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“US Can’t Squeeze China out of Myanmar”

” US Can’t Squeeze China Out of Myanmar” was the message that China sought to convey to President Barack Obama as he completed his eight-hour visit to Yangon (Rangoon) on November 19, 2012, during which he met President Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and addressed the students of the Rangoon University.

2. Ever since the US and Myanmar started moving closer to each other last year, the Chinese have been keeping a watchful eye on the interactions between the leaders of the two countries without any sign of undue panic that Myanmar was sought to be weaned away from China as part of the USA’s new Asia policy.

3. President Thein Sein too and his officers maintained regular military-to-military exchanges with China in order to reassure Beijing that opening-up to the US would not be at the expense of traditional close relations with China and that the Chinese military leadership should have no reason to fear any dilution of the strategic ties between the two countries, including the relations between the armed forces of the two countries. Before going to New York in September 2012 to attend the UN General Assembly session during which he met Mr. Obama, Mr. Thein Sein took care to visit China.

4. On the day of Mr. Obama’s visit to Yangon, the “China Daily” had carried an exclusive interview with Mr. Ko Ko Hlaing, political adviser to President Thein Sein, on Myanmar’s relations with China. Mr. Ko Ko Hlaing had visited China at the head of a non-governmental Myanmar delegation sometime before (date not specified) Mr. Obama’s visit to Yangon, but the interview given by him was carried on the day of Mr. Obama’s visit.

5. In this interview, the political adviser to Mr. Thein Sein said that Myanmar cherished the “special” links with China since ancient times and would further strengthen and deepen its “time-honoured and time-tested” friendship during the country’s current reforms.

6. He added: “We were in isolation for many years and now are opening up, but it will not hamper the relationship between Myanmar and China. The bilateral relation is a special one.

“Myanmar was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic ties with New China in 1950. But the two countries’ close relationship dates to centuries ago. The ancestors of people now living in both countries had referred to each other at one time as “paukphaw”, a Myanmar word meaning brothers and sisters.

“The countries’ relationship has remained strong in recent decades, especially during Myanmar’s isolation, a time that it received much assistance from China. China is now the country’s largest investor and trade partner.

“We need to keep cordial relations with all nations. China is our most important neighbour. We will never forget that.”

7. Commenting on Mr. Obama’s visit a day after the visit, the “Global Times”, a sister publication of the party-owned “People’s Daily”, said as follows: “Some have suggested that Obama’s visit was aimed at weakening China’s influence. Such assumptions regarding contests between great powers and the political changes in Myanmar over the past year added special meaning to Obama’s visit.

“China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t express any displeasure with the visit, but said it believed that Sino-Myanmar relations would deepen. This shouldn’t simply be dismissed as diplomatic-speak, but shows China’s confidence.

“Myanmar’s democratic reforms and opening up to the West not only satisfy Washington but are also in China’s long-term interests. Most ASEAN countries have democratic elections and relations with China are not hindered due to differences in political systems. Myanmar won’t become alienated from China simply because of domestic political adjustments.

“Myanmar’s opening-up was unavoidable. Sino-Myanmar relations must undergo some changes to adapt to this. But the changes will be limited.

“There is no possibility that bilateral relations will be overturned entirely. China is the biggest neighbouring country of Myanmar and has irreplaceable influences on it. More importantly, such influences are based on equality.

“Myanmar is becoming open to the West in order to maximize its national interests. But it’s unwise to replace China with the West. Both the current leadership of Myanmar and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi well know this.

“That said, Obama’s visit may still have an eye toward challenging China’s influence. But the actual effect will be difficult to tell. Obama likes to be applauded for his efforts in promoting democracy in Myanmar and this merits some reward. However, the US can’t squeeze China out of Myanmar.

“Economically, Southeast Asian countries are depending on China more than the US, and this tendency is on the increase. Obama is bringing $170 million in aid to Myanmar. Unless he can ensure aid is delivered to Myanmar every month, such small amount of money won’t be a significant bargaining chip to change the China-Myanmar relationship.

“China needs to adjust to the US’s increasing diplomatic actions in the region, but it doesn’t have to overreact. China’s fast economic growth and growing domestic market will translate into a stronger economic driving force in the region. This is the biggest leverage China has in diplomacy in Southeast Asia.”

8. While commenting on the visit, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said: “President Obama’s visit is a matter between the United States and Myanmar. China and Myanmar are friendly neighbours, who, on the basis of the five principles of peaceful coexistence, conducted substantial cooperation in the spirit of equality and reciprocity, and they have also promoted their strategic partnership of cooperation. The development of China-Myanmar relations benefits the two peoples, and contributes to regional peace, stability and prosperity. We are confident in the in-depth development of bilateral relations.”

9. The privately-owned “Irrawaddy Journal” of Myanmar reported that in the week prior to Mr. Obama’s visit, two Myanmar delegations travelled to China to strengthen old military and cultural ties.

10. A Myanmar military delegation headed by Tatmadaw (armed forces) Deputy Commander-in-Chief Gen Soe Win visited China’s largest bi-annual defense exhibition in the southern Chinese coastal city of Zhuhai on November 13, according to photos circulated on Chinese microblogs.

11. According to the Journal, the images showed a delegation with at least three general-ranked officers touring the Ninth China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition. Chinese state media has not identified Soe Win and other members of the delegation as visitors to the armaments trade fair. Similarly, no Myanmar visitors were mentioned in a detailed list of foreign dignitaries released by the organizers at the last Zhuhai Airshow in 2010.

12. Two reporters for the “Global Times” reported in a blog post that the Myanmar delegation “paid careful attention to the C802/C705/ FL-3000N defense missile system”. The short-range surface-to-air missile launcher for ships, first revealed at the same airshow in 2008, has since been employed on China’s first aircraft carrier.

13. On November 14, Soe Win met Gen Ma Xiaotian, Commander of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, at his headquarters in Beijing. Both sides expressed their wish to deepen cooperation in air force technology and training, according to a statement by the Chinese Ministry of Defense.

14. According to “The Irrawaddy Journal”, Ma, 63, last visited the Burmese capital Naypyidaw in September, then as a Deputy Chief of Staff, where he held talks with incoming Vice-President Nyan Tun, a former Navy chief, and Commander-in-Chief Vice–Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

15.Ma, a long-time rising star within the Chinese armed forces, assumed command of the Chinese Air Force in October. The day before meeting Soe Win, Ma was elevated to the Chinese Communist Party’s all-powerful Central Military Commission.

16. On November 15, the Myanmar delegation met with new Vice-Chief of Staff Lieut-Gen Qi Jiangu, and the outgoing Minister of Defense Gen Liang Guanglie. Thereafter, it travelled to Xi’an, a hub for military aviation, where they were received by Maj-Gen Lin Miaoxin, political commissar of the Shaanxi military district, according to a report in the local Shaanxi Daily newspaper.

17.The military delegation returned to Naypyidaw on November 19, hours after President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi had met with Mr. Obama. On the same day, former Brig-Gen Aye Myint Kyu was in Beijing on his first trip as Minister of Culture.

18. He discussed arrangements for the 2013 Southeast Asian Games to be hosted by Myanmar in December next year with his Chinese counterpart Cai Wu. In September, both countries had reached an undisclosed framework agreement on “assistance and support” for the opening and closing ceremonies through the China Arts and Entertainment Group Ltd., a state-owned organizer of cultural events. Aye Myint Kyu then met Politburo member Liu Yandong at Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party leadership, along with Li Peng, the head of China’s General Administration of Sport.

19. On November 20,”The PLA Daily” quoted Liang Guanglie as having told Gen.Soe Win as follows: “The Chinese side attaches great importance to the relations between the Chinese and Myanmar militaries, and is willing to make joint efforts with the Myanmar side to effectively strengthen strategic communication, constantly deepen pragmatic cooperation, strive to maintain the stability of the border areas, and further promote China-Myanmar comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership, so as to make contributions to maintaining regional peace and stability and promoting common development.”

20. The PLA Daily quoted Gen. Soe Win as replying that China has always been a reliable good brother, good friend and good partner of Myanmar. Under the new international and regional situations, the Myanmar side will keep devoting itself to strengthening the friendly exchanges and pragmatic cooperation between the two countries and the two militaries, so as to firmly safeguard common interests of the two countries.

21. According to the PLA Daily, Gen. Qi Jiangu told Gen. Soe Win as follows: “The China-Myanmar relations have withstood tests from the changeable international situations in the past 60-odd years since the establishment of the diplomatic relations, and the long-term mutual understanding and mutual support between the two countries have achieved fruitful accomplishments. The relations between the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Myanmar Armed Forces are an important component in the relations between the two countries. The Chinese PLA and the Myanmar Armed Forces have conducted in-depth and pragmatic communications in terms of high-level exchange of visits, equipment technological cooperation, personnel training, border control and so on, which have exerted active effects in promoting the comprehensive development of the relations between the two countries.”

(The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: Twitter @SORBONNE75)

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