It all began in November of 2010 when the military regime decided to release opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi who, since 1989, had been on house arrest under charges of attempting to divide the military. A few months later in the March of 2011, former Prime Minister and military hero Thein Sein was sworn in as President of the rapidly changing government. Among the numerous bold moves President Sein has made since assuming his new role in the fragile nation, arguably the most shocking has been the discontinuation of the controversial $3.6 billion Myitsone dam, a project funded by eager Chinese investors to generate electricity for millions of Chinese. What’s more, the West, most notably the United States, has seen this move by President Sein as a clear sign that his countries relations with the Chinese are turning sour. This is one of the reasons the Americans recently sent Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, the first American official to visit the country in fifty years, to speak with President Sein about a host of issues ranging from the severing of ties with North Korea to prolonged relief on economic sanctions girding the people of Burma. As America embarks on a new season of brinkmanship with the Burmese government, it is eminently important to understand the reasons why we are now so eager to embrace the new government while also studying the global implications of Burma turning a shoulder to their neighbors from the East, the Chinese.
Below is an excerpt from author David Steinberg’s book, Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know. Here, Steinberg details the economic and strategic interests China desires in Burma. – Nick, OUP USA
Although we can only speculate on Chinese motivation for the close relationship with the Myanmar authorities, strategic and economic issues seem paramount. Chinese influence in Myanmar is potentially helpful in any rivalry that might again develop with India, although Sino-Indian relations now are quite cordial. As China expands its regional influence and develops a blue-water navy, Myanmar provides access to the Bay of Bengal and supplements other available port facilities for the Chinese in the Indian Ocean in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka – called a “string of [Chinese] pearls.” Although the southern reaches of Myanmar are at the extreme western end of the Straits of Malacca, the free use of these straits are critical strategic concerns to China, Japan, Korea, and the United States. Some Chinese sources consider continued access to the straits to be a critical policy objective, and a close relationship with Myanmar is a potential advantage. Eighty percent of imported Chinese oil passes through these straits. To the extent that pipelines for oil and gas cross Myanmar and relieve Chinese dependence on the vulnerable Straits of Malacca, this is clearly in China’s strategic interests.
Access to energy sources is both a strategic and economic concern. Diversification of the supply of oil, natural gas, and hydroelectric power is an issue in which Myanmar looms large. The exploitation of offshore natural gas fields in Myanmar is important, as is the ability to transport that gas, as well as Middle Eastern crude oil, to China avoiding the Straits of Malacca, which is a strategic plus for China. China is helping construct some thirty dams, most of which will supply electricity to Yunnan Province as well as power and irrigation water to parts of Myanmar.
Under the SLORC/SPDC, China has become the single most important economic and military support of the Myanmar government. Its military assistance is estimated at more than US $3 billion, and its economic assistance is in the hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars. It has and continues to build extensive infrastructure: roads, railroads, ports, dams, and irrigation facilities. The trade relationship is close, officially estimated at US $1.577 billion but likely to be much higher. There are perhaps some 300,000 legal Chinese registered with the Myanmar government, but unofficial estimates of Chinese illegal migration into Myanmar are as many as 2 million. Chinese goods now dominate many of Myanmar’s markets, and Mandalay, the seat of Burman culture, is said to be 20 percent Yunnanses, whereas the population of Lasio, the most important city north of Mandalay, is estimated to be 50 percent Chinese. China has gas, which will be sent to Yunnan via pipeline. China also has plans to build a second pipeline for Middle Eastern crude oil across Myanmar to Kunming.
Constantly, delegations from both the central government in Beijing and from individual provinces like Yunnan visit and meet with Myanmar officials, and those from Myanmar travel frequently to China.
The Chinese have also been heavily involved in exploiting Myanmar’s natural resources, especially timber, and they have dealt with both the government and minority cease-fire groups. There are many problems; their gold mining operations in the Kachin State, for example, have left to extensive pollution of the rivers. The Chinese seem to have brought Chinese workers, thereby providing even less benefit to local communities. Individual Chinese provinces, especially Yunnan, have their own supplementary interests in Myanmar, and they pursue them with considerable vigor.
Chinese penetration of Myanmar has unique aspects, but it is also related to their broader strategy in Southeast Asia.
David I. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, and the author of Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs To Know.