BANGKOK – Leadership changes and economic challenges facing China and the US this year will impact how far and fast Burma goes with its nascent political reforms.
A total of 302 political prisoners were freed on Friday with another 128 still in jail, according to Burmese government figures. Some have criticized the amnesty as incomplete, but it made international headlines and resulted in elated crowds greeting freed prisoners outside jails across Burma, as some of the country’s iconic dissidents emerged from detention.
In response, the US said it will appoint an ambassador to Burma for the first time since the bloody crackdown on student demonstrations in 1988. Leaders of these protests were among those freed last week, after spending many of the intervening years in jail.
However, it remains to be seen how far Burma’s reforms go and what the impact of geopolitical rivalries will be on Burma. Simon Tay, author of Asia Alone, a study US-Asian relations, said that Burma’s reforms are perhaps “an attempt to woo America and wean itself off China, rather than genuine attempt to reform domestic politics.”
The US recently launched a new defense plan focusing on the Asia-Pacific which sparked anger in Beijing, and Washington has been trying to cajole Burma out of China’s orbit since 2009. The Burmese government is a willing partner, with the Sept. 30 suspension of the Myitsone hydropower dam project the clearest indicator that it wants to lessen economic reliance on China.
How China reacts to this new US front-foot diplomacy in its backyard will have implications for regional stability. The contours of this, however, may not become clear until after the Communist Party leadership changes due by late 2012—also the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s landmark visit to China as the US capitalized on tensions between Beijing and its communist ally-turned-rival, the USSR.
That engagement strengthened the US hand in Asia in the immediate term, but ironically paved the way for the economic reforms that have made China the world’s second-biggest economy. The US has seen its position in Asia weaken in recent years.
“China has undertaken an effective charm offensive in the past decade,” said Prof. Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. He added that Beijing sees the US as out to recover some of its lost predominance in Asia—a move that could be destabilizing.
But it might not be in Chinese or American interests to foment tension, and mutual economic dependency could cool rivalries. “Peace and prosperity are still what many countries want, not military alliances,” said Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai.
Similarly, Thomas Donahue, head of the US Chamber of Commerce, said on Jan. 12 that improved business ties could offset security-related tensions. “If we are advancing our economic relationships, then there is going to be less concern about the adversarial relationship but more about cooperation to deal with geopolitical issues in the region and around the world. We need to do both, but let’s put more energy into the trade and investment side,” he told a news conference.
But improved business relations do not mean that diplomatic cooperation over potential flashpoints such as North Korea and Iran can be taken for granted. A Jan. 15 editorial in People’s Daily, considered a two-way mirror into Communist Party thinking, slammed the US for sanctioning China’s Zhuhai Zhenrong Company over its business ties with Iran, amid concerns about Tehran’s nuclear intentions.
Referencing US plans to position one-third of its navy in the west Pacific, the article added that “it would be very strange if, in such circumstances, China stands in line with the US on its sanctions against Iran.”
Energy-hungry China is typically reluctant to get involved in Western-driven sanctions or attempts to censure “rogue states,” and Beijing’s wariness of taking up a geopolitical role to match its economic sway has been both lauded and criticized.
“China is not a revisionist state and has benefited economically from the status quo,” says Dr. Amitav Acharya, chair of the ASEAN Studies Center at American University in Washington D.C. He went on to dismiss parallels between China and early 20th century Germany, whose rapid and aggressive rise eventually trumped economic links with the likes of France and Great Britain, resulting in a devastating war.
As the US tries to make its way back into Asia, China seems set on challenging US influence in the West, at least commercially. Debt-laden European countries have sought Chinese assistance and, although Beijing has cooled on buying more debt, Commerce Minister Chen Deming said in late November that China will send a delegation to Europe to look at buying state assets and infrastructure, as EU countries look to cut costs and acquire fast cash.
But in Asia, Beijing has significant second-tier powers such as India, Japan and Russia to contend with, as well as the US. “China will not be able to impose its ideology on the region,” claims Dr. Acharya.
And with China set to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy, possibly as soon as 2016 according to one International Monetary Fund projection, Beijing is likely to be the fulcrum around which Asian relations and economies revolve—a revival of the Middle Kingdom era when China was “first-among-equals” in Asia.
“A lot will depend on whether other countries will accept this hierarchy” says Dr. Acharya. China’s aggressive approach to the South China Sea prompted Vietnam and the Philippines, who also have claims on the oil-rich waters, to tighten relations with the US. Beijing is also likely to see improved US-Burma relations in the light of this bigger picture.
For Burma, despite its recent attempts to reduce China’s influence and forge better political and business ties with the West, China’s perhaps inevitable rise to first-among-equals status in Asia will weigh heavily on its much-smaller southwestern neighbor.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s opposition leader and an icon for politically-aware Westerners, has stressed her neutral view of China—an acknowledgment that Burma will continue to do much business with the Asian superpower regardless of its future relationship with the West.
Hundreds of thousands Chinese migrants now live in Burma, and Chinese investors have put around US $12billion into the country. In addition, despite the Myitsone suspension, there are 25 other “mega-dam projects” underway in Burma, many of them Chinese-backed. So no matter what changes come to Burma, or global politics in 2012, China will likely remain an important factor for decision-makers in Naypyidaw.
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