China’s challenge to America and its drive for global primacy will dominate international politics for the foreseeable future. This contest will play out across the full spectrum of international affairs: economics, politics, science and technology, ideology—and geographic/territorial control. With surprising suddenness, Myanmar (Burma) has become a high-priority focus of Chinese strategy.
A quick glance at the map will suggest where China’s initial territorial ambitions are focused. China is at the geographic center of East Asia. Southeast Asia sits like a southern portico—a potential bridge between interior/southern China and the tropical seas along the equator. For China, the attraction of Southeast Asia is obvious. It is a region rich in natural resources with relatively prosperous and small states that can be natural trade and investment assets for China. Moreover, there are large, relatively prosperous, primarily urban, ethnic Chinese populations throughout the region thanks to two centuries of prior migration. The attraction and importance of the region grew exponentially when China embarked on its ambitious national modernization program at the beginning of the 1980s. China’s economists quickly determined that the sea would be critical for China’s future. China’s long coastline provided access to international markets and foreign investment; those same seas would be critical to China’s defense. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the threats to China came from the sea—first, the Europeans and, then, the Japanese. A modern, powerful China would require a modern, powerful navy. This became all the more vivid as China became increasingly dependent on oil imports from the Middle East. The oil arrived via sea lanes through Southeast Asia and the South China Sea.
One other key consideration elevated Southeast Asia into a priority for Chinese strategists. Beijing has long taken it as an article of faith that America, the established global superpower, viewed China as a rival that must be contained and “kept down.” As part of its strategy of unfriendly intent, the Americans had surrounded China with a ring of military encirclement—with U.S. forces stationed in Japan, South Korea, and Australia (and a quasi-alliance with Taiwan). Add to this the U.S. 7th fleet actively patrolling the sea lanes between Okinawa and the Middle East. As Chinese strategists look at this “encirclement,” they also look for weak spots—where China can “break out.” The answer is Southeast Asia, the perceived weak link in America’s “containment.” As a consequence, the countries of Southeast Asia have been the focus of Chinese efforts to build economic, diplomatic, and security ties displacing those that already exist with the U.S. The signature Chinese program has been the Belt and Road Initiative announced a few years ago. It intends to move trillions of dollars of Chinese infrastructure spending into Southeast Asia—knitting Southeast Asia economically and physically with China. At the same time, Beijing continues to search for opportunities to build defense/security ties with Southeast Asian governments.
One of the most interesting and consequential targets of China’s ambitions is Myanmar, which has a long common border with China. For most of the 70-plus years since it gained independence from British colonial rule, Myanmar was ruled by an oppressive, brutal, and economically incompetent military junta. The country is naturally endowed with abundant natural resources, including tropical timber, rich rice lands, oil and gas, and precious gems (sapphires, rubies, jade). Instead of building a prosperous economy, the generals spent the nation’s wealth on a series of interminable small wars intended to establish control over ethnic minorities in Myanmar’s borderlands.
Periodically, the long-suffering Burmese population went into the streets in protest—only to be brutally suppressed. This produced international sanctions and deeper poverty. It also produced a profound dependence on the one major country prepared to overlook the human rights abuses: China. China supplied the economic support and military equipment necessary to keep the army in power. Meanwhile, Myanmar became ever more isolated and ever more impoverished.
In 1990, this writer conducted interviews with senior Burmese military officers and asked them whether they were comfortable with their deep-seated dependence on their huge northern neighbor. The answer was decidedly, “no.” They felt trapped, and they didn’t know how to escape. It was fascinating to be in a room with 20 or so uniformed officers as they argued among themselves (in English) about China. At one point one officer shouted at another, “That is why you are still only a major; you say such stupid things!” But in 2010, the junta finally embraced the obvious strategy; they launched democratic political reforms that produced an elected civilian government (led by a then-internationally revered Nobel Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi). Suddenly and dramatically, everything changed. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid two visits. American and other investors showed up as did non-governmental organizations offering advice on everything from a free press to how to be a modern civil servant. On the foreign policy front, Myanmar moved to disengage from China’s suffocating embrace. A major, and deeply unpopular, Chinese hydroelectric project was put on hold. Chinese investments in ports and infrastructure were subject to review. The Burmese military sought relations with its Southeast Asian neighbors as well as India and Japan. But above all, they wanted to develop close ties with the Pentagon.
Everything seemed hopeful and possible. Then, in 2015, it all fell apart when the Burmese army launched a scorched earth assault on the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority, deeply despised by the majority Burman Buddhist population. Nearly a million Rohingya, under desperate circumstances, fled for their lives across the border into neighboring Bangladesh. There, they currently reside, trapped in squalid camps with no place to go. The resulting international outcry—including a formal international investigation into possible genocide—destroyed all the goodwill built up over the previous five years. The Burmese government responded with a tone-deaf defense of the indefensible. This week, the Hague-based International Court of Justice formally ordered Myanmar to take “emergency measures” to prevent further genocide of the Rohingya. The once iconic and morally unassailable Aung San Suu Kyi is now widely vilified as a criminal, her reputation in tatters.
Guess what the other consequence of the Rohingya disaster has been? China has reemerged in its former role as Myanmar’s “only true friend” ready with an open checkbook and an ambitious agenda to reestablish Chinese influence. On January 17, China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping paid a state visit to Myanmar with all the attendant pomp and ceremony. The two governments reportedly signed several agreements, including a port to be built with Chinese money, Chinese workers, and potentially available to the Chinese navy. In a joint statement, Myanmar reaffirmed its support for “one China” (including Taiwan)—and also gave explicit support to Beijing’s assertion that Tibet and Xinjiang are integral parts of China. The reference to Xinjiang reflected China’s ongoing campaign of repression against the Uyghurs who, like the Rohingya, are Muslim.
It takes little imagination to believe that the 1990 debates within the Myanmar military concerning China are playing out again in almost exactly the same terms.