relations.

Modern China-Myanmar Relations: Dilemmas of Mutual Dependence by David I Steinberg and Hongwei Fan. Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Press, Copenhagen (2012). ISBN-10: 8776940969. US$32, 480 pages.

Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of several books on Burma/Myanmar, including Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948 and Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's Struggle for Democracy (2011). He is currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media Services.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing). 

Suu Kyi backs end of US sanctions
Sep 20, '12

Europe undams Myanmar sanctions
Apr 25, '12


asia dive site

Myanmar Forum
Asia Dive Site

All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110