Pay Attention To Burma

The United States' recent decision to pursue a different tack with Burma has been cited by reports to be the reason for the unusual Chinese rebuke of the Burmese over a recent border spat. According to a recent Inter Press Agency article, the recent Chinese-Burmese border bust up may have been compounded by Chinese concerns over its long-time client state's future relations with the U.S.

Some background: This latest Chinese rebuke comes as the United States has moved rather aggressively in courting Burma in the last few weeks. Following Senator Jim Webb's trip to Burma in August, the U.S has announced a shift in its Burma policy, announcing its plan for engagement with the junta's reclusive leaders must be part of a "sustained process of interaction." This move, which has been strongly supported by Burmese opposition, has been quickly followed by a meeting between Kurt Campbell, assistant U.S. secretary of state for Asia, and Burmese health minister U Thaung on the margins of the UN General Assembly last Tuesday. These are the first such high-level talks in more than a decade.

But should such a contention be taken seriously? Consider the realities: the Chinese have benefited from a flurry of trade sanctions imposed on Burma by the West since 1988. Today, 90 percent of investment in Burma still comes from China, and this is unlikely to change any time soon. It is therefore unlikely the Burmese junta would decide on any dramatic switch of allegiance. The Burmese military junta's interest in a dialogue with the U.S. is, according to the same IPS article, motivated by its main concerns -- to have sanctions lifted, for international humanitarian and development assistance to flow into the country, and to attract foreign investment.

But what is America's interest in engaging Burma? As preemptive action to make sure any rumored nuclear alliance with North Korea remain rumors? Or is the Obama administration just keen to just spread its hippie message of love, peace and joy around the world? Despite the absence of any clear, publicly articulated goals at this point (something Burmese opposition has warned against), whether deliberate and due to strategic reasons or otherwise, U.S. negotiators shouldn't misread the situation as China reacting against America encroaching on its influence. In fact, China's cooperation remains integral in any long term effort to bring Burma into the international fold again.

Rather, it would also be useful to bear in mind how the Chinese tend to only react when their self interests are directly impacted. In this instance, Burmese infighting has spilled into Chinese territory. According to Ian Storey of The Jamestown Foundation, Burma's armed forces routed the Kokang militia (known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army or MNDAA) and, with close links to China, along the Sino-Burmese border in late August, saw over 40 persons killed, and tens of thousands of refugees streaming across the border into China.

While Storey says this incident underscored how the ruling junta is capable of undertaking actions that challenge Beijing's interests, belying characterizations of Burma as a client state of China, it is more likely China is acting in its self interest with the rebuke because the ethnic strife in neighboring Burma has caused a massive refugee situation in China. The nature of the rare rebuke by the Chinese at the end of August that has been followed by another chastising statement from the Chinese last week is testament to this.

And while the implications of this growing divergence could also have significant effects on the border region, as most of the ethnic groups -- especially the Kachin, Kokang and Wa -- in this area have ceasefire agreements with the Burmese junta and have traditional close ties with the Chinese authorities, China has no strategic interests in lecturing Burma beyond the economic disturbances the fighting has caused them.

The Obama administration has so far proven to be astute foreign policy folks with East Asia. The way Team Obama handled North Korea was a sign of their skill in balancing force and concessions that don't compromise America's bargaining position. While it might be legitimate for China to harbor fears of its "waning" influence, to suggest they reacted just to counter increased American influence based on the events of the last few months is to disregard the almost 20-year relationship between Burma and China.

After all, it would take more than just America alone to engage Burma. China is too huge and too significant for America to ignore in any policy on Southeast and East Asia. Because at the end of the day, the only certainty when dealing with isolationist regimes such as Burma and North Korea is uncertainty, but China's hand in this case has shown its influence and the part it has to play in a multilateral reduction of such uncertainty for any successful American foreign policy in Asia. Caution, not paranoia, is key.