By: Shashi P.B.B. Malla & Chandra Bahadur Parbate
Myanmar or Burma is a country where erudite observers and commentators completely missed the emerging situation. With the knowledge of hindsight, some have termed developments there as new ‘winds of change’ or classified the country as the object of a new ‘great game’ (this time around not in Afghanistan and Central Asia of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but in South and South-East Asia. However, there is no doubt that Myanmar is going to play a pivotal role in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. Its geo-political location between China’s south-east and the Indian Ocean makes it of immense strategic importance. The United States and the Western countries have woken up to late to this basic fact, concentrating instead on domestic democracy and human rights issues and clamping external political and economic sanctions. India following the Western lead also woke up too late to protect its basic interests in the neighborhood. Only China recognized right from the start the necessity to cultivate close relations with a military regime condemned by the West as a pariah state in order to underline its own national interests. It has, therefore, a head start.
While the Western countries were only focused on human rights and liberalizing the military regime by way of sanctions, China concentrated on pushing through infrastructure projects and deepening economic ties. Myanmar or Burma has now become vital to China’s interests. The country will be an important source of Burmese off-shore gas which will be supplied by major pipelines directly to the developing areas of south-eastern China (primarily Yunnan and Sichuwan. These pipelines will also transport gas and mineral oil imported to China from other countries. A major railway is also being constructed, connecting the Burmese coasts with the Chinese interior. This is besides the roads under construction joining the two countries. These are all of tremendous strategic importance. In a couple of years, Burma’s transportation links with China will be fully developed and the economies of both countries will mutually benefit.
Above all, China will no longer be only dependent for the passage way through the Straits of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesian Sumatra. The risk of piracy will be thing of the past, and in any future conflict blocking the Straits will not damage the Chinese economy. China will have solved the “Malacca Dilemma” (Hu Jin-tao). Chinese-Burmese relations must, therefore, be seen in the geo-political perspective. First, China has effectively become ‘a two ocean nation’ – directly bordering the Western Pacific (Yellow Sea/East China Sea/South China Sea) and indirectly through its close associate Burma, the Indian Ocean (Bay of Bengal). Here (and also in Sri Lanka) China is also constructing deep sea ports. Thus also, attempts by the United States alone, or in concert with other states to contain or encircle China are of no avail.
China’s immediate south-eastern neighbor was not so isolated as Western commentators and media would make out. Days ahead of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Myanmar, Chinese Vice-President XI Jinping offered to substantially strengthen military relations. This initiative by Xi, heir apparent to the top Chinese leadership, came after US efforts to boost military engagement in Asia and the Western Pacific. Xi told the visiting Myanmar armed forces chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing that the two countries friendship “endured the test of time through sudden international changes.” He further added that he hoped “the militaries of the two countries (would) continue to strengthen exchanges, deepen cooperation and play an active role in pushing forward the development of comprehensive relations.” This underlines the fact that the Chinese leadership rates relations with Burma extremely highly. Nepal may not be on the same scale, but because of the Tibet question and its security concerns, bilateral relations are also ranked as high-priority. China has intense ‘visitor’s diplomacy’ with both countries at every conceivable level.
Earlier this month, US President Barack Obama had told Asian-Pacific leaders that the US was “here to stay”. He also announced plans to set up a de facto military base in northern Australia. At the same time he also censured China for refusing to discuss its South China Sea disputes with the other maritime states at regional forums. The fact is that US attempts to play the role of mediator have been rebuffed by China in no uncertain terms. It did not help matters that Hillary Clinton in a flight of flippancy termed this sea ‘the West Philippines Sea’!
Her three-day Myanmar visit was the first such by a serving US Secretary of State since the 1962 military coup by Gen. Ne Win ushered in 50 years of unbroken military rule. In the beginning, The US government even cultivated the friendship of the military junta. In March of this year a nominally civilian parliament was established. Many of the top leaders are former generals, like the country’s president. Of their own volition these generals have adopted far-reaching reforms, even attempting to end decades of conflict with armed ethnic groups, releasing political prisoners and starting negotiations with democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now going to contest a by-election. Her return to national politics is assured. There seems to be a sea change in the attitude and perspectives of the generals. Latest reports confirm that the government has reached a ceasefire deal with a major ethnic guerrilla group – the Shan State Army South. Myanmar is on the verge of a major take-off.
Obama designated these moves “flickers of progress”, opening the door for Hillary Clinton’s visit to the once secretive military state. With China’s unstinted support behind them, Burma’s military/civilian rulers are not going to be daunted by continuing Western sanctions. They are going to determine the pace of political development themselves undeterred by outside pressure. China’s own ties with Myanmar were disturbed in September when the new civilian government suspended plans for a controversial Chinese-backed dam. However, this was only a slight headache. For Myanmar, China is the most important diplomatic and economic ally and both governments are determined to find an “appropriate solution” to the dam issue.