Confluences in Sino-Burmese Relations: Energy, Security, and India

Abstract

The relationship between China and Myanmar is an important geostrategic relationship in Asia. Beginning in the 1950s, China began to see Burma as an important, if neutral, partner to buffer itself against United States encirclement and demonstrate the efficacy of its “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence”. Although the relationship deteriorated following China’s Cultural Revolution, it was revived in the 1990s after both countries became estranged from the international community. Today, China sees Myanmar as a critical gap in perceived US encirclement, a pathway to project power in the Indian Ocean to counter India’s capabilities, a means to develop a two-ocean navy, and route escape its dependence on shipping through the Straits of Malacca. India, meanwhile, has reacted to China’s penetration of Myanmar and is also working to develop closer ties to counter Chinese influence. Although the future is not without difficulties for China, including greater Western and popular Burmese influence, Chinese leaders will look to maintain their close relationship with Myanmar while holding India at bay.

Introduction

Burma is a confluence. It is a confluence of peoples, a confluence of cultures, a confluence of empires, and a confluence of powers – a place where the currents of history and geopolitics meet. Burma joins together China, India, and the peninsula that is home to Southeast Asia’s own empires and kingdoms. It links the great landmass of Asia to the Indian Ocean. From antiquity to the 21st century, Burma has been a place where the ambitions of powers converged as they jostled for influence and control. Burma’s own rulers and peoples, meanwhile, have fought to carve out their own existences and pursue their own goals in the shadow of larger, stronger neighbors from Britain to Japan and India to China. In turn Myanmar has tweaked geopolitics in ways that have shaped the world at large. Since the collapse of the colonial empires following the Second World War, Burma sashayed back and forth between independence and military rule, unity and separatism, all while trying to keep free of the great ideological struggles that dominated the second half of the 20th century. Myanmar has tried to remain safe, neutral, and independent of regional and global powers. That policy of neutrality, coupled with repressive military rule and civil war, has kept Burma isolated and largely free from outside interference, especially after its relationship with China disintegrated during China’s Great Proletarian Revolution in the mid-1960s.

But since 1989, the regrowth of the relationship between Burma, one of the poorest countries in the world, and China, one of the largest, fastest growing, and most powerful, has allowed for trade, aid, and investment links to blossom as China pursues its geostrategic objectives in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. By building close ties with Myanmar, China works to remain free from perceived American encirclement while pursuing a “two oceans strategy” to diversify its energy security and project power into the Indian Ocean and the countries that border it. The development of China and Myanmar’s relationship, subdued at first, become a growing concern in the 21st century for Burma’s other large neighbor, India, the world’s largest democracy. Burma is once again the confluence of the world’s two great rising powers, and its place at that confluence will have critical strategic implications for the 21st century.

 Historical Background

            Burma’s battle for autonomy defined its foreign relations throughout the Cold War, during which it joined India as a neutral, non-aligned state, largely in an attempt to constrain what it perceived as potential aggression from the newly established People’s Republic of China. From 1949 to 1967, Burma was a confluence of the ambitions of the United States and the People’s Republic of China, and its existence as such shaped China’s foreign policy throughout Asia as Mao Zedong and PRC fought to break free of United States containment. But confluences, too, have their own currents, and for nearly two decades until the Cultural Revolution sucked China back into its own backwaters, even little Burma nudged China’s foreign policy in new directions as Burma became a keystone of China’s early Cold War foreign policy.

From the establishment of the PRC in 1949, Burma, which has always been aware of its place in its giant eastern neighbor’s shadow,[1] believed China’s new communist government would not hesitate to attack Burma. Burmese leaders sought to avoid outright hostility by being the first non-communist nation to officially recognize the new PRC government.[2] Burmese Prime Minister U Nu joined India’s Jawaharlal Nehru and Indonesia’s Sukarno in believing his government could only maintain unity and create the space necessary to strengthen its domestic position by maintaining neutrality in the face of the two blocs competing for global alignment.[3] Keeping Burma’s distance from the PRC was difficult. In 1949, remnants of Guomingdang nationalist forces slipped into Burma’s troubled northeastern Shan State. They used the mountains as a base for drug trafficking and military operations in China along the un-demarcated and disputed 2,000-kilometer border. The Guomingdang also received support from American and Taiwanese intelligence services. Adding to those problems, Burmese officials worried that the some 350,000 overseas Chinese living in Burma in the 1950s might constitute a communist fifth column with which Beijing might subvert Burmese government control. China’s support for communist parties and insurgencies in Burma’s restive borderlands did not help to allay those fears. Stuck between the ambitions of China, the Soviet Union, and the United States, the Burmese leadership was acutely aware of its own insecurity.[4] Echoes of the GMD and Chinese immigrant problems exist in the current relations between Burma and China today, as does Burma’s awareness of its own insecure position between rival powers China, India, and the United States.

After a rocky beginning to the 1950s, by the middle of the decade, Beijing increasingly worried about American containment policy following the Korean War. In 1954, China created its “Five Principles of Coexistence” and made them the central pillars of its foreign policy.  That meant improving relations with smaller, nonaligned countries to create what Mao Zedong and the Chinese communist leadership hoped would be a zone of collective peace and security in Asia. Burma became a test-case for the new foreign policy direction. From 1954 until 1967, China and Burma cooperated to solve border and GMD issues and managed to successfully take care of both by the mid-1960s. Termed the Pauk-Phaw, or kinship, era, relations between China and Burma reached an all-time high point. It was a key demonstration of the efficacy of the “Five Principles” as China tried to build relationships with other developing countries to break out of American containment.[5]

In 1966, Mao launched his Cultural Revolution and the chaos soon spread to Burma where China attempted to export revolution with support (and rumor had it soldiers) for communist insurgencies against the new military dictatorship, which took power in a 1962 coup, in the unstable border regions. The huge Chinese community in Rangoon also radicalized, and slogan-shouting students wearing Mao badges soon overran schools in the capital. The Rangoon government closed schools, but anti-Chinese riots began in June of 1967. On June 26, more than 1,000 people assaulted the Chinese embassy. For two days after, mobs attacked Chinese communities across Burma. China recalled its ambassador, and severed relations with Rangoon, deepening the isolation it had created for itself due to its split with the Soviet Union and its 1962 war with India. For the next five years, Beijing would mostly go it alone.[6]

By the late 1970s, the destructive whirlwind of the Cultural Revolution at last died down. China began re-establishing relations with countries around the world, including the United States, as it returned to its previous policy of “peace” and “development”. Throughout Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening in the 1980s, China de-ideologized its foreign policy. Burma’s strategic importance, however, had declined along with its importance as a buffer state once the PRC re-established diplomatic relations with the United States in 1979. Normalized relations with Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand followed, too. The improvement of China’s strategic position in South/Southeast Asia as a result, as well as lingering memories of the bad years from 1967-72, meant that China and Burma did not reestablish the warm relationship they had enjoyed from 1956-66. Adding to Burma’s difficulties, from 1962 to 1988 Burma had embarked on its own internal catastrophe. General Ne Win’s Burmese Way to Socialism decimated the Burmese economy, turning it into one of the poorest countries on earth.[7]

In1988, a nation-wide uprising known as the 8888 Movement rocked Burma until a bloody coup by General Saw Maung and his State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in September that year overthrew Ne Win. The new military junta killed thousands of protestors under martial law to quell the uprising. The incident, as well as SLORCs refusal to go along with the election results of 1990 that saw Aung San Suu Kyi arrested and her National League for Democracy (NLD) win 80 percent of the national vote, resulted in further international isolation and crippling economic sanctions. [8] In 1989, China’s Tiananmen Square massacre resulted in a similar international outcry, as well as economic sanctions. Those events laid the foundation for new international cooperation between Burma (re-named Myanmar in 1989) and China that has defined the post-Cold War currents and contemporary geopolitics in South Asia.[9]

The Contemporary Situation

SLORC military rule since 1988 meant that, until the relatively free and fair 2010 election and then the 2015 election that installed Aung San Suu Kyi as Burma’s de facto top leader after decades under house arrest, the armed forces dominated Myanmar’s domestic politics and international affairs. Repression and human rights violations in the past decades have led the West to regard Myanmar as a pariah state. Although the view improved after Aung San Suu Kyi’s election in 2015, the genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority ethnicity that began that year and has continued unabated has once again dampened its international standing. According to the Fund for Peace “failed state index”, Myanmar ranks 22nd from the bottom of 178 countries in the world (a modest improvement since 2008, when it ranked 16th from the bottom).[10] South Sudan is ranked 1st, followed by Somalia and Yemen. Pakistan, another China-linked state, ranks 20th, two spots worse than Myanmar. The perception of Myanmar as a failed, rogue, or pariah state, has resulted in sporadic calls by the United States for regime change in Myanmar, and sanctions from both the U.S. and the E.U. have damaged an already feeble economy. These policies opened the door for Chinese – and now Indian – engagement where the West would not, while also bringing into opposition Chinese and Indian interests and western humanitarian priorities in Myanmar. Myanmar, Cold War neutrality forcibly abandoned, has had to rely almost exclusively on Chinese assistance since 1988, which has given China significant leverage with which to pursue its own strategic objectives in Myanmar and has resulted in a recent shift in Indian policy toward Myanmar to counter that influence.[11]

China’s Strategic Interests in Burma:

Chinese strategy in greater Asia might be best categorized under six primary objectives:

  • Maintain a stable environment on its periphery
  • Encourage economic ties that contribute to China’s economic modernization and thus to regime stability
  • Further isolate Taiwan and block moves toward its de jure independence
  • Convince others that China is not a threat
  • Increase China’s influence in East Asia, in part to prevent “containment” of China in the future
  • In Southeast Asia, secure recognition, as the most influential external Asian power[12]

 

Aiding these goals and perhaps forming a seventh key strategic interest is access to the Indian Ocean and the development of a “two-ocean strategy” via Pakistan and Burma.[13] Most critically, access to the Indian Ocean through Burma helps China accomplish several sub-goals, namely diversifying of its access to energy resources, countering Indian capabilities and influence in the Bay of Bengal, and evading perceived American encirclement. Each is a key goal for Beijing and reinforces the six objectives listed above. Each objective in Myanmar and the India Ocean bolsters China overall security situation, and each of them is linked to China’s most pressing security concern: The Straits of Malacca and Chinese energy security.

Tackling the Malacca Dilemma

Foremost among Beijing’s security concerns in Myanmar is developing access to the Indian Ocean. Beijing sees Myanmar as a key element of its “string of pearls” strategy that seeks to dominate the Indian Ocean by establishing a presence in Southeast Asia (Thailand and Cambodia), Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, as well as through the Seychelles and Maldives to Djibouti and Arabian Gulf. This string of ports operated by regimes friendly to China (or made friendly by Chinese investment, loans, or political and military ties) in theory provides China with both military and civilian bases to enhance its reach and security in the region.[14] Myanmar occupies a special place in that “string of pearls” due to its land border with China. Myanmar is central to Chinese attempts to secure its connection to the Middle East.

The unprecedented economic expansion China experienced in the 1990s and early 2000s was accompanied by an ever-growing need for energy resources to continue feeding economic growth. During that period, China became the world’s second-largest and fastest-growing energy consumer, and China’s energy imports have risen sharply in the last three decades, raising concerns about its energy security.[15] Oil supply, in particular, is a concern. As early as 1993, China became a net importer of oil, according to the International Energy Agency, which also estimates that by 2030 China will be the world’s largest oil consumer.[16] While China does produce some of its own oil, most of what it consumes today, either for industry or to meet growing demand for personal vehicles. China analysists now consider oil price shocks and potential supply disruptions – especially deliberate disruption on the part of a hostile power – to be the main threat to China’s energy security.[17]

Myanmar sits in a unique position to alleviate some of that threat since it can pump oil and gas directly to southern China by pipeline. Not only is Myanmar rich in oil and gas reserves waiting to be exploited by foreign companies or direct investment, it also provides a pathway for China to bypass one of its most pressing security concerns: The Straits of Malacca.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, nearly one-third of the world’s liquid petroleum products transported by sea moved through the Straits of Malacca, only about 1.7 miles wide, in 2015.[18] Aside from minor imports from Russia overland, the majority of China’s oil arrives by sea, four-fifths of it through the Straits of Malacca. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) does not currently have the capability to secure the Southeast Asian straits, relying instead on the United States guarantee of freedom of navigation. China, which cannot prevent the U.S. from disrupting its sea lanes,[19] tends to view its oil security “through the prism of American-Japanese containment.”[20] China worries that a terrorist attack, natural disaster, or especially a military crisis with the United states over Taiwan could close the straits and cut off its oil supply. Myanmar provides a partial solution to the “Malacca dilemma.”[21] In May 2012, the China National Petroleum Corporation and Myanmar’s state-owned Oil and Gas Enterprise completed construction on a 1420-kilometer oil and gas pipeline running from a (Chinese-funded and leased) deep-water port on Kyaukphyu Island, which is also being developed as a special economic zone under China’s Belt and Road Initiative,[22] to China’s Yunnan Province. The pipeline went into operation in 2013, and in 2017 carried 3.87 million tons of crude oil through the 22-million-tons capacity pipeline, according to Xinhua News Agency.[23] Secondarily, the pipelines should also enhance economic growth in China’s poor southwestern provinces. Overall, the pipelines represent important progress for China’s geostrategy.

The pipelines, though easing oil security concerns, isn’t without its problems. To begin, Myanmar’s native oil and gas reserves, while large, cannot replace the Middle East as the primary provider of Chinese energy security, nor can the pipeline solve entirely the Malacca Dilemma; 22 million tons is only about 10 percent of the Malacca transmission capacity.[24] Furthermore, the Myanmar pipelines’ impact on China’s overall energy picture is relatively minor; it will handle only about 10 percent of China’s 2009 total oil imports and 3 percent of its projected 2030 demands. [25] All of that oil will still need to be transported from overseas first by tanker through the Indian Ocean, making it vulnerable to interdiction. Ships can hide, but pipelines also cannot be moved so Naypyidaw will have full control over the gas and oil pumping into China from Myanmar’s port. Furthermore, the pipeline passes through the troubled and mountainous Shan State and could be easily disrupted or destroyed by rebel armies there, as evidenced by the eruption of violence in 2009 and 2015 in the China-bordering Kokang region of the Shan State.[26] That is one reason for Beijing’s continued military aid to Myanmar. Stability in Myanmar not only prevents refugee issues along the border and props up a China-friendly government, it also protects Chinese energy security.

Problematic or not, the construction of the Sino-Myanmar pipeline steadies the relationship between China and Myanmar and works to counter Indian influence in the Myanmar, which is another major strategic objective for China.

As Xiamen University scholar Zhao Hong notes:

Myanmar is of special importance to China, and the shift in New Delhi’s stance has thus generated a sense of rivalry between the two for the affections of Myanmar, from the tangibles of trade and investment to the intangibles of cooperation and support for their respective regional influence. China and India are all anxious to tap Myanmar’s huge oil and gas reserves. China and India are also seeking access, through Myanmar, to the Indian Ocean to help open their poor landlocked provinces in their southwest and northeast respectively.[27]

Multiple Concerns

Security of oil and gas, then, is not China’s only or interest in Myanmar. Since the beginning of the Cold War, Chinese leaders have considered Myanmar to be a geostrategic buffer zone, first against American encirclement, and then later in rivalries with the Soviet Union and the Vietnamese communists.[28] It is a primary reason for the PRC’s 1954 adoption of the “Five Principles of Coexistence” as its foreign policy pillars and its willingness to accept neutral or non-aligned Burma as a partner in creating a peaceful Asia. That “buffer zone” mentality still exists among China’s leadership, which feels particularly threatened by great powers controlling Southeast, Northeast, or South Asia, Myanmar provides an important gap in two of those regions.[29]

Since the 1990s, India has become China’s main competitor in Myanmar and more broadly in the Indian Ocean. World instability has risen at the same time as China has increased investments in South Asia, Africa, and beyond, especially as part of its amorphous and ever-expanding Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Concerns about instability or violence damaging Chinese interests or investments in those spheres has accelerated Chinese upgrades to its naval capabilities to secure its investments and participate in global rescue operations.[30] China now hopes to field a competent blue water not only in the politically dicey East and South China Seas but also in the Indian Ocean, where piracy is rife.

China has grown wary of India’s own burgeoning naval capabilities. With a competent Indian navy in the Bay of Bengal, China worries not only about a U.S. shutdown of the Malacca Straits but also about India’s ability to embargo its critical oil tanker traffic en route to its ports in either Pakistan or Myanmar. The development of Indian cooperation with Southeast Asia—including with Myanmar—and with the United States has heightened China’s worries. By improving its access to the Indian Ocean, China hopes to counter Indian militarization and keep an eye and ear on Indian military activities such as submarine traffic and missile tests throughout the region.[31] The PLA Navy in recent years has also put significant money into purchasing a wide array of weapons designed to augment its still-weak naval capabilities, including anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, long-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, air defense systems, attack aircraft, and land-to-sea and land-to-air missiles. It’s also invested significant energy into enhancing its submarine fleet to counter superior surface naval capabilities.[32]

As mentioned earlier, Myanmar forms a key piece of the “string of pearls” encircling the Indian subcontinent. While unsubstantiated rumors of military forward bases along Myanmar’s coast and other pieces of pearl have persisted for years, they have yet to materialize. That does not preclude them from doing so in the future, however, and has not necessarily allayed fears in India and elsewhere.[33] If forward naval bases ever do appear in Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, or elsewhere, they would greatly enhance China’s force projection capabilities throughout the Indian Ocean at the price of ratcheting up tensions, but simple civilian ports for refueling and resupply already empower Chinese fleets. China hopes its investments in Myanmar yield gains beyond the Indian Ocean, too. China hopes that Myanmar’s participation in ASEAN will give it some leverage over how the association deals with territorial disputes involving China in the South China Sea. By building close ties with Myanmar, China hopes to pressure Myanmar into siding with China in disputes regarding its naval and commercial ambitions in the Pacific, as well as the Indian Ocean.[34] In short, China wants to become a naval power in both oceans.

Overall Zhao Hong sums up Myanmar’s strategic importance for China:

Myanmar is not only a potential supply route bypassing the Malacca Strait, but also a strategic point for controlling access to Malacca Strait’s western approaches. While controlling the Malacca Strait is a key objective of China to the point of risking armed conflict with the regional states and the U.S., access to Myanmar’s ports and overland transportation routes through Myanmar is seen as a vital and strategic security asset for China.[35]

Stable Relations

None of these objectives will be possible for China to achieve without maintaining a climate of stability within the notoriously unstable Myanmar. That makes local stability a de facto objective for Beijing, especially along its border. Relations between the Beijing, the PLA, and Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, have expanded substantially since 1988, and the size of the Tatmadaw has increased massively in that time, as well.

Since the 1962 coup, the Tatmadaw has been the effective ruler of Myanmar, either indirectly or directly.[36] The military’s perception of threats to its state fall under two categories, although the two are intertwined: internal rebellion, especially from dozens of disparate minority peoples spread across Myanmar, and external invasion, first in the early years of Burmese independence by China, then in the last few decades by the United States, which until the 2010 elections had consistently and loudly called for regime change. Fear of invasion, however unwarranted, and international isolation following the 1988 crackdown have pushed the Tatmadaw close to the Chinese.[37]

Although accurate numbers are difficult to come by, some estimates say since the beginning of the SLORC administration in 1988, the Chinese supplied Myanmar’s military with more than $3 billion dollars in military hardware up to 2010. The equipment includes naval vessels, aircraft, weapons, radar systems, rocket launchers, and various types of other vehicles.[38] Still, the extensive military assistance China has provided the Tatmadaw is neither designed, nor sufficient, to allow Myanmar to defend itself against major external aggression from the United States or one of its allies such as Thailand, which has used its proxy armies in the Sothern Shan State to skirmish with Burma’s surrogate ethnic militia, the Wa State Army.[39] In echoes of the early Cold War when GMD forces and local insurgencies created instability and insecurity along the China-Burma border, proxy armies and rebels such as the Wa State and Kokang rebel groups are among China’s largest concern. As noted earlier, China’s oil and gas pipelines and overland transportation routes run through restive territories in the Shan State’s Kokang region that are controlled by ethnic armies. Although many of Burma’s ethnic armies have signed at least temporary ceasefires with the Myanmar government, violence never seems far away, erupting in Kokang alone in 2009 and again in 2015.[40] China worries that new outbreaks of civil war might disrupt the links its built through Myanmar. Chinese arms sales, training, and technical assistance, then, is calculated not to repel external invasion but to curry favor with Myanmar’s military regime and to ensure its internal stability thus minimizing threats to its pipelines and other investments and keeping open China’s strategic opportunities in Myanmar. [41]

India’s Response

            If China’s interests vis-à-vis Myanmar are driven by fears of containment, real or perceived, then so is India’s interest in Myanmar driven by fear of Chinese containment, real or perceived.

These days, the Sino-Indian relationship is relatively stable despite ongoing disputes along the mutual border. Even regarding Myanmar, before and immediately after the 1988 coup both countries saw benefit in concentrating on “anti-hegemonic cooperation” and avoiding facing up to their divergent interests there and in the abutting ocean.[42] The relationship was not always so affable. In 1962, war broke out across sectors of the still-contested border Sino-Indian border, including along India’s northeastern edge in Arunachal Pradesh, which also shares a border with Burma. Throughout, Burma remained “neutral in China’s shadow.”[43]

After the 1988 Burma coup and 1989 Tiananmen massacre, under the weight of sanctions levied against it, Myanmar eased its foreign policy to align more closely with China’s.[44] China became the prime supplier of Myanmar’s military needs and, not unlike today, assisted SLORC with extensive infrastructure projects including airfields, roads, ports, dams, and railroads. [45] India’s policy toward Myanmar, meanwhile, turned anti-military. Rajiv Gandhi’s government became one of the world’s most vocal critics of the SLORC junta, even as the prime minister expanded India’s engagement in Nepal, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka. Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991 and the increasingly obvious depth of China’s penetration into Myanmar, however, caused a dramatic shift in India. By 1993, India began to believe Myanmar’s traditional neutrality had been discarded. [46] In 1993, despite criticism from the West and advocacy groups, the world’s largest democracy shifted its policy in Myanmar away from one focused on anti-junta human rights to a pragmatic support of Myanmar’s military government. “The main reason for India’s shift was the growing concern and uneasiness over Myanmar’s abandonment of its traditional ‘strategic neutrality’ policy and strategic tilt toward China.”[47]

Vibhanshu Shekar describes the shift in approach:

Such an approach, variously dubbed as ‘pragmatism,’ ‘constructive engagement’, or ‘inclusive approach’, has been based on two-fold understanding” improbability of ascendancy of democratic regime in Myanmar; and the previous experience of the more India isolates the military regime, the more its geo-strategic concerns are compromised.[48]

India’s Strategic Interests

India’s strategic interests in Myanmar after 1993 fall into two main categories:

  • Countering Chinese naval power and perceived encirclement in the Indian Ocean, especially the Bay of Bengal
  • Pacifying India’s volatile northeast states along the Myanmar border, which has been a haven for anti-government rebels, and improving their economic outlook to increase stability in both countries

India has long considered the entire Indian Ocean, and especially the Bay of Bengal, to be its ocean.[49] India once operated a major naval base from the Andaman Islands and conducted missile tests off its east coast into the Bay of Bengal.[50] Since the 1962 war and India’s embarrassing defeat, China has hardly perceived India to be a threat or rival. The reverse has not been true. Chinese construction of port facilities along the Myanmar coast concerned the leadership in Delhi, even raising fears that the PLAN might construct military bases there. From Delhi’s vantage, by the 1990s it had China to the north, China-aligned Pakistan to the west, and China-aligned Myanmar to the east. With both its neighbors safely within China’s sphere of influence, India was effectively surrounded by land.[51] The development of Chinese facilities with refueling and servicing facilities—let alone actual military bases, if they ever do appear—in Myanmar further elevated capabilities for China’s developing navy.  Added to Chinese ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and minor islands throughout the Indian Ocean and India began to see itself as potentially surrounded by both land and sea. Despite the relatively cordial relations between the two countries, India tends to treat China’s capabilities, rather than its intentions, seriously so any increase in China’s military capabilities or strategic positioning necessarily concern New Delhi,.[52] India believes closer relations with Myanmar might counterbalance China’s attempts to dominate its politics. In March of this year, India and Myanmar participated in their first-ever joint naval exercise, which comes on the heels of other joint peacekeeping and anti-terrorism exercises along the border.[53]

That’s the other major security concern for India, it’s northeastern region, where India, China, and a smorgasbord of rebel groups of both Indian and Myanmarese origins have engaged in various short-term alliances of convenience over the past several decades. At various times, India has supported the anti-government Chin armies in Burma,[54] China has supported (especially with guns and ammunition) anti-government armies in both Myanmar and India, depending on their shifting goals in the region.[55] In general, however, since the 1988 coup India supported anti-SLORC insurgencies in Myanmar to destabilize the government in Rangoon. After the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and from 1993 onward, especially after rebel groups in Kachin (the northernmost state) negotiated a ceasefire with SLORC, the Indians began to reevaluate their policy in the borderlands.[56] “It was argued that India had achieved nothing by supporting the resistance. On the contrary, it was argued that these tactics had pushed the Burmese further into the hands of the Chinese. New Delhi decided to counter the Chinese by moving closer to Rangoon.”[57] By 1994, multiple high-level Indian officials had visited Rangoon and signed agreements for expanding land links between the countries, as well as economic assistance and trade agreements.[58]

Steinberg and Fan suggest that since 1993, India’s policy toward Myanmar – and peripherally, then, China – can be organized into three stages: security-centric engagement (1993-1997), “look-east” engagement (1998-2004), and develop-North-East engagement (2004 onwards).[59] In the first period, India tried to limit Chinese influence in Myanmar, especially its activities along the Bay of Bengal, while also trying to limit the growing insurrection in India’s northeast, where Myanmar’s porous border became a sanctuary for anti-government rebels.[60]

The second stage coincided with India’s “Look East” policy toward Southeast Asia, including Myanmar’s joining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997. The formation of the Bangladesh-India-Myanmar-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation organization that year gave India an avenue to improve relations throughout ASEAN and to keep an eye on China’s activities in Southeast Asia after China signed the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in October 2003.[61]

Lastly, the third stage of Indo-Myanmar relations relates to the development of India’s northeast regions, which are plagued by poverty, ethnic tensions, and outright rebellion. India’s northeast lacks cheap, easy access to the heart of India, so development there might dampen unrest in the region and also develop better relations with Myanmar across the border. Throughout the 2000s, India and Myanmar have agreed and build road and rail systems across the border, even as India also provides Myanmar with some economic aid.[62] India hopes continued cooperation along the Indo-Myanmar border might calm the restive region, improve the region’s economic outlook, and be a win-win for both countries. India has already gone ahead on several infrastructure projects to do just that. This year, India handed over to Myanmar operations of an Indian-constructed deep-water port at Sittwe. The port is one part of the ambitious Multi Modal Transit Transport Project that links Kolkata to Sittwe on the Bay of Bengal by sea, Sittwe to Myanmar’s Paletwa by river, and Paletwa to the Indian border by highway.[63] The project aims to create jobs throughout northwestern Myanmar, facilitate easier trade, and cut down the travel time to India’s northeastern states. Until the project is completed in 2019-2020, goods have to travel an extra three to four days and 1,328 kilometers through narrow the Siliguri Corridor, known as the “chicken’s neck” and threatened by Chinese military buildup in the Doklam heights overlooking the corridor.[64] Similar projects are in the works.

In each of these phases, strategic concerns have trumped pro-democracy and humanitarian concerns, something that’s unlikely to change given India’s desire to counterbalance China’s influence in the country. One researcher properly sums up India’s policy since 1993:

Change in Myanmar will very unlikely see the advent of democracy. India should therefore bank on a military regime, but try to enhance its reliability. The evolution of the Burmese junta into an illiberal but efficient regime and could satisfy India’s needs in the mid-term … India, for economic reasons as well as security considerations would stand to gain greatly if such reforms were to be adopted, and should thus, along with China and ASEAN, try to exert pressure on the military junta in this direction.[65]

Going Forward

            For the Chinese, the importance of Myanmar is unlikely to diminish any time soon, so central are its interests in the region and so well-positioned is Myanmar to serve them. For India, then, Myanmar’s importance is also unlikely to diminish as it works to counter Chinese influence there. Although Myanmar provides China with a plethora of opportunities with which to increase its strategic reach in Asia, it also presents some distinct challenges.

China continues to invest heavily in infrastructure, energy, and port projects in Myanmar, much of it under the auspices of its Belt and Road Initiative, although recent events have complicated its position.[66] After the relatively fair and stable 2010 election, Western countries including the United States began to normalize relations with Myanmar, more so after Aung San Suu Kyi and her NDL consolidated their leadership in the 2015 election. That allowed greater western influence, investment, and aid in Myanmar ($60 million from the U.S. since 2012)[67], although the picture has clouded some considering the Rohingya crisis that remains ongoing. The opening of Myanmar to Western influence could be double-edged for China, which would benefit from greater investment and stability but would also lose some of its patron status over Myanmar. The end of strict military rule also means that China now must maintain relations with not only the Tatmadaw and military leaders but also with the civilian government, two parties which may not always have aligned priorities.[68]

One typical, unresolved, and representative issue of this new era is the Myitsone Dam project on Myanmar’s major lifeline, the Irrawaddy River. The dam, which was approved the by the military government, slated to be completed in 2017 by joint Chinese-Myanmar construction and which was intended to supply 6,000 megawatts of power mostly to China’s Yunnan province, came under heavy public criticism over its potential environmental and cultural impacts.[69] That those impacts would come at the expense of Myanmar to provide power to China only deepened public anger. Following the establishment of the new, democratic government in 2011, Naypyidaw pulled the plug on the project, reversing the military junta’s previous agreement and angering China, which had already invested more than $800 million dollars in the $3.6 billion project.[70] The halt on the project, which remains ongoing despite China’s attempts to get it restarted, has been hailed as a triumph on the new democratic regime, which took public opinion over the dam into account for its decision.[71] It signals a new direction in bilateral relations, one where China will not necessarily have the ability to simply strongarm Myanmar into doing what it wants.

Another major issue that might illuminate future problems has been the Kokang conflict that flared up again in 2015 between the Tatmadaw and the rebel Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, which fights for greater autonomy from Naypyidaw. In February 2015, rebels attacked army positions in Kokang, and over the next four months fighting drove between 40,000 and 50,000 refugees, mostly mandarin-speaking ethnic Chinese, across the Chinese border.[72] The eruption of hostilities in Kokang pointed the way to future problems, reminding the Chinese of the threat instability poses to its investments in the border regions and to its citizens there. As Chinese investments become more concrete, too, the Chinese government’s financial leverage over Myanmar shifts and the Naypyidaw government will gain more leverage to get either get what it wants from Beijing or create distance between the two regimes. Disruption of China’s energy supplies or trade obviously runs counter to China’s main strategic objectives in Myanmar. Myanmar will realize that China needs Myanmar as much, if not more, than Myanmar needs China. It also will need to realize it can only push China so far lest China cut off aid and return to former policies supporting rebel groups in places like Kokang.[73]

The Kokang violence, with its ethnic Chinese refugees, elucidates a third problem for Beijing going forward, one linked to public opinion and Myitsone project. New waves of Chinese migration threaten to disrupt the good relations. Over the last few decades, private Chinese have poured across the border, both legal and illegal. Unlike previous waves of Chinese migrants, many of the newer additions show little interest in adopting Burmese culture and dominate the local economies, stirring up ethnic resentment.[74] In the past, Beijing has worried little about public feelings toward its activities in Myanmar, being content to get the agreement of the military government.[75] The Myitsone halt and the Kokang fighting with its allegations that Chinese mercenaries joined the MNDAA,[76] both demonstrate that China will need to be more sensitive to problems Chinese immigration might cause for its diplomatic relations. Both countries quietly accuse each other of not handling the unrest in Kokang properly, and although they continue to cooperate along the border, the conflict should serve as a reminder of difficulties that could continue to crop up in the border regions.[77] If China wishes to continue to maintain its preeminent position in Myanmar and look after its security interests, sensitivity and better use of soft power is a must. Of top priority to Beijing will be ensuring that the Myanmar government, whatever form it takes, is amenable to their interests. To that end, China will need to support moderate reforms that will prevent instability and future popular unrest, even as it also builds closer ties to rebel groups like the MNDAA in its borderlands to pressure Myanmar away from a tectonic shift in its foreign relations policy.

Lastly, just like the early days of the Cold War, Myanmar presents an opportunity for China to hold up good relations with Myanmar as a model to other countries with which it hopes to improve relations, notably other Southeast Asian countries. The goal here should be to demonstrate that Beijing will pursue its interests, but not domination, in its neighbors, holding up Myanmar as a potential model for benign, peaceful Asian relations. If it can do so successfully, it may be able to influence not only the Indian Ocean but the South China sea as well, all while maintaining the energy-import diversification China sees as central to its security without unnecessary provocation in New Delhi.

India, meanwhile, will continue to be on its back foot, mostly responding to Chinese development rather than directing the relationship. At best, India should continue to offer an alternative to Beijing, allowing Myanmar to pursue a strategy of “closer to each than they are to each other”. By working with Myanmar along its border and its coast, India can build closer bilateral civil and military relations while also creating a more stable situation in its northeastern states.

Including the $480 million Kaladan river project that includes the Sittwe port, the Indian government has already provided $1.75 billion worth of grants and credit for infrastructure projects[78] such as a Yangon-Mandalay rail link. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in talks about upgrading highway links between the two countries, too.[79] India, for example, is building the trilateral India-Myanmar-Thailand Highway, which is now slated to be finished in 2020, six years later than it was originally planned.[80] It is just one of several highway systems approved for construction that will not only provide India with better access to Myanmar’s poorest regions but also to the rest of Southeast Asia, if they are completed as planned. India has also begn construction highways in areas such as Manipur, linking India’s Nagaland to northwestern Myanmar. They will also enhance economic growth and security in poor and unstable regions along the border.

Beyond infrastructure, India has a soft power advantage in human resources that it should continue to cultivate. Since 2015, the International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore, has worked with the Myanmar Institute of Information Technology to improve Myanmar’s information technology education. The partnership demonstrates that India is better positioned than China to aid in developing education and skills training in Myanmar.[81]

By continuing to emphasize the relationship over human rights concerns, including the Rohingya crisis that has slowed some construction projects, India can expand its footprint in Myanmar and counterbalance China’s power in the Indian Ocean. As problems with China’s investments like the Myitsone Dam continue to crop up around the world and popular backlash damages China’s reputation in Southeast Asia, India should sit back, bide its time, and anticipate Chinese overreach and retrenchment. A careful, nonaggressive balancing act will allow India to position itself for an improving relationship with Myanmar, especially as Myanmar tries to reduce its overdependence on China, overdependence that it’s lived under for more than 30 years.


[1] Thomson, John Seabury, “Burma: A Neutral in China’s Shadow.” (The Review of Politics, Vol. 19, No. 3, July 1957), 330-350.
[2]Steinberg, David I., and Fan Hongwei. Modern China-Myanmar Relations: Dilemmas of Mutual Dependence (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2012).
[3] Ibid, 19.
[4] Steinberg and Fan, Modern China-Myanmar, 28-92.
[5] Ibid, 28-92.
[6] Ibid. 93-130.
[7] Steinberg and Fan, Modern Chinese-Myanmar Relations, 131-151.
[8] Oxford-Burma Alliance, “1988 Uprising and 1990 Election”, oxfordburmaalliance.org (http://www.oxfordburmaalliance.org/1988-uprising–1990-elections.html, accessed December 4, 2018).
[9] Fan Hongwei, “China-Burma Geopolitical Considerations in the Cold War” (Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, Vol. 31, Issue 1, 2012).
[10] The Fund for Peace, “Fragile States Index, 2018”, http://fundforpeace.org/fsi/ .
[11] Steinberg and Fan, Modern China-Myanmar Relations, 159.
[12] Percival, Bronson. The Dragon Looks South: China and Southeast Asia in the New Century (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Security International, 2007), 5.
[13] Steinberg and Fan, Modern China-Myanmar Relations, 307.
[14] Swanstrom, Niklas. “Sino-Myanmar Relations” (Institute for Security and Development Policy, Asia Paper, June 2012), 15.
[15] World Energy Outlook 2017: China, International Energy Agency.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Downs, Erica S., “The China Energy Security Debate” (The China Quarterly, No. 177, March 2004), 31.
[18] The U.S. Energy Information Administration, “The Strait of Malacca, a Key Oil Trade Chokepoint, Links the Indian and Pacific Oceans”, https://www.eia.gov/ (https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=32452, accessed December 4, 2018).
[19] Hongyi Harry Lai, “China’s Oil Diplomacy: Is it a Global Secuirty Threat?” (Third World Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 3, 2007), 534.
[20] Lee, Pak K., “China’s Quest for Oil Security: Oil (Wars) in the Pipeline?” (The Pacific Review, Vol. 18, No. 2, June 2005), 289.
[21] Steinberg and Fan, Modern China-Myanmar Relations, 168-169.
[22] The Myanmar Times, “Kyaukphy Port: What happens next?”, November 9, 2018.
[23] Xinhua, “Oil Piped from Myanmar Hits 3.9 Mln Tonnes in 2017”, January 26, 2018.
[24] Steinberg and Fan, Modern China-Myanmar Relations, 173.
[25] Seaman, John, “Energy Security, Transnational Pipelines and China’s Role in Asia” (IFRI Asie Visions, 27, April 2010), 38.
[26] Chao Chung-Chi, “The Kokang Conflict and Contradictory Relations between China and Burma” (Asian Ethnicity, Vol 16, No. 4, 2015), 589-592.
[27] Zhao Hong, “China and India: Competing for Good Relations with Myanmar” (The Journal of East Asian Affairs Vol 22, No. 1, Spring/Summer 2008), 179.
[28] Fan Hongwei, “China-Burma Geopolitical Considerations in the Cold War”.
[29] Nathan, Andrew, and Ross, Robert S., The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress: China’s Search for Security (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), 171, cited in Steinberg, Modern China-Myanmar Relations.
[30] Swanström, Niklas. “Sino-Myanmar Relations: Security and Beyond” (Institute for Security and Development Policy, Asia Paper, June 2012), 15.
[31] Steinberg, David I., and Fan Hongwei. Modern China-Myanmar Relations: Dilemmas of Mutual Dependence (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2012), 174.
[32] Steinberg and Fan, Modern China-Myanmar Relations.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Zhao Hong, “China and India: Competing for Good Relations with Myanmar”.
[36] Fan Hongwei, “China-Burma Geopolitical Considerations in the Cold War”.
[37] Steinberg and Fan, Modern China-Myanmar Relations, 151.
[38] Steinberg and Fan, Modern China-Myanmar Relations, 302.
[39] Ibid, 310.
[40] Chao Chung-Chi, “The Kokang Conflict and Contradictory Relations between China and Burma”.
[41] Steinberg and Fan, Modern China-Myanmar Relations, 302.
[42] Garver, John W. Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001).
[43] Thomson, John Seabury, “Burma: A Neutral in China’s Shadow.” (The Review of Politics, Vol. 19, No. 3, Jul., 1957), 330-350.
[44] Steinberg and Fan, Modern China-Myanmar Relations, 315.
[45] Ibid, 315.
[46] Ibid.
[47] Shee, Poon Kim. “The Political Economy of China-Myanmar Relations: Strategic and Economic Dimensions” (Ritsumeikan Annual Review of International Studies, Vol. 1, 2002).
[48] Shekar, Vibhanshu, “A Federal Democratic Myanmar: India’s Strategic Imperative” (Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, IPCS Issue Brief No. 67, May 2008).
[49] Steinberg and Fan, Modern China-Myanmar Relations, 318.
[50] Ibid, 318.
[51] Ibid, 318.
[52] Ibid, 318-319.
[53] The International Institute for Strategic Studies, “India Boosts Relations with Myanmar, where Chinese Influence is Growing” (June 1, 2018, iiss.org), https://www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2018/05/india-myanmar-china-relations, accessed 12/13/2018/
[54] Selth, “Burma and the Strategic Competition Between China and India (Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 19, Issue 2, 1996), 218.
[55] Steinberg and Fan, Modern China-Myanmar Relations, 319.
[56] Egreteau, Renaud, “India’s Ambitions in Burma: More Frustration than Success?” (Asian Survey, Vol. 48, No. 6, November/December 2008), 940.
[57] Lintner, Bertil, “The Indo-Burmese Frontier” (Jane’s Intelligence Review, 1 January 1994, cited by Steinberg and Fan, 320)
[58] Selth, Andrew. “Burma and the Strategic Competition Between China and India” (The Journal of Strategic Studies, 24 January 2008), 213-230.
[59] Steinberg and Fan, Modern China-Myanmar Relations, 321.
[60] Ibid, 321-322.
[61] Ibid, 321-322.
[62] Ibid, 321-322.
[63] The Irrawaddy, “India, Myanmar Appoint Operator for Sittwe Port Project” (October 26, 2018).
[64] Ibid.
[65] Levesque, Julien, “A Reformed Military Junta in Myanmar in India’s Strategic Interests” (Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, IPCS Issue Brief No. 69, May 2008.)
[66] The Diplomat, “Can Myanmar Afford China’s Belt and Road?” (August 29, 2018)
[67] The Irrawaddy, “China Taking Active Steps to Counter Western Influence.”
[68] Steinberg and Fan, Modern China-Myanmar Relations, 354
[69] Reuters, “Myanmar Suspends Controversial Myitsone Dam” (September 30, 2011).
[70] The New York Times, “A Chinese-Backed Dam Project Leaves Myanmar in a Bind” (March 31, 2017).
[71] BBC, “Burma Dam: Work Halted on Divisive Myitsone Project” (September 30, 2011).
[72] Oxford Analytica Daily Brief Service, “Myanmar: Kokang Conflict will Damage China Ties” (Oxford Analytica, February 26, 2015).
[73] Steinberg and Fan, Modern China-Myanmar Relations, 355.
[74] Thant Myint-U, Where China Meets India: Burma and the Crossroads of Asia (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).
[75] Steinberg and Fan, Modern China-Myanmar Relations, 356.
[76] Asia News Monitor, “Myanmar (Burma): China and Burma, Not Only Pauk-Phaw” (July 7, 2017).
[77] Ibid.
[78] The Times of India, “Eye on China, India Speeds Up Infra Projects in Myanmar” (October 26, 2017).
[79] The Diplomat, “Myanmar’s Approach to India” (March 29, 2018).
[80] The Times of India, “Eye on China, India Speeds Up Infra Projects in Myanmar”.
[81] The Diplomat, “Myanmar’s Approach to India.”

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