Imagining a New Role for China
covering burma and southeast asia
Monday, July 23, 2018
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EDITOR'S PERSPECTIVE

Imagining a New Role for China


By The Irrawaddy JUNE, 2000 - VOLUME 8 NO.6


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Recently, Gen Maung Aye, vice chairman of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) visited China to mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Burma and China. In Beijing, the two countries agreed on a framework for bilateral relations in the 21st century, pledging to increase economic and diplomatic ties. At home, however, the Burmese media openly stated that the purpose of the visit was to strengthen military ties. In fact, it is no secret that in 1989, Burma agreed to purchase US$ 1-2 billion worth of weapons, including jet fighters, tanks and naval ships, from China. Since then, China’s defence industry has helped to dramatically upgrade Burma’s military capabilities. Chinese Defense Minister Chi Haotian acknowledged this aspect of Sino-Burmese relations when he noted that cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries is firmly rooted. Burma’s increasingly heavy reliance on China has become a major source of concern among other Asian nations. Analysts and intelligence sources continue to believe that Burma has allowed China to build a listening post on Coco Island in the Bay of Bengal, despite denials from Rangoon and Beijing. Last year, Burma’s army spokesman said that the regime would never allow "foreign troops" on its soil and insisted that Burma would never become a "client" state of China. Recently, however, news from Rangoon indicates that a team of Chinese military engineers has been active in southern Burma, helping with the construction of Burmese naval bases. In any case, Sino-Burmese relations seem to be stronger than ever. But sadly, the effect of this development has been far from positive for the Burmese people. With support from Beijing, the Rangoon junta’s grip on power has grown stronger over the past decade, and shows no signs of weakening. The sight of Chinese-made tanks on the streets of Rangoon every time the regime feels threatened by open displays of popular discontent is by now a familiar one, and has done little to improve Beijing’s image amongst ordinary Burmese. Nor would many Burmese have felt inclined to commiserate with Chinese leaders as Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt did following the Tiananmen massacre in 1989: "We sympathize with the People’s Republic of China as disturbances similar to those in Burma last year broke out in the People’s Republic," said the Burmese junta leader in an official statement. Chinese leaders have also been pleased with Rangoon’s frequent reiteration of its support for the "one China" policy regarding Taiwan. The current military regime is not the first Burmese government to pursue friendly relations with China, and there is nothing wrong with maintaining friendly ties with neighboring countries, particularly one like China, which has the potential to become a major global player in the 21st century. Unfortunately, however, Beijing’s willingness to back an illegitimate regime that is regarded as a pariah state by much of the rest of the world reflects badly on its own qualifications to fulfill a future role as a world leader. This is not China-bashing, because we understand that even after democracy is restored to Burma, favorable relations with China will remain crucial. But such relations must be based on the desires of the people of Burma and China, not just on a marriage of convenience between authoritarian rulers. Even the current regime in Beijing must recognize that military rule in Burma is damaging to its own interests as well as those of the Burmese people. The flow of drugs and refugees across Burma’s borders has had a destabilizing effect on the entire region, including China. Ethnic tensions have festered rather than healed in response to military repression, and continue to breed insurgencies that stand in the way of efforts to build trade routes that would link the world’s two most populous countries, China and India, to the dynamic region of Southeast Asia. Even in its direct dealings with the Burmese junta, China has reason to question Rangoon’s reliability as an international partner. Trade between the two countries is frequently beset by inconsistencies in the regime’s economic policies. In 1997-98, Sino-Burmese trade plummeted to just two-thirds of its value in the previous year, from $600 million to $400 million, when Rangoon arbitrarily imposed restrictions on border trade, much to the chagrin of policymakers in Beijing. Wisely enough, China has not put all of its eggs in the SPDC basket. It has long allowed Burmese ex-communist leaders to remain in China on the condition that they not engage in anti-Rangoon campaigns. More significantly, recent reports say that in the past few years, Beijing has renewed its contacts with the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party that overwhelmingly won elections held in 1990.


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