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Analysis Myanmar: a battleground of the New Cold War against China

China’s complex relationship with Myanmar has confused many on the left, who too often base their binary analyses through the prism of Western media coverage. KENNY COYLE asks a Communist Party of Burma spokesperson about its view

DURING World War II, the British colony of Burma, sitting between British-ruled India and war-torn China, became a key military theatre, pitting Allied forces against Japan.

Today Myanmar is embroiled in conflict once again. While this time the principal factors are internal, there are wider geopolitical dimensions. In particular, Myanmar has become a battleground within the wider New Cold War against China. 

A Communist Party of Burma (CPB) spokesman told the Morning Star: “We used to say that Burma’s importance to the world’s great powers lies in the geographical position it occupies. 

“Being situated between India and China, Burma became an important springboard for the Allied forces during World War II both on land and sea.”

Modern Myanmar borders India, Bangladesh, China, Laos, Thailand and Malaysia. The Myanmar-India-China tripoint, the intersection of the three states’ borders, lies next to the so-called McMahon Line, the location of a long-running dispute between China and India, which recently led to bloody, but thankfully short-lived, border clashes between the two Asian giants.

Myanmar’s maritime borders in the north are adjacent to Bangladesh in the oil and gas-rich Bay of Bengal and stretch southward to a point just north of the Strait of Malacca.

The strait, which flows between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, connects the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean through the South China Sea. 

It is the shortest sea route between Persian Gulf oil and gas suppliers and key Asian markets. 

Around 20 per cent of global petroleum shipped by sea goes via the Strait of Malacca, including 80 per cent of China’s sea-borne oil. 

According to the CPB spokesman: “Southern Myanmar covers a strategic position for monitoring shipping heading to the Malacca Strait. That’s one reason, we believe, Western powers are very concerned about Burma. 

“At this time, when tension between the US and China has reached a peak, when naval forces with various flags are sailing to and fro in the South China Sea, it benefits Western powers if they can distract China on its western borders. Furthermore, Burma borders the Chinese region of Tibet, another super-sensitive area in China.” 

More recently, Myanmar has become a focus of interest as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to build infrastructure networks in a whole series of countries over the coming decades. 

If even partially successful, this will transform international trade routes and effectively disrupt US economic hegemony by shifting the centre of the world economy to the Asia-Pacific and Eurasian regions. The United States is determined to block as many of these BRI projects as possible. 

Over the past decade, China has worked with Myanmar on several BRI projects, some of which are in operation with others still undergoing feasibility studies. 

The biggest potential project is the China-Myanmar-Bangladesh-India (CMBI) corridor that would connect Kunming in China’s Yunnan province with Kolkata in India’s West Bengal by crossing into Mandalay in northern Myanmar and going through Dhaka in Bangladesh. It would provide obvious benefits for tourism and trade to a region of around 300 million people long starved of modern road and rail connections. 

For example, Indian-Bangladeshi freight train services only resumed last year, after a gap of 55 years. There is still no passenger train service connecting what was once a single undivided Bengal. However, given the strongly anti-China stance of the Hindu-chauvinist BJP government in India, the CMBI project may be indefinitely delayed.

The other key project is the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) which is designed to develop networks linking the Kyaukphyu port and economic zone on Myanmar’s coast with China’s western regions. 

During his visit to Myanmar in early 2020, Xi Jinping met with Aung San Suu Kyi to accelerate many of these projects. (See Reuters “Myanmar, China ink deals to accelerate Belt and Road as Xi courts an isolated Suu Kyi,” January 18 2020).

The advantages to China are obvious. CMEC would substantially cut transfer times for China’s import/export trade in its developing western provinces, which lie furthest from China’s southern and eastern coastal ports, and would end China’s vulnerability to a potential Malacca Strait “chokehold.”

The potential advantages for Myanmar could also be vast if the commanding heights of the country’s economy can be wrested from the military-run monopolies and made to benefit working people. The country could become a major trading centre linking the Indian subcontinent with south-east Asia and western China. 

China’s complex relationship with Myanmar has confused many on the left, who too often base their binary analyses through the prism of Western media coverage, which portrays China either as an active backer of the military or at least indifferent to its seizure of power. 

For those already predisposed to view China as no different from or even worse than Western capitalism, the idea that Beijing must be backing the military was simply taken for granted. 

However, others took a diametrically opposite view, seeing yet another “colour revolution,” a US-backed attempt at regime change, by pointing to the activities of the foreign-funded “democracy promotion” agencies. 

It’s certainly true that the usual suspect, the US State Department-funded National Endowment for Democracy, has for years openly channelled substantial funds into Myanmar’s trade unions, satellite broadcasters, social and print media and the like, to influence both internal politics and also to shape external media presentations of Myanmar. (See for example www.ned.org/region/asia/burma-2020/)

However, the CPB rejects both of these simplistic interpretations of China-Myanmar relations.

“Presenting China as a supporter of the Burmese military is to fall into the trap of the military junta as well as the White House,” the party spokesman says. “We shouldn’t forget that the military generals in Burma, ever since they became a clique in the 1950s, are very chauvinistic and have prejudices against any race or religion besides theirs. China needs Burma to be a strong buffer for it against Western forces and the West needs Burma as a bridgehead to enter China.”

China was blindsided by the coup. In an interview given to Myanmar media two weeks after the military seizure of power, China’s ambassador to Myanmar Chen Hai said: “Both the National League for Democracy and the Tatmadaw [military] maintain friendly relations with China. The current development in Myanmar is absolutely not what China wants to see.”
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has called China’s policy in the current crisis the “Three Supports and Three Avoids.”

Support is for an internal political settlement, the release of all political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi, a return to the constitutional compromise that existed pre-coup and to “advance the hard-won democratic transformation process.” The other side is avoidance of “further bloodshed and civilian casualties,” avoidance of the UN security council being used to intervene in Myanmar (a bitter lesson China learnt from the Libyan crisis in 2011) and to “avoid external forces from fuelling the unrest in Myanmar and seeking private gains by messing up the country.”

Chinese statements have pointedly made clear that it is in continual contact with the NLD and other anti-military forces.

Nonetheless some pro-Western elements in the anti-coup protests called for US intervention and demonstrated outside the Chinese embassy. In addition, unknown groups attacked Chinese-owned businesses, hotels and recently oil pipelines to China. 

This is seen by the CPB as a futile and potentially dangerous diversion which misdirects and divides the anti-junta movement.

The CPB representative emphasises: “The Burmese military generals will make use of any available means to divert the attention of the opposition elements inside our country or to create disunity among them. The West is always seeking an opportunity to make use of the Burmese anti-military elements to wage anti-Chinese protests and sow anti-Chinese seeds among the Burmese population. They have made some achievements before, but this time the people’s hatred against the junta is so strong nothing will divert their attention from their main enemy - the military bureaucrats.”

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