In a few weeks from now there will be greater clarity in the direction China takes under the leadership of Li Xinping and six colleagues. The change of guard in Beijing has been smooth giving confidence that the 5th generation of China’s leadership is in control and command of the party, the military and the government. The foreign policy of China under the new dispensation will attract attention especially as it assumes office at a time when the ruling parties in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal will go to polls seeking fresh mandate to elect new Parliaments respectively. Two other countries of strategic value for China namely Afghanistan and India would be preparing for political changes in early 2014. Developments in Myanmar, especially in the post May-2011 period, will certainly reflect in the policy process of the new leadership in Beijing.
Myanmar occupies an important position in China’s long term plans to access the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean for strategic reasons. According to authoritative sources, the Chinese authorities have so far invested over US Dollars 17 billion in Myanmar since the commencement of its “Look South” policy in the early eighties mainly in the infrastructure sector comprising communications, road, rail, shipping, ports and power generation. There is also the military cooperation component. The period 1990-2003 is considered to be the best in their bilateral relations during which Beijing successfully prevented international isolation of the military regime in exchange for economic and other opportunities.
China’s Look East policy was aimed to develop its poorer land-locked southern provinces and subsequently integrated them into that of Myanmar for economic benefit and to “create a north-south corridor” to gain access to the Indian Ocean through the Bay of Bengal. The oil and gas rich potential of Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal was one important consideration, the other was to reduce its dependence on the long and uneconomical South China Sea route to reach the Indian Ocean via the Malacca straits. The carefully crafted plan began when China forced, its proxy, the Burma Communist Party (BCP) to cease its anti-Myanmar military operations and nudged sixteen other ethnic armies to “swap arms for peace” with the military junta to create peace and stability in the border regions so vital for its plans. This was followed by a period of honeymoon between the two countries. For students of China’s drive towards the Indian Ocean it would be worthwhile to study an interesting article “Look South” – China and Myanmar Transport Corridor, by a Chinese academic Fan, Hongwei, an Associate Professor at Faculty of International Relations and Research School of South East Asian studies, Xiamen University.
The removal of Lieut-Gen. Khin Nyunt, from three most powerful posts in 2004 is considered to be the beginning of a new period in Myanmar’s contemporary life and in its foreign relations. He was the powerful Secretary-1 of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the chief of the military intelligence and the Prime Minister. He is best remembered for his role in the peace process with the ethnic groups, political dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK), dealing with the drug situation and drug lords and effective use of military intelligence for ensuring national security. Khun Nyunt will always go down as some-one distinctly pro-China and Myanmar’s chief interlocutor with Beijing. Khin Nyunt’s departure was a relief for many including ASSK. It was a severe blow to China. The rising chorus of anti-Chinese feeling within the armed forces and among the people is believed to be a significant reason along with the clamour for diversification away from China. Indian foreign policy planners, military experts and intelligence officials who interacted with Khin Nyunt at many levels will no doubt recall him as an astute and shrewd tactician. It may well be that Khin Nyunt’s ouster augured well for India.
Bertil Lintner, an expert on Myanmar issues, has traced the post-August 2003 developments in Myanmar in several well researched articles. According to him, the seven step document “Road map to discipline –flourishing democracy” on political reforms issued in August 2003 by the then State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) is seen as a precursor to changes of national importance. It flagged several initiatives namely drafting of a new constitution, holding general elections, convention of new Parliament to “elect state leaders charged with building a modern, developed and democratic nation”. Fifteen months later, a confidential document of over 300 pages in Myanmar language entitled “A study of Myanmar-US relations” which was put together by some academics at the Myanmar Military Academy in upper Myanmar surfaced giving even more serious hints at bigger reforms. Bertil Lintner opines this to be a major game changer in the political context. According to him the document outlines ways and means to deal with the international community, especially the US, and domestic opposition. Its main thesis is that Myanmar’s recent alliance with China has “created national emergency threatening the country’s independence”. Further, “Myanmar must normalize relations with the West after implementing the road map by electing a regime capable of dealing with the outside world on more acceptable terms”. Importantly, “it must address apprehensions in the USA over its relationship with DPRK and its nuclear ambitions”. Lintner adds that the document contains two specific points that “normalization was not possible as long as the military junta occupied power” and “importantly the US occupies a prime position in this scheme”. Lintner acknowledges access to the document and that the authorities in Yangon have not so far denied its existence.
The road map seems to have progressed as envisaged barring certain ethnic and other issues. The military has returned to barracks, a new but controversial constitution is in place, parliament is in position, the civilian government of U Thein Sein is in power and it has taken several important decisions including the much celebrated cancellation of the Chinese funded multi-billion dollar Myitsone power project. It has distanced itself from the DPRK as seen in reports of U Thein Sein-Hillary Clinton talks. There are many developments in Myanmar that would have been impossible even to ponder several years ago.
It is a matter of consensus that the reforms seen in Myanmar since post-May 2011 are irreversible. The process of democratization, however, is still way off. The present constitution is loaded in favour of the military and the imbalances need to be corrected before the next parliamentary elections due in 2015. The role of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the biggest beneficiary of the reforms and that especially of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) are other important pointers. Lastly, the relations between the central government and the ethnic groups need to be resolved, the cease fire with 17 groups have yet to become political documents.
The post-May 2011 developments in Myanmar has its own fall out on relations with China. It may not have reached significant proportions as yet but represents a serious dilemma for the new elite in Beijing. The US “presence” is certainly detrimental to China’s long term interests, the monopoly of twenty years would be reduced with multiple players presently involved in Myanmar. China obviously values security, stability and absence of tension on its borders with Myanmar – this has been the corner stone of its Look South policy. It also has been an important player in helping to resolve ethnic issues especially of the Kachins, Shans and Karens with the federal authorities. China has invested over USD 17 billion in Myanmar and would no doubt need assurances of their safety as also that of the Chinese population in the country. Both sides have exchanged several high level delegations that are seen as confidence retaining measures. On its part China has cultivated political parties including NLD and kept its lines open to all shades of public opinion in Myanmar and outside. It has recently demonstrated its influence over the Kachins by pushing them to renew peace parleys with the Yangon government. It will do every-thing possible to keep relations on an even keel. China will need to adjust to changing realities in Myanmar from its perspectives and it is perhaps early to prejudge the course of events.
The onus is not only on Washington but also on others including India to set Myanmar “on the path of democratization” and ensure that the opportunities coming its way are not squandered away due to other distractions. There is obviously an inescapable need to ensure greater flow of financial aid and assistance. Western support will take much more time to fructify in Myanmar given its present poor social and developmental infrastructure. Even more time will entail to match the heavy investments made by China as also to end the isolation of Myanmar in fields of science and technology and strategic studies. The west and others have a long way to go in Myanmar to fully alter the balance of influence.
It is clear that behind the signs of democratization, the Myanmar military will continue to call the shots especially since the present constitution is weighed in its favour. There is no doubt that the 2008 statute book requires major changes before the next general elections become due in 2015. The role of U Thein Sein needs careful handling in this period. Generally speaking, the role of ASSK in a future national political dispensation will be scrutinized especially her role and influence. The constitution does not presently confer on her rights to run for high political office in the country. Even though the NLD has recently held its first national convention and given her the pride of place, there are several areas of contention to be resolved before it begins to translate sympathy into political votes country-wide. The other issue will be the attitude of the ethnic groups especially over their outstanding demands on political, economic and self-rule or greater autonomy.
Myanmar represents the first misstep in PRC’s foreign policy formulations especially at the fag-end of Hu Jintao’s tenure. The appointment of Wang Yinfang, a former Vice-foreign minister, as Beijing’s points-man on Myanmar is the first important step announced by the new authorities so far. This could be precursor to several other measures that may be in the offing not only for Myanmar but also for the neighborhood. This aspect, would no-doubt, be assessed by India’s strategic community from the short and long term perspective. Myanmar requires more Indian attention and New Delhi will hopefully respond pro-actively.
( The writer, Mr P.M. Heblikar is currently Managing Trustee of the Institute of Contemporary Studies. Bangalore (ICSB). He has written several articles on Myanmar and related issues. The article formed the basis of a paper on the subject presented by Mr Heblikar at a National Seminar organised by the C3S on “Leadership Changes in China: Domestic & External Impact”. at Chennai on 2 March 2013. It is also to be included in the forthcoming C3S publication – edited volume of the proceedings of the seminar.Email:firstname.lastname@example.org)