Realpolitik and the Myanmar Spring

Wondering why Hillary Clinton is in Myanmar right now? Hint: it's all about China.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Myanmar, on a trip that is being hailed as a stunning breakthrough in bilateral relations and a sign that the Southeast Asian pariah state may finally be ready to rejoin the international community after two decades of isolation. It is a victory, analysts say, for the long-suffering forces of good and democracy over a brutal and self-serving military junta. But the truth is far more complicated.

According to the conventional wisdom in the Western media, Myanmar’s Nov. 2010 elections may have been rigged and flawed, but nevertheless led to unprecedented policy changes and new initiatives. The new president, Thein Sein, has even been dubbed "Myanmar’s Gorbachev" for his seemingly daring moves toward openness and respect for (at least some) democratic values. He has held talks with pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, political prisoners have been released, and censorship of the media has been relaxed. Consequently, Clinton has said that the time is right to visit the country to "promote further reform."

But the secretary’s visit has as much to do with Myanmar’s relations with China and North Korea as with its tentative progress on democracy and human rights.

If Western observers are to be believed, recent developments in Myanmar reflect a power struggle between "reform-minded moderates" and "hardliners" within the government and the military that still controls it.

The political reality is far more convoluted.

In August and September of 1988, Myanmar saw the most massive and widespread pro-democracy demonstrations in recent Asian history. Strikes and protests were held in virtually every city, town, and major village throughout the country against a stifling military dictatorship that has held Myanmar in an irongrip since the army seized power in 1962 and abolished the country’s democratic constitution. Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero Aung San, happened to be in the country at that time (she then lived in England) and people turned to her for leadership. She then emerged as the main leader of the country’s pro-democracy movement.

But the government didn’t fall. It retreated into the background, and on Sept. 18, 1988, the military moved in, not to seize power — which it already had — but to shore up a regime overwhelmed by popular protest. The result was a brutal massacre. Thousands of marchers were mowed down by machine-gun fire, protesters were shot in custody, and the prisons were filled with people of all ages and from all walks of life.

Not surprisingly, Western countries, led by the United States, condemned the carnage. Later, sanctions were imposed on the regime, but they were always half-hearted and had little if any effect in terms of foreign trade. Still, sanctions turned Myanmar into an international outcast and prevented it from having full access to U.N. funding and international monetary institutions.  

China, which long had coveted Myanmar’s forests, rich mineral and natural gas deposits, and its hydroelectric power potential, took full advantage of the situation. In fact, it had already made its intentions clear in the Sept. 1985 edition Beijing Review, an officially sanctioned news magazine and a mouthpiece of the government. An article titled "Opening to the Southwest: An Expert Opinion," written by Pan Qi, a former vice minister of communications, outlined the possibilities of finding an outlet for trade for China’s landlocked southern provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan through Myanmar to the Indian Ocean. It also mentioned the Burmese railheads of Myitkyina and Lashio in the north and northeast, and the Irrawaddy River as possible conduits for Chinese exports. It was the first time the Chinese outlined their designs for Myanmar, and why the country was so important to them economically. Until then, China had supported the Communist Party of Myanmar and other insurgent groups, but after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and Deng Xiaoping’s ascendance to power, Beijing’s foreign policy shifted from supporting revolutionary movements in the region to promoting trade. This was the first time this new policy towards Myanmar was announced, albeit rather discreetly, by the Chinese authorities.

The first border trade agreement between Myanmar and China was signed in early August 1988, days before the uprising began in earnest. After the movement had been crushed and sanctions were put in place, China moved in and rapidly became Myanmar’s most important foreign trade partner. It helped Myanmar upgrade its antiquated infrastructure — and supplied massive amounts of military hardware. In the decade after the massacres, China exported more than $1.4 billion worth of military equipment to Myanmar. It also helped Myanmar upgrade its naval facilities in the Indian Ocean. In return, the junta gave Beijing access to signals intelligence from key oil shipment sealanes collected by the Burmese Navy, using equipment supplied by China. The strategic balance of power in the region was being upset in China’s favor.

But the real resource play came later, and in spades. A plan to build oil and gas pipelines was approved by China’s National Development and Reform Commission in April 2007. In Nov. 2008, China and Myanmar agreed to build a $1.5 billion oil pipeline and $1.04 billion natural gas pipeline. In March 2009, China and Myanmar signed an agreement to build a natural gas pipeline, and in June 2009 an agreement to build a crude oil pipeline. The inauguration ceremony marking the start of construction was held on Oct. 31, 2009, on Maday Island on Myanmar’s western coast. The gas pipeline from the Bay of Bengal to Kunming, in China’s Yunnan province, will be supplemented with an oil pipeline designed to allow Chinese ships carrying fuel imports from the Middle East to skirt the congested Malacca Strait. And in September of last year, China agreed to provide Myanmar with $4.2 billion worth of interest-free loans over a 30-year period to help fund hydropower projects, road and railway construction, and information technology development.

Western sanctions did not cause Myanmar’s economic — and strategic — push into "the hands of the Chinese," as many foreign observers have argued. But Western policies certainly made it easier for China to implement its designs for Myanmar. This has, in return, caused the West to rethink its Myanmar policy — at the same time as the country’s growing dependence on China has caused considerable consternation within Myanmar’s military leadership. U.S. strategic concerns were outlined as early as June 1997 in a Los Angeles Times article by Marvin Ott, an American security expert and former CIA analyst. "Washington can and should remain outspokenly critical of abuses in [Myanmar]. But there are security and other national interests to be served…it is time to think seriously about alternatives," Ott concluded.

But the turn took some doing. When it was revealed in the early 2000s that Myanmar and North Korea had established a strategic partnership, Washington was alarmed. North Korea was providing Myanmar with tunneling expertise, heavy weapons, radar and air defense systems, and — it is alleged by Western and Asian intelligence agencies — even missile and nuclear-related technology. It was high time to shift tracks and start to "engage" the Burmese leadership, which anyway seemed bent on clinging on to power at any cost, no matter the consequences.

The 2010 election in Myanmar, no matter how fraudulent it was, was just the opportunity that Washington needed. Myanmar suddenly had a new face and a country run by a constitution, not a junta. It was the perfect time for Myanmar’s generals to launch a charm offensive in the West, and for the United States and other Western countries to begin the process of détente — and of pulling Myanmar from its uncomfortable Chinese embrace and close relationship with North Korea. Hardly by coincidence, Clinton visited South Korea before continuing on to Myanmar. For more than a year, it has been known in security circles that the United States wants South Korea to lure Myanmar away from its military cooperation with North Korea. The much richer South would be able to provide more useful assistance to Myanmar than the North, the argument goes.

At the same time, many staunchly nationalistic Burmese military officers have become dissatisfied with their country’s heavy dependence on China as well as uncontrolled immigration by Chinese nationals into the north of the country. The first blow against China came in Oct. 2004, when the then-prime minister and former intelligence chief Lt.-Gen. Khin Nyunt was ousted. The Chinese at first refused to believe that their man in Myanmar, Khin Nyunt, had been pushed out. How could the generals dare to move against a figure so key to the relationship? Nevertheless, both sides managed to smooth over the incident, and bilateral relations appeared to be returning to normal. Then, in 2009, Burmese troops moved into the Kokang area in the northeast, pushing more than 30,000 refugees — both Chinese nationals and local, ethnic Chinese — across the border back into China.

Still, China did not get the message — until Sept. 30 of this year, when Thein Sein announced that a China-sponsored, $3.6 billion hydroelectric power project in the far north of the country had been suspended. The dam was going to flood an area in Myanmar bigger than Singapore, and yet 90 percent of the electricity was going to be exported to China. Now, China has threatened to take legal actions against the Burmese government for breach of contract. This was the final straw. Today, it is clear that Sino-Burmese relations will never be the same.

To strengthen its position vis-à-vis China, Myanmar has turned increasingly to its partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which it is due to chair in 2014. Even more significantly, when Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who was appointed commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s military in March, went on his first foreign trip in mid-November, he did not go to China — but instead to China’s traditional enemy, Vietnam. Myanmar and Vietnam share the same fear of their common, powerful northern neighbor, so it is reasonable to assume that Min Aung Hlaing had a lot to discuss with his Vietnamese hosts.

But the strategic change in Myanmar didn’t happen overnight. In the same year as Khin Nyunt was ousted, an important document was compiled by Lt. Col. Aung Kyaw Hla, a researcher at Myanmar’s Defense Services Academy. His 346-page top secret thesis, titled "A Study of Myanmar-U.S. Relations," outlined the policies which are now being implemented to improve relations with Washington and lessen dependence on Beijing. The establishment of a more acceptable regime than the old junta provided has made it easier for the Burmese military to launch its new policies, and to have those taken seriously by the international community.

As a result, relations with the United States are indeed improving, exactly along the lines suggested by Aung Kyaw Hla in 2004. While paying lip service to human rights and democracy, there seems to be little doubt that Sino-Burmese relations — and North Korea — will be high on Clinton’s agenda when she visits Myanmar this week. On a visit to Canberra in November, President Barack Obama stated that, "with my visit to the region, I am making it clear that the United States is stepping up its commitment to the entire Asia-Pacific region." The United States is a Pacific power, Obama said, and "we are here to stay." But he was quick to add: "The notion that we fear China is mistaken. The notion that we are looking to exclude China is mistaken."

That statement was about as convincing as Thein Sein’s assurance that he had suspended the dam project in the north because he was concerned about "the wishes of the people."

The two old adversaries, Myanmar and the United States, may have ended up on the same side of the fence in the struggle for power and influence in Southeast Asia. Frictions, and perhaps even hostility, can certainly be expected in future relations between China and Myanmar. And Myanmar will no longer be seen by the United States and elsewhere in the West as a pariah state that has to be condemned and isolated.

Whatever happens, don’t expect relations to be without some unease. Decades of confrontation and mutual suspicion still exist. And a powerful strain in Washington to stand firm on human rights and democracy will complicate matters for Myanmar’s rulers — who are still uncomfortable and unwilling to relinquish total control. And last of all, there’s China. Myanmar may be pleased that the reliance on a dominant northern neighbor might be lessened shortly, but with so many decades of ties and real, on-the-ground projects underway, the relationship with Beijing isn’t nearly dead yet.

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