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Friends of Necessity

China needs Burma as an export outlet for its impoverished and landlocked southwest. But its rivals are suspicious of the warm ties with Rangoon

By Bertil Lintner / BANGKOK

CHINESE PRESIDENT JIANG ZEMIN may have spent much of the time sightseeing during his recent visit to Burma, but economics was at the heart of his trip. Beijing long ago identified Burma as vital to the well-being of its impoverished, provinces in the southwest-Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou.

But its regional rivals, above all India and Vietnam, believe China's motives for courting Burma's military government are more sinister - they believe Beijing wants to use its neighbour to expand its strategic influence into Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.

Burma's repressive generals, for their part, see China's economic, military and political support as vital in a world where they have few influential friends. The two need each other, the junta for its survival and the Chinese for the sake of economic development and political stability in their landlocked southwest.

Jiang's landmark December 12-15 visit, the first to Burma by a Chinese president since the present junta seized power in 1988, served to reinforce these close ties. But there was a deeper purpose behind their talks and a clue was given by Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, who told China's official Xinhua news agency that the two sides had agreed to expand their cooperation in "infrastructural constructions" and other areas.

Asian intelligence officials say he was referring to China's desire to link its southwestern provinces and their 160-million-strong population to vital export markets, via Burma's river and road networks. They say the Chinese proposals were encapsulated in a "Draft Agreement on Highway-Waterway Combined Transport" presented to the Burmese in March.

The proposed 30-year accord, which would allow Chinese traders much easier and more regular access to and through Burma, seems to have been accepted in principle by the Burmese government, the sources say.

It is the natural culmination of a joint study carried out in 1997 on the possibility of forging land and water transport routes from Yunnan to Burma's mighty Irrawaddy River.

Since then the Chinese have built a new road linking the border town of Ruili in Yunnan to the Burmese port of Bhamo on the Irrawaddy, 1,300 kilometres north of Rangoon. And in June, China handed over three dredgers to the Burmese to clear the Irrawaddy for bigger barges that could carry Chinese goods downriver.

Meanwhile, a new port and shipyard is being built with Chinese funding and technicians near Rangoon. According to intelligence sources, the facility is primarily designed to cater for Chinese exports on Chinese vessels as it will be able to handle vessels of up to 10,000 deadweight tonnes - much bigger than most Burmese owned vessels.

China's vision of opening a route through Burma is nothing new. Former Vice Minister of Communications Pan Qi first proposed forging such an export route back in 1985, when Rangoon had little control over its border regions.

"Only by doing this can we speed the economic development of the southwest," wrote Pan, who argued that the southwest could not rely on ports in Guangdong and Fujian provinces because of the distance, poor roads and limited capacity of these ports.

Two key factors have helped China come within a whisper of achieving his dream. They include the Burmese junta's forging of peace pacts with most of its borderbased ethnic minority insurgent groups and, say Rangoon-based diplomats, the appointment of Lt.-Gen. Khin Nyunt in February as chairman of the Central Supervisory Committee for Ensuring Secure and Smooth Transport, which plans infrastructure projects.

Khin Nyunt, who heads the junta's intelligence service and is seen as very pro-China, appears to be winning the upper hand in a perceived power struggle with army chief, Gen. Maung Aye, they note, which is good news for Beijing. Not everyone's happy with the Burmese government's increasing dependence on China. India is convinced that China is on an expansionist path, rather than looking after the interests of its southwest. It has been courting Maung Aye and was furious when Khin Nyunt visited Pakistan last year when India's army chief was visiting Burma, say Asian envoys. But the Indians are unlikely to be able to dislodge the Chinese, who have thrown in their weight firmly behind the reviled military junta. The visit of Jiang, who stressed that Burma "must be allowed to choose its own development path suited to its own conditions," reinforced this message. That's also bad news for the international community and the United nations, which has been trying to broker a deal between the junta and the country's democracy movement, led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Dec. 27, 2001

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