Insecurity Initiatives


In my last article for New Matilda,  I discussed some elements of the resource war between China and the US, including possible conflict in mainland Asia.

Recent developments have highlighted the importance of another dimension of this resource war: the maritime one. Asia-Pacific nations Australia included have a significant role to play here, as they did in the East-West conflicts of decades past when South East Asia was the world’s major battleground.

The Vietnam War remains the region’s best-known conflict, with between two and four million Vietnamese deaths. But there was also the US carpet-bombing of Laos and Cambodia (which, Noam Chomsky claims in the film version of Manufacturing Consent, may have killed more Cambodians than the Khmer Rouge); the US-backed pro-Suharto coup in Indonesia and that country’s continuing expansion; continuing violence in the Philippines; and other smaller-scale conflicts.

Of course, the grand chessboard‘s major players were heavily involved here. The Vietnamese struggle for independence started out initially against the French Ho Chi Minh asking for US help and ended as four interlinked wars: the victory against the French; the war against the US; the 1979 invasion of Cambodia to topple the Khmer Rouge; and the punitive invasion of Vietnam by the then US-aligned China in response.

I once heard Chomsky tell an interviewer that he differs from most in his assessment of the Vietnam War: his view is that the US’s major objective was to set Vietnam’s development back, in order to prevent any threat to US interests and allies in the region. On this front, Chomsky avers, the War was a certain success.

In the 1960s and 1970s Laos became a target of the CIA’s covert operations through its Hmong insurgent creation largely a collection of tribes with axes to grind who were supported and later abandoned by their capricious master. In fact, if initial reports are to be believed, recent weeks saw another foiled US-backed coup attempt in Laos. Further reports should prove interesting.

As unstable as it was during this period, Burma’s conflicts were not reported to the same scale as those of its neighbours today, most know it only as the scene of ‘The Generals vs Suu Kyi.’ But Burma’s past is worth exploring in more detail as it relates to current movements in the global grab for resources: the misnamed ‘War on Terror.’

This war has two major dimensions the control of resource locations, and the control of resource transits. Recent examples of the first include the invasion of Iraq; electoral intervention in the Caspian Sea region; and destabilisation and covert operations in Iran.

The most prominent conflict in the second arena (control of resource transits) is Afghanistan. But other proposed pipeline locations in the Central Asian States are also the subject of push and  pull between powerful patrons and would-be patrons.

It is mostly in this second arena that Burma has a role to play, and to see how it’s worthwhile revisiting a maritime incident that happened shortly before the US invasion of Iraq.

A Spanish naval vessel stopped a North Korean freighter bound for US client Yemen with a cargo of Scud missiles and unidentified chemicals. The Spanish were ready to turn the freighter over to the US, but Yemen protested strongly and the ship went on to its destination. This led prominent neoconservative John Bolton, then the Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, to draft the Proliferation Security Initiative  (PSI).

Created ostensibly to halt the spread of WMD to ‘rogue states,’ the PSI enables signatory nations to board ‘suspicious’ vessels and seize any illegal cargo. Of course, given that most signatories are small nations with no blue-water military capability but large numbers of registered commercial vessels, the bulk of stopping, searching and seizing falls to the US.

How does this relate to Burma?

China ‘s stated reason for not joining the PSI that the Initiative’s legality is questionable is probably true. But China’s real concern is that the US will use the PSI to interdict resource cargo headed for China, which could result in the seizure of critical resources and, at the very least, delays in delivery to the resource-hungry industrial centres of China’s eastern coast.

Given the US’s record of using Trojan-Horse-style treaties and organisations to trumpet its role as global peace and security promoter and to further its self-interest (see the National Endowment for Democracy and the UNSCOM spying activities  for two examples), these concerns seem well-founded, and have affected China’s maritime security strategy in two ways.

First, the military: China continues to develop its navy’s blue-water capability to a level where it can match most in the world and to complement this with a large anti-shipping missile capability, much as Iran is doing.

Second, the logistical: known as the ‘string of pearls’ strategy. This refers to a chain of port facilities in South Asia intended to reduce China’s reliance on delivery through the US’s and its clients’ (notably Australia, Malaysia and Singapore) spheres of influence in South-East Asia. One prominent facility is to be built on the < a href="" target="_blank">Burmese coast, which will link with a railway to Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province.

Thanks to emo

China has not always enjoyed a productive relationship with Burma, though the two countries have faced many common issues. After the 1949 defeat of the Kuomintang in China’s civil war, the US regrouped, armed and supplied a Kuomintang force in northern Burma in an attempt to harass the fledgling Chinese Communist regime and, in the words of William Blum, ‘force the Chinese to divert troops and military resources away from’ Korea and Vietnam. This persisted until 1961, when a combined Chinese People’s Liberation Amy and Burmese force ended the Kuomintang’s presence. In the time they spent there, however, the Kuomintang forces proved as ruthless as they’d been in their own country beginning the large-scale heroin export from what came to be known as the Golden Triangle.

Aside from this co-operation, however, Burmese military governments have tended to be unfriendly toward the country’s Chinese-supported communists. While this goes some way toward pointing to the truth of China’s doctrine of non-intervention, the junta does depend to some degree on Chinese support.

Thus, Burma finds itself in a critical position for the two resource-insecure giants, the US and China, who are constantly trying to project power into this region.

The US wants regime change in Burma and is ‘concerned’ about the size and transparency of China’s military spending. For its part, China continues to slowly build a naval and missile capability that can protect its interests and rightly points out that its 2006 military spending of US$36 billion was just 23 per cent (as a fraction of GDP, and 9 per cent in absolute terms) of the US’s official 2006 figure. In fact, although the US disputes China’s figures, there is evidence that the US’s own military spending which already exceeds that of the rest of the world combined will soon top $1 trillion dollars per year more than double its official figure.

South East Asia , then, finds itself once again on the front line of a global conflict. Australia, too, is involved in naval treaties with the US and its allies and could be called upon to act militarily. China has both friends and enemies in the region, as does the US. US clients on the South East Asian peninsula (Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia), as well as the Pacific (Taiwan, Japan, Australia), will make it as difficult as possible for China to grow its economy and will place Australia in a delicate economic balancing act.

Meanwhile China is building a naval deterrent and relying on its ‘string of pearls’ to cut out the region as much as possible, particularly for oil travelling from the Horn of Africa. The game is (still) on, and we can expect other ‘security initiatives’ to follow the PSI.

As for Burma? In time, the Burmese people might find genuine democracy, or, more likely, they might find themselves living under the same neo-liberalism as most other developing Western client States. Would Burma’s National League for Democracy strike the same deal as the ANC in South Africa and Aristide in Haiti?

We shall have to wait for answers to these questions. In the meantime, the game on the grand chessboard continues, and the Burmese are currently one of the pawns protecting the King.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.