Event ReportsPublished on Feb 26, 2011
An interaction on 'Sino-Myanmar Relations and Impact on Region' at ORF Chennai noted that Indian response to the security threat emanating from this strategic relationship was inadequate. And India has not been effectively executing the 'Look East' policy.
Sino-Myanmar Relations and Impact on the Region
China’s strategic penetration into Myanmar has been a subject of debate in the region for sometime now. Myanmar’s positioning on the tri-junction of South Asia, South-East Asia was both economically and strategically significant for China. A discussion focussing on Sino-Myanmar relations and its impact on the region was organised by the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation on 26 February, 2011.

The discussion was initiated by Lt-Col (retd), C. Kuppuswamy of the South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG), New Delhi, who specifically dealt with the Myanmar angle of the relationship. Acknowledging that Sino-Myanmar relations can be traced back to AD 1894, he focussed on the intricacies of the relations since the 1950s to give a nuanced understanding of the current dynamics and the underlying strategy involved in the relationship. He began the discussion by chalking out the importance of the geostrategic location of Myanmar and its significance for China. Myanmar is a littoral State with one-third of its perimeter being the coast, touching the Indian Ocean, which is one of the important sea lanes of communication. Second, Myanmar is richly endowed with natural resources. There is an abundant presence of natural gas.

Formal diplomatic relations between the modern States of China and Myanmar began on 8 June 1950. Myanmar was the first non-Communist countries to recognise the Communist-led People’s Republic of China after its foundation in 1949.  Anti-Chinese riots in 1967 and the expulsion of Chinese communities from Myanmar generated hostility in both countries. Between 1968 and 1985, China extended support to the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), which was against the Government. Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China reduced support for the CPB, and in 1988 signed a major trade agreement, legalising cross-border trading and began supplying considerably military aid.

 In 1988, China took a neutral stand with regard to the violent repression of pro-democracy protests in Myanmar. The latter reciprocated the same way after the Tiananmen Square incident the following year. Because of the military junta taking over the political reins in Myanmar in 1962 and subsequent economic sanctions being placed on the country by the West, Myanmar is now greatly dependent on China for its trade and commerce. This has led to Myanmar being tagged as a ’pivot’, ’pawn’ or ’client State’ of China. A high degree of dependence on China is the only and easiest accessible option available to Myanmar. Currently China is the biggest investor in Myanmar. Col. Kuppuswamy, however, called this close relationship as asymmetrical which immensely serves Chinese interests.

First, China sees Myanmar as the link for easy access to the Indian Ocean. This link is very vital for future energy security of China. Beijing is involved in more than 62 hydro, oil and gas, and also mining projects in Myanmar. A dual pipeline for oil and gas is being constructed by China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), linking Myanmar’s deep-sea port of Kyaukphyu with Kunming, the capital of China’s south-western Yunnan Province. The oil pipeline will allow CNPC to ship oil from Africa and West Asia to China bypassing a slower and unsafe shipping route through the Strait of Malacca. About 80% of China’s oil demands are fulfilled by the oil imported from the West Asian region.

Moreover, China plans to create full-fledged, blue water navy with direct access to both Pacific and Indian Oceans by 2050. Friendly ties with Myanmar serve this purpose. Col Kuppuswamy also pointed out that China sees Myanmar as a vital component in the ’String of Pearls’ strategy to contain India. Myanmar has also been China’s link to expand trade to the ASEAN countries. Thus it is seen that diplomatic relations between the two countries have changed from ’strategic neutrality’ to ’strategic alignment’.

This relationship has served Myanmar’s interest as well. China’s veto power in the UN Security Council is seen by the military junta of Myanmar as the last resort to avoid a forced regime change by the international community as was seen in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan. However, Col Kuppuswamy emphatically stated that it would be wrong to presume that military rule in Myanmar best suits Chinese interest, and a transition to a more representative government will be resisted by China. Since 2006, China too has been quietly urging Myanmar to bring about political reforms.

The role of ethnic nationalities in the politics of Myanmar was elaborately discussed. While the fertile plains are mainly occupied by the majority Burmese, ethnic groups mainly occupy the mountainous northern region, which otherwise acts as a buffer zone between the two countries.  A majority of the armed ethnic groups have entered into a ceasefire with the Government which has lasted over 20 years. However, Kokang, an enclave in Shan State on the Myanmar side, was attacked by the junta in 2009 in a move to regain control over the region prior to the elections in Myanmar. This was rebuked by the Chinese leadership.

Nevertheless, China has been a major arms supplier for the Myanmar Army. Beijing has provided the regime with over $ 2-billion worth of weapons and military equipment. In 2010, Myanmar purchased 50 fighter jets from China. Apart from this, China trains the Myanmar military officers in Chinese military colleges.

Chinese companies have made huge commercial investments in Myanmar. In all, 20 out of the 21 hydro-power companies in Myanmar are of Chinese origin. Apart from that, Chinese companies have invested in the exploration of Myanmar oil and gas reserves in order to meet the growing Chinese demand. Chinese companies are also involved in rail, road, tele-communication and airport development projects in Myanmar. Chinese goods worth more than $ 2 million are being officially traded to Myanmar. Col Kuppuswamy stated that Myanmar’s second largest city Mandalay alone has more than 200,000 Chinese and that yuan was the trading currency there. He also said that the benefits that accrue from large-scale Chinese investments in Myanmar are not reaching the common man there. These Chinese companies bring in labour from China, depriving the locals of jobs. The acquisition of land for these projects from local settlers is another issue, as it also deprives them of earning opportunities.

Speaking of the impact that this relationship has on other countries, Col Kuppuswamy pointed out that Myanmar was offered a membership in the ASEAN in 1997, in order to help relieve it of the high dependence on China, which was looked upon as a threat by neighbouring founding-member of ASEAN – Thailand. However, at present, it is noticed that ASEAN itself has come under strong Chinese influence.

Japan is another country which is wary of Chinese influence in Myanmar. In order to curb this, Japan provides a lot of Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Myanmar. India on the other hand has moved from a policy of pro-democracy support to a policy of engaging with the military junta in Myanmar. In order to reduce Chinese involvement in Myanmar, India is trying its best to restrict Chinese influence and activities to the west of the Ayeyarawady River. Col Kuppuswamy noted that in spite of all these efforts, the sanction regime of the US has given Chinese the impetus to get deeply involved in Myanmar, given in particular the veto power that India or Japan do not enjoy..

It was noted that Indian response to the security threat emanating from this strategic relationship was inadequate. India has not been effectively executing the ’Look East’ policy. This shortcoming can be clearly seen in the four-year delay by the Indian Government in approving the Tamanthi hydro-electric power plant in northern Myanmar. India has leverage in improving its involvement with Myanmar and thus reducing Chinese influence, because Myanmar too wants to get away from overbearing Chinese dependence and balance its relationship. The discussion concluded on the note that if India aspires to become a regional power over the coming years, it has to give greater attention to the immediate neighbours.

(This report was prepared by Anita Elizabeth Mathew, II M.A (International Studies), Stella Maris College, Chennai)

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