Tripod Relations (China-Burma-US) – OpEd


One year after the brutal suppression of the Burmese democracy movement (to be exact on 8-8 88) by the Tatmadaw (Burmese army), there was carbon copy act by the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) in Tiananmen Square and the common phrase used by leaders of both countries was, “Stability is of overriding importance.” Top priority was economic development and nothing should be allowed to get in the way. Now as the two prominent Burmese leaders visit America one should recount of how trilateral relations currently stand.

China recently has become one of the countries that have significant national interest in every part of the globe that commands the attention, whether willingly or grudgingly, of every country and every international organization. But most importantly, is seen as the only country of a possible threat to the US, which has the capacity to overwhelm America in every respect and supplant the US for global hegemony. China’s capitalist companies are seen by people of the world, particularly by the people of Burma as aggressive, expansionist and crafty manipulators, even though the Chinese government gave priorities to internal and regional development to be part of the larger quest of defining role that serves the Chinese interests. Today, Sino-American Relations is Beijing’s foremost foreign policy challenge, where Burma is just a pawn trying its level best to keep its head above the water in the big chess game of the community of nations.

On the other hand, China sees America as a revisionist power that seeks to curtail Chinese political influence and harm Chinese interests everywhere, especially in Southeast Asia, and particularly, inBurma. What more proof is wanted when President Thein Sein plans to kow tow at the Dragon throne before going to the UNGA in New York, this month for a counter balancing act to show to China that Burma still sustain the bilateral relationship with its neighbor although the president has strengthened diplomatic ties with the USA.1 While at the time of this writings Wu Bangguo has visited Burma, the first-ever to do so by a chairman of the NPC Standing Committee, as part of a four-nation tour (Iran, Sri Lanka, Fiji). During his discussion with the Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, Wu suggested a “closer China-Burma relationship,” and called for “smooth advancement of large energy projects” between the two countries, 2 as well as joint efforts for stability in border regions where the Chinese security authorities help the Thein Sein government to round up all the Kachin refugees to be persecuted by the Tatmadaw. China has many ongoing investments in Burma including the controversial Letpadaung mountain range copper mine, near Monywa in Sagaing Region (started by Canada’s Ivanhoe Company), which is co-owned by the Chinese Wan Bao Mining Company where environmental destruction, land confiscations, arbitrary detentions and forced relocations are going on in a hush hush way.3 This will be Thein Sein’s second trip to China his first visit was in May 2011.

The Chinese Perspective of the World

From the prismsof Beijing, the world is dominated by the West, starting from the windows of the policy makers to the land borders and sea lanes thousands of miles away, to the mines and oil fields of distant continents where the Chinese are labouring is a terrain of hazards. These threats can be described in four concentric rings.4 The first ring is China itself and Beijing believes that China’s political stability and territorial integrity are threatened by foreign actors and forces as in the Opium Wars. Foreign investors, development advisers, tourists and students swarm the country all with their own ideas of how China should change. Foreign foundations and government give financial and technical support to Chinese groups promoting civil society. Dissidents in Tibet and Xinjiang receive moral and diplomatic support and material assistance from Diaspora Chinese and sympathetic governments abroad. Along the coast neighbours (Japan, Korea and ASEAN) contest the maritime territories hereditary belonging to China. Taiwan a breakaway island is an independent country recognized by 23 countries and security guaranteed by the superpower US.

The second ring is China’s relation with 14 adjacent countries. No other country except Russia has many contiguous neighbours. They include five countries with which China has fought wars in the past 70 years including India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and Vietnam. It was way back in 1760s that Burma had soundly beaten the Chinese under King Hsibyushin and the country became an entirely independent from China.5 China was also surrounded by unstable regimes especially in the South. None of China’s neighbours perceives its core national interests as congruent with Beijing’s.6 But China seldom has the luxury of dealing with any of its neighbour in a purely bilateral context and the latest is Burma as it tends to go into the US orbit and was alarmed at the prospect of US-Burma military relation which even though just beginning can end up with Burma joining the annual joint military exercise of Cobra Gold aimed at China

The third Chinese security concerns consists of the politics of the six distinct geopolitical regions that surround China, Northeast Asia ( Korea and Japan) Oceania, (US pacific fleet and Taiwan), Continental Southeast Asia (Vietnam and Burma), South Asia (India), maritime Southeast Asia.( Spratly islands) and Central Asia (Outer Mongolia including Russia). Each of these areas presents complex regional diplomatic and security problems.

The final and the fourth ring is the world afar from China’s immediate neighbours which she entered only after 1990 to secure scarce commodities, such as oil and gas, to gain access to markets and investments and most importantly to get diplomatic support for isolating Taiwan, Tibet’s Dalai Lama and to recruit allies for china’s position on international norms and legal regimes Here with its supports to the dictators of the world has failed miserably, as the world has witness of what sort of the world will be once China became the sole super power.

The American military is deployed all around China’s periphery and maintained a wide network of defense relationships with China’s neighbors and now is attempting to woo Burma into her obit. Washington always frustrates Beijing’s efforts to gain control over Taiwan.

Furthermore, the US always pressure China on economic and maintain a host of government and private program that seeks to influence Chinese civil society and politics. What more prove is wanted when Washington’s call for democracy and its support for what China sees as separatist movement in Taiwan, Tibet, and Xianjiang seem to be the Chinese hypothesis. View from the prisms of Marxist. the Chinese strategist view that the US will use its power to preserve and enhance its privileges and will treat efforts by other countries to protect their interests as threats to its own security.

The Chinese intelligentsia also believes that the US posses a potent ideological weapons and always use them. After World War II, as the sole super power it was able to enshrine, the American principles of Democracy and Human Rights in the universal declarations of Human Rights and other international Human Rights in Japan, Korea and Taiwan whom it considers as under its influence. China hated these American lead Western principles which always destabilize the region and thwarted China’s attempt to support the dictatorial regimes of the world of which Burma is just one of them.

Sino-Burma Relations

As far as the “Sino Burma Relations are concerned on August 19, 2012, Chinese authorities forcibly returned at least 1,000 Kachin refugees to Burma and is preparing to 4,000 refugees imminently. Most of the returnees will find it too dangerous to return to their home villages, leaving them displaced amid an armed conflict in Burma.

“China is flouting its international legal obligations by forcibly returning Kachin refugees to an active conflict zone rife with Burmese army abuses, instead of providing temporary protection ” said Bill Frelick, Refugee Program director. 7

The Burmese government in collusion with the Chinese government has denied United Nations and international humanitarian agencies much-needed access to these refugees. Those returned to Burma will be relegated to living in camps for internally displaced people that lack adequate aid and are currently isolated from UN agencies because the Burmese government has blocked humanitarian access to the area.8

In June, Human Rights Watch released a 68-page report, “Isolated in Yunnan: Kachin Refugees from Burma in China’s Yunnan Province,” estimating that 7,000 to 10,000 Kachin refugees and asylum seekers were in squalid, improvised camps in Yunnan that were largely isolated from international humanitarian aid due to restrictions imposed by the Chinese authorities. Most of the refugees had fled wartime abuses in Burma such as forced labor, killings, rape, and torture by the Tatmadaw. Currently there are over 85 camps of internally displaced people in Kachin State, housing an estimated 75,000 people, who lack adequate humanitarian aid, while the UN’s chief information officer for Burma, revealed that an estimate of 80,000 have not been reached by regular UN supplies.9 And prospects that any of these Internally Displaced Persons returning to their old homes appear slim as there is little sign of abating. Despite several rounds of peace talks between the two sides over the past few months, there has been little progress towards a ceasefire. While the two Burmese dignitaries are talking with the US blood is flowing inside Burma. 10

All camps in KIO territory are inaccessible to UN agencies because of restrictions imposed by President Thein Sein’s office under the pretense of security concerns. Now he is visiting US and will President Obama shake the hands of Thein Sein whose hands are still soak with blood? Will America reduce the sanctions or rather increase it, if American values are counted?

Perhaps equally important politically is the issue of Chinese or state-sponsored infrastructure, such as pipelines, dams, or mines, that offer few rewards to local populations, who often are displaced and generally marginalized by such projects. Although China has thus far been able to keep the Burmese leaders in their hip pocket while heavily investing in Burma to further both its economic and strategic interests, the Chinese may be on a collision course with Burma’s general population. The growing animosity of the Burmese people towards Chinese who have come to do business in Burma was highlighted by a clash in Mandalay’s jade market on June 27th.2011.11 Burmese community towards the Chinese traders is indicative of the Burmese population’s simmering resentment of the growing Chinese influence over both the social and economic life inside their country. The Chinese “invasion” of Burma is highly visible in Mandalay, Burma’s second largest city, as well as in Upper Burma, where growing numbers of Chinese migrants have poured in over the last 20 years, secured citizenship cards from corrupt Burmese officials and established successful businesses. Today, the Chinese are believed to make up 30–40 percent of the 1 million people residing in Mandalay, the capital of Burma’s last kingdom and a hub of traditional Burmese culture and Buddhism.

Ludu Daw Amar, Burma’s best-known female journalist and social critic said that Burma was “an undeclared colony of Yunnan,” But the Chinese, whose business interests in Burma are supported by their national government, are not going away. As a growing powerhouse in the regional and global economy and geopolitical landscape, China has a clear strategy of using Burma to advance its interests in those areas. China is now Burma’s second-largest trading partner and biggest foreign investor. 12

Burma is an important part of China’s effort to revive its “Southwestern Silk Road,” running from Yunnan Province down to Burma, and then westward to Bangladesh, India and the Indian Ocean.13 One of the biggest Chinese projects is construction of pipelines that will annually bring 12 million tons of crude oil from Africa and the Middle East through one pipeline, and 12 billion cubic meters of Burmese gas through another, into China’s Yunnan Province from Burma’s western Arakanese coast. Chinese companies are also involved in an estimated 60 hydropower projects in Burma.

To grease the wheels for these investments, and then protect them once they were underway, China has supported the Burmese generals with military and economic assistance since the 1988 military coup, while at the same time most Western governments have placed sanctions on the Burmese military and its leaders The Chinese support of the oppressive regime is no surprise, as describe earlier in their philosophy of shoring up dictatorial regimes with stepped up h diplomatic protection, usually in exchange for access to local market for its goods or a stake in oil fields or other natural resources.

Burma as a whole depends heavily on China for everything from military hardware to consumer goods, and therefore even attacks by ethnic armed groups have not persuaded the Burmese government to either slow or halt the Chinese economic invasion of their region. Chinese goods now account for about 80 percent of Burma’s imports, ranging from electronic devices to cement, paint, flour, textiles, iron products and raw materials for soap, etc Most of the dams and development projects constructed in the ethnic nationalities area does not benefit the local people.

Will local issues, almost never before considered in any centrally planned project, result in objections that are seriously considered? This may come to pass, but it is likely to be a slow, painful process. If central, military-inspired intransigence on ethnic nationalities problems continues and if denigration of ethnic cultures is not diminished, and if a compromise on the ethnic armies and militias is not reached, then there is every possibility for the renewal of the virtually perennial violence.14 The result will not only be continued suffering by Burma’s peoples, but also regional instability, an increased flow of refugees (and possibly heightened human trafficking), and likely expansion of narcotics production. Now US is talking with Thein Sein? What will be the end result is for us to see.


The United States and European Union have scrapped economic sanctions against the regime, and big-time multinational companies are preparing to lunge into what many seems to believe is Asia’s last investment frontier. A nearly unanimous Western world has heaped praise on President Thein Sein’s supposed moves towards “democratic reform” and “national reconciliation”.15 But what has actually changed and what’s behind the hype? It was a meticulously plan and make it appear that there was a power struggle between military “hardliners” and “reformers”, and that the latter, at least for now, have the upper hand to bait the Western countries to heave every effort to support the “reformers” so that Burma doesn’t return to its old repressive ways. However it was under Than Shwe’s (please read my previous article The Evil Genius) direction that “good cop, bad-cop” theory was drawn up to neutralize domestic opposition and win new foreign allies, especially among former critics in the West.

Thein Sein’s regime with the help of Daw Suu has so far skillfully played its cards in a way that few, probably even among themselves, could have foreseen. Those in power are military men, not representatives of a democratic government. When the “roadmap” was made public, but at the same time a confidential “master plan” which outlined ways and means to deal with both the international community, especially the US, and domestic opposition was also drawn up. The authors of that plan is probably by the army think tank headed by Than Shwe himself and posed as an internal military document “A Study of Burma-US Relations”, supposed to be written by Lt Col Aung Kyaw Hla, who is identified as a researcher at the country’s prestigious Defense Services Academy. The main thesis of the 346-page dossier (in Burmese) is that Burma’s recent reliance on China as a diplomatic ally and economic patron has created a “national emergency” which threatens the country’s independence. Hence, Burma must normalize relations with the West, after implementing the roadmap and electing a government so that the regime can deal with the outside world on more acceptable terms. Evidently the internal thinking was that normalization with the West would not be possible as long as Burmar was ruled by military juntas. The argument is that although human rights are a concern in the West, the US would be willing to modify its policy to suit “strategic interests” particularly US vis-a-vis China. The authors cites Vietnam and Indonesia under former dictator Suharto as examples of US foreign policy flexibility in weighing strategic interests against democratization. If bilateral relations with the US were improved, the master plan suggests, Burma would also get access to badly needed funds from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other global financial institutions. The country would then emerge from “regionalism”, where it currently depends on the goodwill and trade of its immediate neighbors, including China, and enter a new era of “globalization”. The master plan is acutely aware of the problems that must be addressed before Burma can lessen its reliance on China and become a trusted partner with the West and step by step to overcome this was laid down. Thein Sein concordat with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi after her release was the first step to be taken in 2010.. At the same time, the dossier identifies individuals, mostly Western academics, known for their opposition to the West’s sanctions policy, and suggests “friendly” diplomats that will be helpful in providing background information about influential US congressmen.16

The dossier also concludes that the regime cannot compete with the media and non-governmental organizations run by Burmese exiles, but if US politicians and lawmakers were invited to visit the country they could help to sway international opinion in the regime’s favor, while at the same time these Diaspora intelligentsia must be coax back to the mother land. Over the years, many Americans have visited Burma and often left less critical of the regime than they were previously.

The journey is now half way and, it seems that Burma has successfully managed to engage the US rather than vice versa with the smiling Thein Sein and charismatic Daw Suu in the US. While the international community appears to fall for the latest incarnation of the regime’s well-worn good cop, bad cop theory, local and exiled mainstream opposition groups are less likely to be so gullible. However, the euphoria over recent “reforms” in Burma can be short-lived,. until and unless the present Nargis Constitution is scrapped or widely amended with the military’s de facto veto power in parliament taken out, Burma’s ethnic issue will likely remain unsolved. And if the country becomes an arena of competition between the US and China, there will certainly be more trouble ahead. It is still to be seen whether the Tatmadaw and the Thein Sein (note Tatmadaw is independent of Thein Sein as according to the 2008 Nargis Constitution) will deal with the United non Myanmar ethnic nationalities to solve the country’s long standing problem.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in her first topic, in her first speech in America yesterday in the Global Policy Program of the Asian Society at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. together with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has highlighted the importance of s Sino-Burma US relations. She also highlighted of how Burma was the first country outside the communist bloc to recognize the People’s Republic of China and how the country under the civilian government had resolutely followed the non aligned policy (one of the founders of NAM) and that the relations was disrupted only because of the military came to power in 1962. Now, the US-Burma bilateral relations will have to start again from scratch and that she profusely thanked America for taking Sanctions which finally help the Junta to release it clutches on the people and the country. We hope that until and unless the ethnic cleansing war is stopped in northern Burma, the US will continue to wield a big stick and as old friend will continue to help Burma, in education and humanitarian aspects to sustain the American values instead of sending their exploitative companies as others do.


1 Nyein;Nyein; Thein Sein Cements China Ties Before US Trip Irrawaddy 14-9-2012

2 Nay Pyi Taw, Xinhua News 13-9-2012

3 Nyein;Nyein; Thein Sein Cements China Ties Before US Trip Irrawaddy 14-9-2012

4 J Nathan;Andrews & Scabell;Andrews How China Sees America in Foreign Affairs Sept.Oct 2012 p 33

5中緬戰爭 or 清緬戰爭; w&kwfjrefrmppf 1765-1769

6 J Nathan; Andrews & Scabell;Andrews How China Sees America in Foreign Affairs Sept.Oct 2012 p 33

7 Eurasia Review, China Forcibly Returning Refugees To Burma 24-8-2012

8 Ibid

9 Campbell, Charlie: Forced Refugee Return Risk Lives Irrawaddy 24-8-2012

10 Ibid

11 A group of Chinese buyers allegedly agreed to buy a jade stone from a Burmese gems trader for a price of 4 million kyat (US $5,000), but when they returned to collect the item, the Burmese vendor had already sold it to another customer. Infuriated, the Chinese buyer allegedly swore at the Burmese dealer and physically assaulted him. A crowd of local Burmese responded by attacking the Chinese traders, who phoned the police. Although police officers were quickly deployed and brought the situation under control, local Burmese residents who heard about the incident ratcheted up the tension by gathering at the jewelry store and singing the Burmese national anthem. As a result, the police were required to escort the Chinese traders out of the market via a squad car.

12 The latest official Chinese statistics reveal that the country’s investment in Burma reached $12.32 billion, primarily in oil, gas and hydroelectric ventures.

13 Yeni, “Stemming the Chinese Tide.” Irrawaddy 13-7-2011

14 Steinberg; David: Ethnic Struggles are Central to Burma’s Future in Eurasia Review 27-4-2011

15 Lintner; Bertil The master plan for Myanmar (Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings)

16 Lintner; Bertil The master plan for Myanmar (Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings)

Kanbawza Win

Kanbawza Win is a political scientist based in Canada

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