Rangoon seems willing to take shelter under Beijing's embrace: China
is behind two-thirds of all foreign investment in Burma and is its
second-largest trading partner after Thailand. China is the primary
supplier of military equipment to the Tatmadaw, Myanmar's armed forces.
Beijing provides diplomatic and political cover for the regime,
consistently vetoing U.S. plans to investigate allegations of civilian
repression through UN agencies. Without Chinese economic and technical
assistance, the stuttering Burmese economy would have completely
collapsed, endangering the continued rule of the junta. It is no wonder
that Burma is sometimes dismissed as a Chinese "economic colony" or even
as the unofficial twenty-third province of China.
When President Thein Sein took office last March, few expected much
change from the emergence of a so-called civilian government. But the
last few months in Burma have taken the region and America by surprise.
The president suspended the $3.6 billion Chinese-funded Myitsone Dam
project on the northern mouth of the Irawaddy River. The dam was to send
90 percent of the hydroelectric power generated to Yunnan Province in
China for the next fifty years.
In an unexpected move, Rangoon has welcomed several senior American
officials over the past few months. These include Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton, former presidential candidate John McCain, former
vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman and Senate Minority Leader
Mitch McConnell. All have returned expressing cautious optimism about
the prospect of political reform in Burma.
Clinton was even granted an audience with Nobel Peace Prize-winner
Aung San Suu Kyi, who is considered by the West to be the legitimate
leader of Burma on account of her election victory in 1990. Rangoon has
approved meetings between Suu Kyi, Thai prime minister Yingluck
Shinawatra and British foreign secretary William Hague. Released from
house arrest in 2010, she was recently cleared to run for parliamentary
elections in April 2012.
China's continued courting of Burma is understandable--and to be
expected. Burma is of strategic importance because it is superbly
positioned above the Andaman Sea, which leads into the shipping
chokepoint of the Malacca Straits. Potential transport routes through
Burma also offer southern Chinese provinces an alternative to relying
solely on U.S.-patrolled maritime routes through Southeast Asia.
But as in African countries such as Zimbabwe, Sudan, Algeria and
Nigeria, China is also interested in the resources of its southern
neighbor: oil, gas, minerals, timber and hydropower generation. Almost
all Chinese investment in Burma is in these sectors and by
state-owned-enterprises (SOE). And as is often the case with Chinese SOE
activity in poor countries ruled by authoritarian, corrupt regimes, the
implied pact between Beijing and its partner's political elites--with
both under less pressure to address the concerns of their citizens than
in genuine democracies--offers little in the way of economic, employment
or social return to local populations. For example, Beijing puts no
pressure on its SOEs to limit the environmental impact of commercial
activities--especially mining--in foreign lands. Resentment is only
deepening: Locals in the northeast economic regions close to China have
long complained that commerce is dominated by Chinese entrepreneurs and