China counter-pivots on Myanmar
By David I Steinberg
WASHINGTON - A quiet, modulated dance is being played out in Myanmar. It is not a waltz, with its rhythmical, proper movements, and only on the surface are events in Myanmar equally decorous. If China and the United States are the dancers, then Myanmar is the master of ceremonies. Underlying this proper facade rivalries are apparent. When and how the music will stop is unclear.
The US explicitly has ''pivoted'' toward Asia, and more specifically Southeast Asia. It has in a sense returned after years of inattention. This policy has several elements: some enhanced naval capacity in the region, a couple of thousand marines in
Australia, increased positive involvement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and allies in the Philippines and Thailand as well as near-ally Singapore, and concerns over Chinese claims of sovereignty of the South China Sea.
But in this equation, China regards with suspicion the US's changed, positive policy toward Myanmar, also known as Burma. Chinese concerns are evident. This, they claim, is the second US containment policy of China. The first was during the Cold War, but this second is in some sense more urgent. China during the Cold War was struck by the internally destructive forces of the Cultural Revolution. It tried to project Maoist thought through its embassies overseas, but this was internal political rhetoric, not external reality.
Now, however, as the world attests, China is on the rise and the perception of containment strikes at what historically China considers its backyard and traditional sphere of influence - Southeast Asia. Many of the monarchical realms in that periphery sent tribute to the court in Beijing. Even the colonial British agreed to do so in 1897 after they eliminated Burma's monarchy, but only if the Burmese went. The expeditions never took place.
The openings to the US in the last throes of the previous ruling military junta and into the new administration of President Thein Sein have been seen by the Chinese as a setback to their vital national interests in the region, in which Myanmar plays a singular role.
With its two pipelines for oil and gas, a vast quantity of hydroelectric power, mining and resource extraction interests, a major market for China's landlocked southern Yunnan province, and an influx of unrecorded population of perhaps two million, Myanmar is of obvious importance, even if it fades in comparison with Chinese concerns over North Korea.
In May 2011, China and Myanmar, on the visit of Thein Sein to Beijing, signed a ''Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership'' agreement. Relations from a Chinese perspective seemed secure; Chinese interests were surging. But by September 2011, Thein Sein suspended construction (during his term of office in 2015, when new elections will be held) of the important and very controversial Chinese-constructed Myitsone Dam at the confluence of the Irrawaddy River in the Kachin State, quite close to the Chinese frontier.
Followed by the visit of US secretary of state Hillary Clinton in December 2011, and the subsequent influx of high-level, worldwide visitors culminating in President Barack Obama's trip in November 2012, China believed its position in Myanmar was eroding. The Communist Party of China-owned English language newspaper the Global Times viewed Clinton's trip as ''undermining the [Chinese] wall in Myanmar''. Beijing's formal responses were, however, more diplomatic and temperate.
Even before the end of the George W Bush era, it was widely recognized that the US sanctions policy had failed to achieve its goal in Myanmar. And before all the critical players in the new Obama administration were in place, Myanmar sent discreet signals for more positive relations, to which the Obama administration responded.
Many prominent Chinese officials and academicians have regarded this shift in US policy from ''regime change'' under both the Bill Clinton and George W Bush administrations to Obama's ''pragmatic engagement'' as designed against Chinese influence in the region.
This, however, seems an unlikely ex post facto interpretation. Chinese perceptions may skew reality from a US vantage point, but from Beijing the implications seem all too apparent, especially when combined with the other demonstrable US ''pivotal'' moves.
To an outside observer, Beijing has demonstrated and responded to the heightened concern about the US presence in Myanmar, as those bilateral relations are probably the best they have even been since the country achieved independence in 1948. For the first time in Chinese history, China in early March appointed a respected senior retired diplomat, former vice foreign minister Wang Yingfan, as special envoy for Asian affairs, and he is said to be tasked with concentrating on Myanmar relations.
This was followed on March 13 with the announcement of a new Chinese ambassador, Yang Houlan. He is highly respected, with experience in Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, and Afghanistan, and other key states. It seems the Chinese ambassador, Li Junhua, under whose tenure these negative changes in Chinese influence took place, has been moved and, unfortunately and inaccurately, blamed for China's decline - although growing Myanmar concerns over Chinese penetration should have been apparent to its embassy.
China's past extensive presence, however, failed to take into account Myanmar sensitivities, which clearly indicated a mushrooming resentment against the obvious tilt toward, and influence of, China. In the highly charged nationalistic environment that is Myanmar, this should have been anticipated in Beijing.
So, has China ''pivoted'' toward Myanmar? That term indicates a turn-about change of some degree and may be too sweeping. Perhaps China's new position is better described as ''re-structuring'' or ''reinforcing'' its important role there by trying to rebuild and deepen lost mutual confidence.
Now, the tilt seems toward the US. But Washington should act cautiously and discreetly in Myanmar. Too great a presence, too extensive an influence, and too condescending an approach will likely result in a reaction, in good Hegelian terms, away from that very favorable extreme as it did against China, and to a more moderated stance.
Born in the shadow of China, nurtured in neutralism during the Cold War, and now intent of gleaning assistance from all available sources - East, West, and otherwise - Myanmar will likely return to the policy that had served it well before: a balance among all external interests that could subvert its autonomy. A more modern form of neutralism in the post-Cold War era is Myanmar's likely course. The China lesson is one all foreign states should heed as they enhance their Myanmar relations.
David I Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. His latest volume (with Fan Hongwei) is Modern China-Myanmar Relations: Dilemmas of Mutual Dependence (2012).
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