Asia Pacific Media Services Asia Analysed
Asian analysis

Latest Articles


China and South Asia's east

For economic and strategic reasons, Burma is crucial to both China and India. China has first-mover advantage but India has now woken up to the threat in the east. Meanwhile, the junta is looking less cohesive than it did.

by Bertil Lintner

While Burma remains largely shunned by the West for its human rights record and repressive political system, the country's biggest neighbours, China and India, are jockeying for influence in Rangoon, with Pakistan actively supporting Beijing in the regional power play. To complicate matters, this has set off an internal power struggle within the junta in Rangoon. The outcome of this multi-layered regional competition is more likely to determine Burma's political destiny than any move made by the West to pressurise it into a dialogue with the country's pro-democracy opposition forces.

The configuration of this conflict became clear when Pakistan's military leader, General Pervez Musharraf, paid a landmark visit to Burma from 1 to 3 May 2001. Burma's military government, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has consistently maintained that foreign naval vessels would not be permitted to visit the country's ports. But prior to Musharraf's arrival, no less than three Pakistani naval vessels--a submarine, a tanker and a destroyer--were seen in Rangoon. At the same time, a Chinese submarine was reportedly visiting the port city of Sittwe in western Burma ahead of a visit by a high-powered Chinese military delegation. These two countries would be keen to persuade Burma's military leaders not to get too close to their common regional rival, India.

New Delhi, for its part, has also been trying to improve ties with Burma since it normalised relations with the military junta in 1993. In February 2001, Jaswant Singh, the Indian foreign minister, visited Rangoon to discuss avenues for closer cooperation. This was preceded by Burmese army chief and SPDC vice chairman General Maung Aye's two visits to India in 2000. Meanwhile, the powerful intelligence chief and first secretary in the SPDC, Lt General Khin Nyunt, seen as a rival to the army chief, is believed to be pro-China and he paid a highly publicised visit to Pakistan in July 2000.

China and its ally, Pakistan, enjoy a considerable head start in the race to woo Rangoon's military leaders over to their side. Burma began to formally develop into an important Chinese ally when, on 6 August 1988, the two countries signed a trade agreement. By then, the days of Mao's support to the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), which holds the record for the longest running communist insurgency anywhere, were well and truly over and Dengist pragmatism was guiding Chinese policy. This agreement was the first of its kind that a hitherto isolated Burma had entered into with a neighbour. It was especially significant because the agreement was signed at a time when Burma was in turmoil: two days later, millions of people in virtually every city, town and village in the country took to the streets to demand an end to army rule and a restoration of the democracy the country had enjoyed prior to the first military coup in 1962.

The Chinese, renowned for their ability to plan far ahead, had expressed their intentions, almost unnoticed, in an article in the official Beijing Review as early as 2 September 1985. Titled 'Opening to the Southwest: An Expert Opinion', the article, which was written by the former vice-minister of communications, Pan Qi, outlined the possibilities of finding an outlet for trade from China's landlocked provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan, through Burma, to the Indian Ocean. It mentioned the Burmese railheads of Myitkyina and Lashio in the northeast, and the Irrawaddy river, as possible conduits for the export of Chinese goods--but it omitted to mention that all relevant border areas, at that time, were not under Burmese central government control.

That situation changed in 1989 with the Wa mutiny within the CPB. The Wa is the hill tribe whose members formed the rank and file of the insurgent CPB, whose leadership of was primarily Burman. Subsequent to the revolt, the CPB split along ethnic lines into four different regional armies--and all of them entered into ceasefire agreements with the government. By 1990, trade between the two countries was flourishing, and ties between Burma and China gradually gained strength. By 1990, Burma had become China's principal political and military ally in the South Asian east.

Chinese arms poured into Burma to help the survival of the extremely unpopular military regime, recipient of worldwide condemnation when it brutally crushed the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. In view of the Rangoon massacre of 1988, and the Tiananmen Square massacre the following year, it is hardly surprising that the two then isolated, internationally condemned neighbours would feel a great empathetic bond. On 30 September 1989, Burmese intelligence chief Khin Nyunt said in an address to a group of Chinese engineers working on a project in Rangoon: "We sympathise with the People's Republic of China as disturbances similar to those in Burma last year broke out in the People's Republic of China [in May-June 1989]".

Brothers in arms

Burma's strategic importance to China was not lost on observers. By late 1991, Chinese experts were assisting in a series of infrastructure projects to spruce up the poorly maintained roads and railways. Chinese military advisers arrived in the same year, the first foreign military personnel to be stationed in Burma since the Australians had a contingent there to train the Burmese army in the 1950s. Burma was, in effect, becoming a Chinese client state. Ironically, what the insurgent CPB had failed to achieve for the Chinese on the battlefield had been accomplished by shrewd diplomacy and trade. The total value of Chinese arms deliveries to Burma in the 1990s is not known, but intelligence sources estimate it to be between USD 1 and 2 billion, most of it acquired on extremely generous terms. After crushing the 1988 uprising, and to prevent a recurrence of similar popular movements, Burma's military regime has more than doubled the size of its armed forces. The number of men in the three services increased from 186,000 in 1988 to 450,000 in 2001, and all three branches underwent significant modernisation programmes.

Military hardware delivered by China in a little more than a decade includes 80 Type 69II medium battle tanks, more than a hundred Type 63 light tanks, 250 Type 85 armoured personnel carriers, multiple launch rocket systems, howitzers, anti-aircraft guns, HN-5 surface-to-air missiles, mortars, assault rifles, recoilless guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, JLP-50 and JLG-43 air defence radars, heavy trucks, Chengdu F-7M Airguard jet fighters, FT-7 and FT-6 jet trainers, A-5C ground attack aircraft, SACY-8D transport aircraft, Hainan class patrol boats, Houxin-class guided missile fast attack craft, minesweepers and small gunboats. In 2000, China delivered 12 Karakoram-8 trainers/ground attack aircraft, which are produced in a joint venture with Pakistan. Pakistan, for its part, has also sold munitions to Burma, including 120mm mortar bombs and machine-gun ammunition.

While one of the reasons why China has decided to arm Burma may be to provide a military umbrella to protect new trade routes through potentially volatile territory, some analysts view the support in a more long-term perspective. Access, even indirectly, to the Indian Ocean gives China a strategic advantage. The Strait of Malacca is, for instance, a key transit point for the bulk of Japan's West Asian oil imports.

But it is India, not Japan, that has reacted the strongest to China's high-profile presence in Burma. Of particular concern has been the Chinese role in the upgrading of Burma's naval facilities--including at least four electronic listening posts along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea: Man-aung on an island off the coast of the western Arakan, or Rakhine, State; Hainggyi Island in the Irrawaddy delta, Zadetkyi (St Matthew) Island just north of the entrance to the Malacca Strait; and the strategically important Coco Island just north of India's Andaman Islands. Chinese technicians have also been spotted at the naval bases at Monkey Point near Rangoon, and the Kyaikkami facility south of the port city of Moulmein.

Although China's presence in the Bay of Bengal is currently limited to instructors and technicians, the fact that the new radar equipment is Chinese-made--and is most likely also operated at least in part by Chinese technicians--has enabled Beijing's intelligence agencies to monitor this sensitive maritime region. China and Burma have signed several agreements under which they have pledged to share intelligence that could be of use to both countries. The arrival of a Chinese submarine in a Burmese port also adds an important strategic element to Beijing's arms sales to Burma, indicating that they were much more than purely commercial deals.

In June 1998, India's defence minister George Fernandes caused great uproar when he accused Beijing of helping Burma install surveillance and communications equipment on islands in the Bay of Bengal. Burma denied the accusations, while China's foreign ministry expressed "utmost grief and resentment" over the minister's comments. New Delhi however, had good reason to be concerned. In August 1994, the Indian coast guard caught three boats "fishing" close to the site of a major Indian naval base in the Andamans. The trawlers were flying the Burmese flag, but the crew of 55 was Chinese. There was no fishing equipment on board--only radio communication and depth-sounding equipment. The crew was released at the intervention of the Chinese embassy in New Delhi. The incident was discreetly buried in the defence ministry files in New Delhi. But when China's designs became more obvious, the new and more alert government in New Delhi began to pay greater attention to developments in Burma.

In March 1997, the China News Agency in Beijing reported that a Sino-Burmese expert group had "conducted a study on the possibility of land and water transport, via Yunnan and into the Irrawaddy valley in Burma". On 5 May that same year, the official Xinhua news agency reported that Beijing and Rangoon had reached an agreement on developing this route. Xinhua said this route would be 5800 kilometres shorter than the older route of access to open waters which linked the Yunnanese capital Kunming and the nearest port on China's east coast, Shanghai.

Long before that agreement was reached, however, China had begun to construct a railway from Kunming to Xiaguan (near Dali), on its side of the Yunnanese frontier. By now, the old Burma Road from Kunming to Ruili on the Burmese border has also been upgraded, and Chinese engineers have completed work on the last 120-kilometre stretch of the road from Ruili across the border to Bhamo on the Irrawaddy river in Burma's Kachin State. Bhamo is the northernmost port on the Irrawaddy that is accessible from the south. Intelligence sources in Burma say the plan was to use a fleet of barges to transport goods from there to Minhla, some 1000 kilometres downriver and 280 kilometres north of Rangoon. From Minhla, a road is being built across the Arakan Yoma mountain range, running via An to Kyaukpyu on the coast. Kyaukpyu had been chosen as the site for a new deepwater port rather than the silted mouth of the Rangoon river. It was to finalise this plan that army chief General Maung Aye went to China in June 2000, but it now seems certain that although he did agree to strengthen trade relations, Beijing may not have got all the concessions they had expected--and it is believed that India may have played a role in this turn of events.

Cultural calculus

Historically, independent India had maintained extremely cordial relations with Burma. Jawaharlal Nehru and U Nu, the first prime ministers of the two countries, shared a common worldview, and India even lent some assistance to the government in Rangoon in the political crisis that followed on the heels of independence. Even after the coup in 1962, India kept up formal relations with Burma until 1988 when India's stance changed with the military regime's brutal crackdown on the pro-democracy demonstrators. India's prime minister at the time, Rajiv Gandhi, came out in open support of the movement for democracy and it was stated policy that India would give shelter to genuine Burmese refugees. Supporting the country's pro-democracy forces is thought to have been India's way of countering China's influence in Burma. However, around 1993 India began to re-evaluate its strategy out of concern that its policies had achieved little except push Burma closer to Beijing. The result was a dramatic policy shift aimed at improving relations with Rangoon. A senior Indian official says that the Burmese generals have been sending signals to New Delhi to take greater interest in development work to lessen their heavy dependence on China.

In January 2000, the then Indian Army chief, General Ved Prakash Malik, paid a two-day visit to Burma, which was followed up by a visit by Maung Aye to the northeast Indian city of Shillong. The unusual nature of this visit by a foreign leader to a provincial capital was accentuated by the arrival of a group of senior Indian official from trade, energy, defence, home and foreign affairs ministries to hold talks with the general. In the aftermath of these meetings, India began to provide non-lethal military support to Burmese troops along the common border. Most of their uniforms and some other combat gear now come from India. India is also reported to have leased some helicopters to the Burmese.

In November 2000, the Indian government felt confident enough about bilateral relations to invite Maung Aye to New Delhi as head of a delegation that also included several other high-ranking junta members and cabinet ministers, notably two of the secretaries of the SPDC, Lt Generals Tin Oo and Win Myint, foreign minister Win Aung and Col Kyaw Win, deputy head of the powerful Directorate of the Defence Services Intelligence. Conspicuous by his absence was the intelligence chief, Lt Gen Khin Nyunt--who, tellingly, had taken off for a visit to Pakistan on the very same day that General Malik arrived for a second visit to the country in July 2000.

In many ways, Burma's military government has been caught on the horns of a dilemma. It had to accept Chinese aid when nobody else was prepared to support or do business with it--but what began as a rather modest trade agreement developed into a heavy political and military dependence. Moreover, tens of thousands of illegal Chinese immigrants have moved across the border over the past 10 years and taken over local businesses in the north of the country. This illegal migration has caused friction with the local population, and some ethnic clashes have already taken place between Chinese immigrants and local tribesmen in the north. Maung Aye, a staunch Burmese nationalist, is said to be more concerned about these demo-graphic changes than defence and trade agreements with China.

Mystery also surrounds the renewed presence of the Indian right-wing Hindu organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Burma. The RSS first came to Burma in the 1940s to provide services for the country's ethnic Indian minority, but it lay dormant after the military took over in 1962 and most Indians left. Now, a renewed effort to build up a Rangoon branch of the RSS is being made--apparently with the blessings of General Maung Aye. The RSS (which in Burma is called the Sanatana Dharma Swayamsevak Sangh) has convinced some Burmese generals that Hinduism and Buddhism are "branches of the same tree"--and that "the best guard against China is culture", to quote a Calcutta-based RSS official. Although the RSS is the parent organisation of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which leads the current coalition government in New Delhi, it is far from certain that the fundamentalists' Rangoon mission has the blessings of the Indian government. But, parallel to this development, New Delhi is actively encouraging Maung Aye to visit historic Buddhist sites in India, which seems to lend credence to the suggestion that this could indeed be part of a "cultural diplomacy" drive on the part of India to woo Burma away from China, and to take advantage of the rift between the army and intelligence chiefs.

But the question is also what Burma could do to loosen its dependence on China, if it were to decide to do so--and if India is to have any chance of succeeding in its attempts. Intelligence analysts say that China's economic, political and military grip over the country has already become so strong that it would be very hard for Rangoon to change its policies. Any major political change in Burma is also unlikely as long as its two most important leaders are still alive: the ageing strongman Ne Win, who established army rule in the country in 1962--and who is still regarded as the "godfather" of the Burmese military establishment despite a court case brought against his daughter, son-in-law and grandsons earlier this year--and General Than Shwe, the present chairman of the ruling junta. But Ne Win turned 91 in May 2002, and Than Shwe's health is said to be deteriorating rapidly, although he is only 68. In May 2000, Than Shwe even wrote a letter to the junta, intimating his intention to retire from his post.

Without Ne Win pulling strings from behind the scenes, and Than Shwe gone as junta chairman, observers believe that the rivalry between Maung Aye and Khin Nyunt could turn into a far more critical power struggle. Given their different opinions on foreign policy--and their respective links to rival regional forces--the outcome of that struggle could also determine Burma's place in a broader regional security context.

This article first appeared in Himal South Asia magazine, October 2002

Back to articles