The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
COMMENTARY
Is Burma China's Satellite State? The Answer is Yes
By AUNG ZAW Friday, May 27, 2011

President Thein Sein, a former military general and protégé of dictator Snr Gen Than Shwe, is on a three-day state visit to China to pay a formal courtesy call to the leaders in Beijing and to cement what is fast becoming a strong relationship.

Indeed, we should not forget the historical relationship between the two countries: in 1949, Burma was one of the first countries to recognize the People's Republic of China.

But that doesn't mean that the relationship has always been smooth sailing.

Anti-Chinese riots were widespread in Burma in 1967, while for its part, China played an active role in supporting communist insurgents in Burma.

We must not forget that Beijing has at times played tough with the incompetent generals of Burma, most notably during the Kokang Crisis in August 2009 when Beijing reprimanded Burma over the instability at their common border when some 37,000 refugees fled into Chinese territory.

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

Beijing was reportedly enraged, and Burma quickly dispatched high-ranking officials to mend the fence.

On the issue of trade and investment, China plays a key role—extracting natural resources from Burma's ethnic states.

China made huge investments in hydropower, oil and gas, totaling $8.17 billion, Xinhua reported last year, citing the regime’s own statistics.

Indeed, by the end of March this year, China's investment in Burma has risen to US $15.5 billion from $12.3 billion at the end of 2010.

There is no doubt that the Chinese invasion of Burma is visible in the growing numbers of Chinese migrants and businessmen in Burma's second largest city, Mandalay, as well as in Shan and Kachin States where they have opened shops and businesses, and regularly buy land.

It is believed that over the last 20 years, hundreds of thousands of Chinese have migrated to Burma. Many of them have obtained Burmese nationality cards through corrupt immigration officials. China's persistent presence in Burma is significant—many local Burmese have begun learning Mandarin to help secure jobs, prompting a joke in Burma that the future leaders of the country will be fluent in Chinese next time they visit Beijing.

Shortly after the Burmese military crushed a pro-democracy movement 22 years ago, China was one of the first neighboring countries to back the newly installed junta, providing it with arms, jet fighters, naval ships and ammunition. Since then, its unwavering support for the regime in Burma has only grown.

Before 1988, China had supported and financed hardcore Burmese communist insurgents that waged bloody civil war against the Burmese regime.

China’s strategic shift toward Burma shows a more pragmatic approach than its previous ideological war.

Indeed, sadly, the policy shift does nothing more than preserve the brutal regime in Burma, and plays a destructive role toward Burma’s embattled democracy movement.

Outside of Burma, Beijing’s policy toward Naypyidaw has raised heated debate between pro-sanctions and anti-sanctions groups. The argument now is that it is time to counter China's growing political and business clout in Burma. Western companies and governments feel that this is all just a case of too little, too late—time to follow Beijing’s footsteps.

Li Junhua, the current Chinese ambassador to Burma, told Xinhua news agency that Thein Sein’s state visit would certainly push the two countries' strategic and mutually beneficial cooperation toward a new high.

Burma’s military leaders often call China their “most important friendly neighbor,” and they can now continue to develop their strategic relations with Beijing after putting to bed November's general election.

But it takes two to tango—Beijing realized that Naypyidaw has much to offer.

Burma has offered strategic access to the Bay of Bengal. Underlining this deepening strategic cooperation, Chinese naval ships last year made a port call for the first time in Burmese territorial waters.

During his visit, Thein Sein is expected to discuss in depth the issue of China's navy docking in Burmese ports, and the Chinese desire to provide naval protection for its oil and gas facilities at the Burmese seaport of Kyaukpyu in the Bay of Bengal.

Informed sources have said that Chinese officials are not suggesting a Chinese navy base in Burma, but simply having the permission to dock their warships at Burma's ports while they are patrolling the Indian Ocean and Somali coast.

Returning from a counter-piracy operation in the Indian Ocean in August 2010, two warships, the Guangzhou and the Chaohu, docked at Thilawa Port, near Rangoon, for a five-day visit.

Other issues of mutual concern, such as border security, military relations and business agreements, are expected to take a back seat on this particular visit.

China has also played a friendly intermediary role between Burma and North Korea since the two countries formally restored diplomatic relations in 2007.

Interestingly, the previous regime’s secret military missions to North Korea were taken via China.

It can safely be said that Beijing approves of and backs Burma’s desire to develop military contacts with North Korea. Overall, it looks like China’s role as a big brother to Burma will continue, and we can foresee China and Burma developing deeper military ties.

China also protects Burma from the teeth of the UN Security Council.

Various Burmese military leaders have either quietly or openly expressed admiration for China’s economic growth—it is the model they want to follow in their quest for economic reform. In fact, they fondly talk about Shanghai’s skyscrapers, with no mention of New York.

No doubt then that China is an important ally for the repressive regime to fend off the scathing opinions of Western governments, which have long criticized the junta’s appalling human rights records and are now backing the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity in Burma. China protects the regime and bullies the Western critics to back off any Naypyidaw when it faces a crucial censure or resolution.

Since November's deeply flawed election has won international backing, Chinese officials will strengthen their hand with the confidence that Naypyidaw owes them, and that they have much more to gain from Burma’s new government.

Ambassador Li praised Thein Sein's first presidential speech delivered, suggesting that it provided a strong signal to the people of Burma and the international community that the new government will make greater efforts in developing the economy, speed up its rate of opening doors to the outside world, improve the living standards of its people, and strengthen the ties between different nationalities based on foundations laid by the previous government.

Li told Xinhua that Burma’s new government is more self-confident and more active diplomatically, after seeing Thein Sein at the Asean Summit in Indonesia.

Consequently, as Beijing spreads its wings of influence in Asia, Thein Sein's visit will be seen as an important step in ensuring that close neighbor Burma remains a strategic ally in the foreseeable future.

It doesn’t matter to Beijing how many political prisoners are being locked up or how many ethnic minorities are slaughtered in the ongoing civil war in Burma—as long as the regime is stable, and China’s national interests are untouched.

To Chinese, as the saying goes—it doesn't matter whether it is a white cat or a black cat, as long as it can catch mice.

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