‘Burma is as important to China’s military security in the 21st Century as Tibet was to China’s security integrity in the 20th Century.’
Mohan Malik, Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies
Behind the news reports on Burma and the current negotiations over ‘democracy’ within the country, are geo-political imperatives that are crucial to global power in this century.
Burma is a strategic location. It sits atop the Andaman Sea, and near the Straits of Malacca the vital point through which 80 per cent of China’s oil transits. The Malacca Straits is important for China’s continued economic growth and Burma plays an important part in a hedging strategy against future American aggression. The Chinese are worried that, in the event of future conflict with Taiwan, the Malacca Straits could be blocked by the US and its allies, so they are developing Burma as an alternative supply route for their trade and energy supplies.
China has developed ports and other military facilities in Burma to give it access to naval lines of communication helping it to project power and conduct trade. And Chinese navy access to Burmese ports is part of a broader strategy to develop ports along maritime choke points (called the ‘String of Pearls‘ theory). The first pearl in the string is Gwadar on the Pakistani shores of the Persian Gulf. Next stop is in southern Sri Lanka, where China is building the port at Hambantota . Then come Chittagong in Bangladesh, Burmese ports (including a signal intelligence radar facility on Great Coco Island, and in the Bay of Bengal), and Sihanoukville (or Kampong Som) in Cambodia.
These ports aim to provide access for the Chinese navy so that, in the event of a crisis, China has interdiction and security capabilities to safeguard its energy and trade routes.
China has supplied more than US$2 billion worth of weaponry to the Burmese armed forces, hence the pressure on them to intervene in the crisis unfolding at the moment. China has plans to develop three gas fields in Burma signing 30-40 year agreements with the Burmese Government. It is building huge gas pipelines and investing a great deal of money in infrastructure and railroad projects.
The idea of ‘democracy’ in Burma has a very strong geo-political component, one that surely takes a central place in any negotiations over what role Burma should have in Asia. That’s why when the junta alleges that the so-called ‘Saffron Revolution’ is not the result of organic domestic protest, they are not behaving like paranoid military leaders taking shots at the West they are expressing the geo-political realities of the region.
Then there’s India.
India has become very active in Burma because it wants to counter China’s growing influence in the country. India has embarked on a major naval modernisation and expansion program, and was recently a participant in joint naval exercises with US, Japanese, Australian and Singaporean navies, partly for that reason.
Mohan Malik from the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii and author of many articles on US-India-China relations says this signals that:
India is not going to take things lying down. India is going to counter every move that China makes in its neighbourhood. So there is an interesting competition going on between China and India, and Burma has become the cockpit of that India-China rivalry.
What underscores the new Indian diplomacy is its nuclear deal with the United States.
There has been widespread criticism of the deal (called the Henry Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Co-operation Act) that basically allows India to re-process spent nuclear fuel despite India not being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The concern is that Washington is pressuring India into a stance that may not be in its long-term interests (with regard to China).
Seema Mustafa from the India-based Asian Age had this to say:
Now India can either take a very militarist, confrontationist position, [but]we are never really going to be able to compete with China because China’s development and China’s military and nuclear power is probably far more [developed]than ours. The way most of us feel is: [we want]a secure neighbourhood. And to have a secure neighbourhood, you have to talk. You cannot seek alliances [while appearing]threatening.
According to Mustafa, despite being regularly invited to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, India (under US pressure) has usually chosen to send low-level ministers. And Indian ministers regularly trash the non-aligned movement, with statements about how ‘we have to go with America because after all it is a unipolar world.’
India and China share a long border, and the Sino-Indian War of 1962 is recent enough for India to be very cautious about China’s burgeoning power. But India’s role in Burma and the region marks a decisive parting from its non-aligned history, and indicates that it seeks to be one of the major powers (in concert with US policy) on China.
Behind the Burma crisis there’s more than the ‘Saffron Revolution’ and the rhetoric of democracy. In fact, the unfolding story is part of a crucial power play that will determine Asia-Pacific power this century and should be viewed primarily through this prism.
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