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Trouble Brewing With Burma? (The Diplomat)

By: Kelley Currie |

Project 2049 Senior Fellow Kelley Currie recently wrote a blog post for The Diplomat on the subtleties and challenges in the China-Burma power balance, originally published on September 22, 2010.

On September 21, the International Crisis Group released an interesting new report on China’s relationship with Burma. While ostensibly hooked to the Burmese junta’s electoral machinations, the report is most compelling in its findings and analysis on cross-border issues, including: the increasingly complex nature of China’s relations with various ethnic groups in Burma; rising tensions between Beijing and Kunming over management of relationships with both the Burmese junta and the ethnic nationalities; and the growing phenomenon of anti-Chinese sentiment within Burma.

There are competing theories about the overall power balance between China and Burma, most of which miss the subtlety of the actual relationship. Some observers believe that China holds great influence over Burma, and some even go so far as to blame US policy for this state of affairs. Others contend that China has little influence over the recalcitrant junta, which acts solely according to (depending on who you ask) the capricious whim or Machiavellian stratagems of its strongman, Senior General Than Shwe. The ICG prudently maintains that the truth is to be found somewhere in the middle, and that the balance of power in the relationship is becoming increasingly complicated over time, not least due to the nature and scope of China’s increasing economic involvement in Burma.

The ICG report provides some useful insights into the increasingly negative perception of Chinese economic activity in Burma, particularly on projects in areas inhabited by ethnic nationalities who have long been estranged from the Burman central authorities. The catalogue of alleged abuses and complaints will be familiar to anyone who has looked at Chinese investments and projects in other resource-rich developing countries.

ICG’s findings on this issue are consistent with what I was told earlier this year by another researcher who had recently done field work in the Kachin and Wa areas. He found a strong and rising anti-Chinese sentiment that was increasingly taking the form of physical harassment of Chinese expatriates in Burma. My contact also told me that when he tried to explain the depth of anti-Chinese sentiment to Chinese officials in Kunming and Beijing, they seemed shocked by what he had to say.

They shouldn’t have been. I remember conversations with Burmese friends going back more than a decade in which they complained about upper Burma becoming a Chinese colony, and rumours that Than Shwe himself maintains a very strong personal antipathy toward Chinese. Mandalay has long been referred to as a ‘Chinese city’, and there has long been grumbling about the ease with which Chinese immigrants could purchase Burmese identity cards from corrupt officials.

These feelings have intensified over time as Chinese investment in Burma has grown beyond an influx of petty traders to include large-scale energy and infrastructure projects, which are often built with imported Chinese labour and are perceived as primarily benefiting Chinese interests. Beijing’s cosying up to the hated junta has also not helped China’s image with average Burmese.

Up to now, China has been able to present itself to the ethnic leaders in the area as a helpful mediator and, at times, protector from the worst excesses of the predatory Naypyidaw regime, while simultaneously improving its relations with Naypyidaw. As a result, these ethnic leaders lately find themselves pinned between their erstwhile protectors in Beijing and Kunming and the Burmese regime with whom China’s interests are increasingly aligned and intertwined.

The ICG report contends that since the August 2009 border incident, in which a surprise Burma army attack on ethnic forces in the Kokang area resulted in massive refugee flows into China, Beijing more and more regards these fractious ethnic groups — some of whom are ethnically Chinese — as a liability instead of seeing them as the strategic buffer it once did. Moreover, these ethnic communities have been among the worst affected by Chinese development projects and are increasingly bitter about the manner in which China has carried out economic activity in their already grim environs. As Beijing’s concerns about border stability and economic interests come into greater tension, China likely will find itself tempted to abandon completely the Kachin, Wa and other marginalized armed ethnic groups with whom it has long-standing relations, and throw its lot in with the Burmese regime’s scorched earth approach to these communities.

Given the unpredictability of the Burmese regime and the growing desperation of these ethnic groups, China’s delicate balancing act in Burma looks set to be severely tested in the near future.

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