Burma's junta leader comes back happy from China after getting backing for his November election and a pledge from Beijing to snub ethnic militias inside Burma.
“May I propose a toast for the long-lasting Sino-Myanmar Pauk-phaw friendship?” So said Li Jinjun, China's Ambassador to Myanmar, or Burma, speaking at an official reception in Rangoon five years ago.
Meaning 'brother' in Burmese, the wording is as a hat-tip to the growing commercial and strategic ties between the two countries – links which Burmese opposition leaders and exiles have slammed for helping maintain an oppressive status quo in Burma, which is scheduled to hold elections on 7 November. The real meaning of Pauk-phaw was underlined last week with the visit of Burma's junta leader Sen. Gen. Than Shwe to China, marking the 60th anniversary of bilateral relations between the two countries.
More than oil and gas
China is Burma's third-biggest trade partner after Thailand and Singapore. Going by official Chinese statistics the two countries did business worth $2.9 billion in 2009. However, illicit or unreported commerce likely means that the given numbers underestimate the real scale of business across the 2,200-kilometer land border.
Chinese investment in Burma, focusing on the country's lush natural resources, vastly outweighs bilateral trade. This year alone Chinese companies have sunk over $8 billion in Burma, mostly in gas, oil and hydropower ventures. Beijing sees Burma as vital to securing energy supplies, as its economy overtakes Japan's to become the second largest in the world.
However, resource extraction is just part of the picture. China is developing several ports along the Burmese coast on the Bay of Bengal, which will give Beijing access to the Indian Ocean and enhance its naval reach. China says it seeks no more than alternative shipping routes for oil and other commodities, with pipelines linking the ports to Yunnan province in southern China and bordering Burma. This will enable China send some of its African and Middle Eastern oil imports across land, cutting a journey time that otherwise would require passing through congested Southeast Asian waters.
With the US undertaking naval drills with South Korea, and enhancing links with Vietnam, China's Burma port projects are likely to be based a broader strategic vision. According to K Yhome of the Observer Research Foundation in India, “China sees Myanmar as an integral part in its larger geostrategic framework in the context of accessing the sea through Myanmar for both economic and strategic reasons.”
Chinese warships docked at Rangoon over the weekend of 29 August, and K Yhome told ISN Security Watch that “from a strategic perspective, Myanmar provides China to achieve its ‘two ocean strategy’ which it views as a way to enhance strategic interests in both Indian and Pacific Oceans.”
China has built or is building port facilities at Gwadar, on Pakistan's Arabian Sea coast, at Chittagong in Bangladesh, and at Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka. The Pakistan port links to central China via roads that were damaged during the recent monsoon floods, after which China rapidly deployed reconstruction teams to repair the route in northern Pakistan.
India appears to be losing out to China in Burma, whereas retired Brigadier SK Chatterji put it to ISN Security Watch: “In a military-strategic sense, a port facility for the Chinese navy in Myanmar provides it with direct access to the Bay of Bengal without having to voyage through the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca. It shortens the journey to the Bay of Bengal by 3,000 km or six to seven days. Ports in Myanmar undoubtedly provide China one of the biggest advantages in the region.”
Than Shwe's visit to China comes weeks after a four-day visit to India in July, where he received support for his much-criticized election. China backed the polls and reiterated its now-threadbare mantra professing 'non-interference' in the affairs of other countries - oblivious to the contradiction that Chinese investment and diplomatic support gives the junta the guns and cash needed to perpetuate its control.
Than Shwe was likely playing for such backing, according to Adrian Vickers, Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Sydney. “The main issue seems to be shoring up of support for the elections,” he told ISN Security Watch.
Less than two months away, the elections have been described as an opportunity for some form of democratic progress in some quarters, despite the restrictive electoral laws and circumscribed campaign rules. The polls look set to be dominated by two junta-linked parties, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the National Unity Party (NUP), which are running for most of the total 1,163 seats available in the Upper, Lower and regional houses. It seems that the main opposition party is the National Democratic Front (NDF), a splinter from Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, which boycotted the election citing its unfair rules.
The NDF will field only 276 candidates in total, leaving a clear run for the USDP and NUP for the 75 percent seats being contested in the 7 November poll - the remaining quarter are reserved for the military. The combined lists of 20 smaller political parties, including the NDF and ethnic political parties run to less than 700 candidates in total.
China wants what it perceives as stability in Burma, to enable transport of oil and gas overland and to give China access to the Bay of Bengal via the transport infrastructure it is building in Burma.
Border stability has long been a common concern, and potential problems in the bilateral relationship – which despite the growing ties in recent years has not always been pauk-phaw. In the 1970s China supported insurgent groups inside Burma, and even as late as August 2009, Beijing reprimanded the Burmese junta for an unannounced attack on an ethnic Chinese militia, sending an estimated 37,000 refugees into China.
If public statements are to be believed, the two sides seem to have reached a compromise on the border and ethnic insurgency issue in Burma, where the writ of the military government has never extended to all areas within Burma, with groups such as the United Wa State Army keeping 30,000 men under arms
According to China's state-run Xinhua news agency, President Hu Jintao raised peace and stability in Burma’s ethnic areas along the Sino-Burmese border when he met with Than Shwe last Wednesday. Amid tensions in Burma, where the most powerful ethnic militias are refusing to be subsumed into the junta's border guard forces ahead of the elections, a front-page headline in the state-run New Light of Myanmar said on Sunday that "China vows not to accept and support any groups who would carry out anti-Myanmar government movements in border areas to damage bilateral relations."
It has been a busy few weeks of visits for both sides. Notably, two weeks ago North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il visited China, weeks after renewed allegations that Pyongyang and the Burmese junta are collaborating on a nuclear weapons program. On the morning of 8 September, just hours before his meeting with Than Shwe, Hu Jintao met with Thomas Donilon, Deputy Assistant to the U.S President for National Security Affairs, and Lawrence Summers, Director of the White House National Economic Council, at the same Great Hall of People where the Burmese leader was feted later that afternoon.
The US recently backed a move to establish a Commission of Inquiry into possible war crimes committed by the Burmese junta, but there was no indication that the visiting American delegation commented on the likely target of that probe, Sen-Gen Than Shwe, who followed them into the Great Hall later that same day, with the US and China apparently eager to put some of their recent spats behind them.
By. Simon Roughneen