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China's Ambitions in Myanmar

India steps up countermoves

WHILE MYANMAR remains shunned by the West, the country's two giant neighbours, India and China, are jockeying for influence in Yangon. Since the beginning of the year, India's army chief General Ved Prakash Malik has made two trips to Myanmar and his Burmese counterpart General Maung Aye has visited both India and China. These top-level exchanges have highlighted Myanmar's importance in the strategic competition between Beijing and New Delhi.

China enjoys a considerable head start in the race to woo Yangon's military leaders. Since 1988, Myanmar has become China's closest ally in South-east Asia, a major recipient of Chinese military hardware and a potential springboard for projecting Chinese military power in the region. During Maung Aye's trip to Beijing in June to mark 50 years of diplomatic ties, his host, Chinese Vice-President Hu Jintao, noted that strengthening Sino-Myanmarese relations was 'an important part of China's diplomacy concerning its surrounding areas'.

The alliance has alarmed India, which in recent years has shifted its strategy away from supporting Myanmar's opposition movement towards cementing ties with the junta. New Delhi has offered Myanmar favourable trade relations and cooperation against ethnic insurgents along the Indo-Myanmarese frontier. India also appears to be exploiting a rift between Maung Aye and the head of Myanmar's powerful military intelligence service, Lieutenant-General Khin Nyunt, viewed as far more pro-Chinese than the army chief. New Delhi has engaged in a charm offensive to encourage Maung Aye to take a more independent foreign-policy stance.

Intelligence analysts say that China's economic political and military influence in the country has already become so strong that it would be hard for Yangon radically to reorient its foreign policy But the demise of Myanmar's elder generation of military leaders could present opportunities for India to woo Myanmar away from China.

Beijing and Yangon

Myanmar emerged as a key Chinese ally on 6 August 1988, when the two countries signed an agreement establishing official trade across the common border hitherto - isolated Myanmar's first such agreement with a neighbour. Significantly, the signing took place while Myanmar was in turmoil. Two days later, millions of people across the country took to the streets to demand an end to army rule and a restoration of the democracy the country enjoyed prior to the first military coup in 1962.

China was eager to find a trading outlet to the Indian Ocean for its landlocked inland provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan, via Myanmar. The Myanmarese rail-heads of Myitkyina and Lashio in north-eastern Myanmar, as well as the Irrawaddy River, were potential conduits. But the relevant border areas were at the time controlled by the insurgent Communist Party of Burma (CPB), which China had previously supported.

The CPB's grip weakened in 1989, when the party's hilltribe rank and file mutinied against the ageing, Maoist and mainly Myanmarese party leadership. Subsequently, the CPB split along ethnic lines into four regional armies all of which then signed cease-fire agreements with the government. By 1990, trade between the two countries was flourishing and Myanmar had become China's principal political and military ally in South-east Asia. China poured arms into Myanmar to shore up the military government.

Myanmar's strategic significance

The isolation and condemnation experienced by both countries in the wake of the Yangon massacre of 1988 and the violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests the following year helped to draw them closer together. But China's calculations were also strategic. Close to the key shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean and South-east Asia, Myanmar could help China to extend its military reach into a region of vital importance to Asian economies The bulk of Japan's Middle East oil imports, for example, pass through the area. China also wanted to check India's growing strategic influence.

By late 1991, Chinese experts were helping to upgrade Myanmar's infrastructure, including its badly maintained roads and railways. Chinese military advisers also arrived that year, the first foreign military personnel to be stationed in Myanmar since the 1950s. Myanmar was becoming a de facto Chinese client state. Ironically, shrewd diplomacy and flourishing bilateral trade had accomplished for China what the insurgent CPB had failed to achieve.

One of China's motives for arming Myanmar was to help safeguard the new trade routes through its potentially volatile neighbour. Intelligence sources estimate the total value of Chinese arms deliveries to Myanmar in the 1990s at $1.2 billion, with most of them acquired at a discount or through barter deals or interest-free loans. Military hardware delivered by China included:

  • 100 Type 6911 medium battle tanks and more than 100 Type 63 light tanks (of which only around 60 are thought to be serviceable);
  • 250 Type 85 armoured personnel carriers, multiple-launch rocket systems, howitzers, anti-aircraft guns, HN-5 surface-to-air missiles, mortars, assault rifles, recoilless guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and heavy trucks;
  • Chengdu F-7M Airguard jet fighters, FT-7 jet trainers, A-5M ground-attack aircraft and SAC Y-81) transport aircraft; and
  • Hainan-class patrol boats, Houxin-class guided-missile fast-attack craft, minesweepers and small gunboats.

In the past year, China has also delivered 12 Karakoram-8 trainers and 1 ground-attack aircraft, which are produced in a joint venture with Pakistan. The latest batch arrived in January.

India's concerns

India has been particularly concerned by Chinese support for the upgrading of Myanmar's naval facilities. These include at least four electronic listening posts along the Bay of Bengal and in the Andaman Sea: Man-aung, Hainggyi, Zadetkyi island and the strategically important Coco Islands just north of India's Andaman Islands. Chinese technicians have been spotted at the naval bases at Monkey Point, near Yangon, and Kyaikkami, south of the port city of Moulmein. There is also a Chinese-built radar station on Saganthit island near Mergui in south-eastern Myanmar.

Although China's presence in the Bay of Bengal is currently limited to instructors and technicians, the new radar equipment is Chinese-made and probably operated, at least in part, by Chinese technicians, enabling Beijing's intelligence agencies to monitor this sensitive maritime region.

China and Myanmar have pledged to share intelligence of potential use to both countries.

In May 1998, the outspoken Indian defence minister, George Fernandes, caused uproar by accusing Beijing of helping Myanmar to install surveillance and communications equipment on the Coco Islands. Myanmar and China denied the accusations, but New Delhi's concerns were well founded. In August 1993, Indian coastguards caught three boats 'fishing' close to the Andamans, where last year the Indian navy established a new Far Eastern Naval Command in a move viewed as an attempt to counter Chinese influence in Myanmar. The trawlers were flying Myamarese flags, but the crew of 55 was Chinese. There was no fishing equipment on board - only radio-communication and depth-sounding equipment. The Chinese embassy in New Delhi intervened and the crew was released. At the time, the incident was discreetly buried in the Defence Ministry's files in New Delhi. But when China's designs became obvious, the more hawkish government that came to power in India in 1996 began to pay closer attention to developments in Sino-Myanmarese relations.

New Delhi's counter-strategy

At first, India had tried to counter China's influence in Myanmar by supporting the country's pro-democracy forces. But around 1993, India began to re-evaluate this strategy, concerned that it had only served to push Yangon closer to Beijing. According to a senior Indian official, Myanmarese generals signalled to New Delhi that it should take a greater interest in development work to reduce Yangon's heavy dependence on China.

During his two-day visit to Myanmar in January this year, Malik discussed plans for curbing insurgent groups based in Myanmar that have been active in northeastern India. Maung Aye then went to the north-eastern Indian town of Shillong - an unusual visit by a foreign leader to a provincial capital - where he held talks with senior officials from the Indian trade, energy, defence, home and foreign-affairs ministries. After this exchange, India began to provide military support equipment to Myanmar. Most of the uniforms used by Myanmarese troops along the common border now come from India. New Delhi is also reported to have leased helicopters to the country's army. Malik paid a follow-up visit to Yangon in July.

The success of India's new strategy appears to have been reflected in the outcome of Maung Aye's trip to China in June. The trip was partly aimed at finalising plans for a trade route between China and Myanmar. Intelligence sources in Myanmar say that the idea was to use a fleet of barges to transport goods from Bhamo on the Irrawaddy river, close to the Chinese border, to Minhla, some 1,000 kilometres down-river. From Minhla, a road is being built across the Arakan Yoma mountain range, running via An to Kyaukpyu on the coast. Kyaukpyu has been chosen as the site for a new deepwater port.

But it now seems certain that although Maung Aye agreed to strengthen trade relations, he did not permit the degree of Chinese access to the trade route for which Beijing had hoped. Details of the agreement reached in Beijing remain sketchy During Maung Aye's earlier talks with Malik, however, India urged caution and it appears that Maung Aye paid heed.

Myanmar's military government is caught in a dilemma. When no other country was prepared to support or trade with Yangon, it had to accept Chinese aid. But what began as a modest trade agreement has developed into heavy political and military dependence. Moreover, tens of thousands of illegal Chinese immigrants have moved across the border over the past ten years and taken over local businesses in northern Myanmar, causing friction with the local population. Some communal clashes have already taken place between immigrants and local tribesmen in the area. Maung Aye, a staunch Myanmarese nationalist, is said to be more concerned about these demographic changes than defence and trade agreements with China.

Major political changes in Myanmar are unlikely as long as the country's two most important leaders are still alive. Ageing strongman Ne Win, who established army rule in Yangon in 1962, is Still regarded as the 'Godfather' of the Burmese military establishment. General Than Shwe, 67, is the present chairman of the junta. But Ne Win turned 89 in May, and Than Shwe's health is deteriorating rapidly. In May this year, Than Shwe wrote a letter to the junta recommending his own retirement.

Without Ne Win pulling strings from behind the scenes, and with Than Shwe no longer junta chairman, observers believe that the rivalry between Maung Aye and the intelligence-service chief, Khin Nyunt, could turn into an open power struggle. Given their opposing opinions on foreign policy, the outcome of that struggle could also determine Myanmar's place in the context of broader regional security.

This article first appeared in IISS Strategic Comments, July 2000

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