Playing with Superpowers
covering burma and southeast asia
Friday, May 29, 2020


Playing with Superpowers


(Page 2 of 2)

China had backed the wrong horse by wooing intelligence chief Gen Khin Nyunt, only to see him abruptly removed in 2004, thus losing one of Beijing’s most valuable friends.

Than Shwe, like many Burmese nationalists, was reluctant to see Burma become too dependent on China, even for the armaments his regime so badly needed. When Chinese-made jet fighters began to malfunction and crash at an alarming rate, the Burmese regime went looking for reliable arms manufacturers in Russia and Eastern Europe.

The Chinese have always found the Burmese difficult to deal with. When Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Burma in December 2001 on a mission to strengthen economic and strategic ties, Than Shwe reportedly upset the Chinese leader by not signing an agreement allowing Chinese vessels to travel to the Bay of Bengal along the Bhamo and Irrawaddy rivers.

Kurt Campbell, the US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacifc affairs

The Burmese regime knows full well the extent of China’s economic and strategic interest in the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal.

Two years before Jiang Zemin’s visit, Than Shwe had reinforced ties with Russia, India and Pakistan, demonstrating to uneasy senior military officers that his regime was no puppet of China.

Despite Burma’s cautionary stand, China remains a staunch ally, ready to defend the regime whenever it finds itself in a corner—including at the UN Security Council. In return, the regime has agreed to sell gas to China and build oil and gas pipelines.

Depending solely on China is not an option for the regime, however—and for that reason alone the junta may find the new US policy appealing at some level, as it could counterbalance China’s growing influence.

It is safe to say that the regime will cooperate with the US in the areas of drug control, health, environmental protection and the continuing search for the remains of US servicemen registered as missing in action in World War II.

This could provide an entry point for the US to further engage with the regime if pro-US engagement officers in the armed forces became powerful in the future.

However, it is doubtful that the current regime will deliver any substance in the political arena. It is highly unlikely that the regime will agree to Washington’s request for inclusive, free and fair elections and the release of all political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi.

In any case, although the new US-Burma policy outlined in Washington definitely creates a space for the repressive regime in Burma to engage more with its most vocal critic, it is still uncertain whether direct engagement would yield any positive outcome.

It is interesting to note that Washington’s new Burma policy received a cautious welcome from dissidents inside and outside the country.

The US policy is undoubtedly a smart one. However, Than Shwe and his junta are not only smart—like North Korea’s leaders, they are also manipulative and often skillfully employ pressure and dialogue to deceive the domestic and international communities.

Washington is well aware of Burmese deception, and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell has made it clear that the US administration will not lift sanctions unless the regime makes concrete changes.

Campbell told a Senate sub-committee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs that the US will maintain existing sanctions until it sees concrete progress in Burma and will continue to work with the international community to ensure that those sanctions are effectively coordinated.

This means that Than Shwe will not see any lifting of sanctions any time soon. The regime doesn’t share US human rights and democracy values—and, as a result, the new US policy may not reach any meaningful stage in coming years because of the regime’s resistance to change.

However, the US gesture to the Burmese has set alarm bells ringing in Beijing. As in the past, Burmese leaders will have more room to play one superpower against the other.

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