Chinese policy toward Myanmar/Burma until 2011 had been focused on
exploiting that country's natural resource base, its strategic location
on the Bay of Bengal, and the market potential both for China nationally
and Yunnan Province provincially. The peak in the Sino-Myanmar
bilateral relationship may have been the signing of the "Strategic
Economic Cooperative Partnership" between the two states when President
Thein Sein visited Beijing in May 2011 shortly after his inauguration in
March of that same year.
That virtual partnership, however, came to an abrupt end later that
year when Myanmar suspended--at least until 2015--Chinese construction
of the $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam in northern Myanmar not far from the
Chinese border. Domestic public antipathy to the project was cited, and
coincidentally it came at a time of increasing US influence in Myanmar.
The Chinese link the two, believing the United States actively supported
that stoppage through assistance to some Burmese civil society groups.
They claim the US role in Myanmar is part of a regional, second
"containment" policy against China's rising influence. China remembers
historically the clear US attempt at containing the People's Republic of
China after the formation of the PRC in 1949 in the context of the Cold
War amidst fears of China exporting revolution across the Asia-Pacific
Chinese policy toward Myanmar is congruent with its policies toward
all the peripheral states surrounding that country. It is composed of
five elements: a peaceful frontier, no refugees fleeing into Chinese
sovereign territory, opportunities for Chinese business and investment,
assuring that neighboring countries vote with China--or not against
China--at the United Nations and other international fora, and keeping
US military forces and influence away from those frontier areas.
Many in China consider that the Obama administration's shift in
policy and subsequent rapprochement with Myanmar--a US policy
recalculation essentially away from the Clinton-Bush administrations'
policies of regime change to one of regime modification--was predicated
as anti-Chinese. The evidence, however, for that motivation is lacking.
Rather, rapprochement was probably prompted by the clear failure of the
isolation and sanctions policies of the previous US administrations,
signals from the Burmese that improved relations were in their own
interests, the possibility of a US foreign policy "success" in East
Asia, and the necessity to work with Myanmar if the United States was to
have any significant interaction and role in ASEAN. The United States
had strenuously objected to Myanmar's admittance to ASEAN in 1997, and
then effectively ignored the institution for a decade thereafter, in
large part because of Myanmar's inclusion and role in it.
For China, Myanmar has a significant role in its policies toward
Southeast Asia. Burmese oil and gas pipelines help alleviate the
strategic bottleneck of the Malacca Straits, which would be a major
impediment to energy needs if the US or any other power prevented
Chinese passage. Access to Burmese ports assist Chinese shipping in the
Indian Ocean and Burmese mineral resources and hydroelectric power
potential are important to national and regional Chinese policies. In
addition, Myanmar's market is essential to Yunnan's export economy.
On the downside, some two million Chinese are said to have illegally
entered Myanmar, and whatever their personal successes, their economic
presence is disquieting to many Burmese, resulting in increased
anti-Chinese sentiment. Until the border settlement of 1960, all Chinese
governments historically have considered northern Burma as Chinese
territory. Historically, up until 1895 the Burmese dispatched a
tributary mission every decade to Beijing. One Chinese referred to
Myanmar as "Our tributary forever." No wonder that the Chinese view the
current "cooling" in the bilateral Sino-Myanmar relationship, amidst
growing US-Myanmar ties, as somewhat disturbing.
One important element of those concerns is ethnic minority issues
along the frontier. Non-Burmese and non-Chinese minority groups reside
across the long littoral, which has been plagued by insurrections and
discontent. As reforms under the Thein Sein administration in Myanmar
have expanded, the United States has focused on ethnic discontent as a
critical, remaining element within Myanmar that requires improvement if
closer US-Myanmar relations are to further develop. The United States
has tried to assist in the settlement of these disputes, some of which
date back to then-Burma's independence in 1948. The Burmese remember,
however, that all neighboring countries--China included--and also the
United States have at one time or other supported various insurgent and
dissident groups. They are thus distrustful of any foreign involvement
in minority affairs, an issue that has exacerbated Chinese-US relations
Recent discussions by this author with Chinese officials and
academics in Kunming have indicated that many Chinese, at least in
informal settings, recognize the desirability for US-Chinese cooperation
with the Burmese on issues related to both states' peripheral regions.
Some believe that the Burmese would welcome tripartite dialogue and
action as long as it was not viewed as pressuring the Burmese--"ganging
up" on them--to do anything that is not in their national interests. The
initiatives for such actions would have to come from the Burmese
themselves to be effective, and could be explored in Track Two
(informal) meetings from which could come various projects that would be
considered in the interests of all three countries.
Dialogue among all three states could result in collaborative medical
projects for the northern Myanmar-Yunnan region, counter-trafficking
collaboration and training, anti-drug training and cooperation, a
program for emergency preparedness for earthquake relief to which the
region is prone, discussions on multiculturalism and national unity in
all three countries expanding to bilingual educational and other issues.
Such discussions would not focus on the internal Burmese negotiations
for a national ceasefire or ethnic constitutional issues, but simply
begin tripartite confidence-building measures.
The reform process in Myanmar under President Thein Sein is in the
interests of all three states. Not only does it offer promise to improve
the lives of the Burmese peoples and bring stability to that country,
it has diminished internal pressures that could easily have built up
popular unrest, as in 1988, and thus threaten Chinese interests. It
conforms to US interests in political pluralism and rights, and
strengthens ASEAN. Those in China, the United States, or Myanmar who
view the Sino-US relationship in Myanmar as a zero-sum game are wrong.
It need not be thus if modest initiatives are taken. There might be
lessons from the Myanmar experience applicable to improving Chinese-US
relations elsewhere. To be effective, however, they should begin with
the Burmese taking the lead. About the Author Dr. David I. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Asian
Studies Emeritus at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University
and Visiting Scholar at the School of Advanced International Studies
(SAIS), Johns Hopkins University. He can be contacted via email at
firstname.lastname@example.org. This piece was first published November 15, 2013. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and not of any organization with which the author is affiliated. The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) is produced by the East-West Center
in Washington DC, designed to capture the essence of dialogue and
debate on issues of concern in US-Asia relations. For comments/responses
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Kachin, tribal peoples occupying parts of northeastern Myanmar (Burma) and contiguous areas ofIndia (Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland) and China (Yunnan). The greatest number of Kachin live in Myanmar (roughly 790,000), but some 150,000 live in China and a few thousand in India. Numbering about 1012,000 in the late 20th century, they speak a variety of languages of the Tibeto-Burman group and are thereby distinguished as Jinghpaw, or Jingpo (Chingpaw [Ching-p’o], Singhpo), Atsi, Maru (Longvo), Lachid, Nung (Rawang), and Lisu .
The traditional Kachin religion is a form of animistic ancestor cult entailing animalsacrifice. As a result of the arrival of American and European missionaries in Burma beginning in the late 19th century, a majority of the Kachin are Christian, mainly Baptist and Roman Catholic. Among the Kachin in India, Buddhism predominates.