The US call for a “freeze” on “provocative acts” in the South China Sea got a cool response at the August regional meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, also attended by many dialog partners in Burma’s capital, Naypyidaw. US Secretary of State John Kerry had expected more from the meeting with the 10-nation bloc, also attended by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and diplomats from a host of other regional players, including Japan and South Korea.
Kerry should not have been surprised as ASEAN functions on two cardinal principles: consensus and non-interference in member states’ internal affairs. In effect, ASEAN finds it impossible to take any unified stand in regional conflicts—or address bilateral issues between its various members. This failure might leave China with a free hand to deal with South China Sea and its troublesome Southeast Asian neighbors.
The Philippines and Vietnam, whose maritime claims in the South China Sea overlap with China’s, would have been sympathetic to any follow-up on Kerry’s suggestion. But Malaysia and Brunei, which also claim part of the area, seem reluctant to antagonize Asia’s rising superpower. Thailand, Cambodia and Laos are much closer to China while Indonesia, ASEAN’s most populous nation, takes a more neutral stand. Singapore goes its own way, and then there is Burma, with a long and troubled relationship with China. In essence, it was far too optimistic of Kerry to expect ASEAN to reach consensus on China’s increasingly assertive policies towards its southern neighbors.
Significantly, the meeting was held in Burma, a country that over the past few years has opened up to the West in order to lessen its previous heavy dependence on China for trade, investment, international diplomacy and military cooperation. Starting in the 1980s, while the West shunned Burma for its abysmal human-rights record and bloody suppression of any sign of dissent against its then-military regime, China had stepped in with favorable loans and investment in mining and hydroelectric power.
China also flooded Burma’s markets with cheap consumer goods and, in the early1990s, became the country’s main supplier of military hardware. China also thwarted any attempts by the West to get the UN Security Council to take affirmative action against the ruling Burmese military.
The turning point came in September 2011 when Burma’s new President Thein Sein suspended a Chinese-backed, US$3.6 billion hydroelectric dam-project in the north of the country. More than 700 square kilometers of forestland would have been inundated with 90 percent of the electricity going to China. Later that year, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a highly publicized visit to China, followed in November 2012 by President Barack Obama himself.
In May this year, Obama stated that “if Burma succeeds, we will have gained a new partner without having fired a shot.” By success, he was referring to “national reconciliation” and the country’s reform process, but with his “Asian pivot” in mind, it is not farfetched to assume that Burma’s drift away from China’s embrace was an equally, if not more, important factor and another reason why the United States is likely to get frustrated with ASEAN’s lack of ability to act as a bloc.
The issue causes a serious dilemma for the United States. On the one hand, the US wants Burma on its side against China, which to a great extent has happened since 2011. On the other, the US cannot ignore the Burmese government’s slide back into its old, authoritarian ways, which have become noticeable over the past year with the imprisonment of journalists and continued attacks on ethnic groups in the border areas.
In a meeting with Thein Sein in Naypyidaw, Kerry felt compelled to warn him that any further improvement in relations between the two countries would require respect for basic human rights and significant speedup of the country’s pledge to become more democratic.
Naypyidaw, on its part, needs Washington’s support, moral or otherwise, as China is trying to regain some of its lost influence with carrots and sticks—both causing unease in Burma. At the same time as China is wooing local civil society groups and launching a public relations campaign to promote its interests in Burma, Chinese manufacturers are also selling sophisticated weaponry to the United Wa State Army, or UWSA, the country’s most powerful ethnic armed group challenging the Burmese government.
The UWSA is estimated to have 30,000 men in regular armed units and reserves. According to Anthony Davis, a military analyst with IHS/Jane’s, they are equipped with brand-new Chinese Type 81 assault rifles, Type 69 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft cannons, recoilless rifles, and mortars of up to 120 mm as well as Chinese-made HN-5 series Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems, or MANPADS.
According to Davis, UWSA has also procured two types of armored vehicles from China and light transport helicopters. No other armed ethnic group in the country has such an arsenal of military hardware. The UWSA may have a ceasefire agreement with Burma’s central government, but China’s readiness to supply it with modern weaponry is unprecedented. Not even the now-defunct Communist Party of Burma, which China had supported in the 1960s and 1970s, received as much weaponry and other military equipment as the UWSA has at its disposal today.
More worrying, on October 30 last year, the local intelligence office in the Burmese garrison town of Tang-yan sent a message to the regional command headquarters in Lashio saying that the UWSA was constructing a “radar and missile base” in its area—built in partnership with a Chinese company called Liao Lian, with equipment brought from China, Taiwan and Pakistan, the report asserts.
The type of missile being considered is unclear, but given the fact that radars will be installed at the base, it is plausible to assume that it would be something more powerful than what the UWSA has in its current arsenal. The Burmese-language report uses the term taweipyetonggyi, or “long-distance missile.”
Not surprisingly, Burmese government officials are furious and, according to private discussions with Western diplomats, becoming increasingly so. If Burma’s military were to take action against the UWSA, the United States would no doubt be pleased. The group is not only a proxy of China, but in 2005 eight senior leaders were also indicted in a US court on charges of trafficking in narcotics. With tensions high over South China Sea, the US could do little more than express gratitude in private to Burma’s leaders.
The meeting in Naypyidaw is over, and the US failed to muster ASEAN support for its attempts to counter Beijing’s designs for the region. And convincing ASEAN to agree on a policy to thwart Chinese influence in Burma, which no doubt would be seen as “interference” in the “internal affairs” of a member state, will prove more difficult than getting the bloc to formulate a common policy for the South China Sea.
As long as Thein Sein and his government in Naypyidaw are not moving in the political direction desired by Washington, Burma may have to tackle the UWSA and its backers in China alone.
With all the parties constrained for one reason or the other, Beijing may well end up gaining the upper hand in the South China Sea as well as in Burma.
This article first appeared on Yale Global on Aug 12, 2014.
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of several books on Burma. He is currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media Services.