China's Burma Challenge


David Cohen and Peter Martin speak with Tang Qifang, Southeast Asia specialist at the Foreign Ministry-affiliated China Institute of International Studies by Peter Martin and David Cohen. This is the second part of an interview conducted on behalf of partner site the Lowy Interpreter.

Nicholas Farrelly asks:  In 2011, longstanding ceasefire agreements are crumbling across Burma. The resumption of hostilities in the Shan and Kachin States has seen particularly heavy fighting already. What is China’s role in these re-ignited border wars? Does the Chinese government have the capacity to broker permanent peace in those deeply troubled areas? If it does, why has it remained so apparently reluctant to get involved?

This conflict, of course, isn’t a new one, and has very deep roots in history and tradition. We can see that especially since 2009, the military government has been trying to get more control over these areas. They want to control the local military powers, the local troops, so there has been a very major conflict. Of course, they managed to get rid of the powers of some of them, but other groups like the Kachin are still there.

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I’m not really an expert on the military, but I think that to some extent China has influence on the military government, especially in the area near the China-Myanmar (Burma) border. In other areas, like the area between Myanmar and India, I don’t think China has any space to talk about that.

Because China cares about the security of its immigrants and investment, I think China will try its best to ask the government of Myanmar to keep the peace. But because of the balancing diplomacy of the Myanmar government, they are also in touch with India and the United States, so I don’t think China has a very powerful influence.

Khmerization asks: China has invested heavily in the Cambodian economy, but is also heavily involved in the destruction of the Cambodian environment through its hydro-electric dam-building and deforestation. Do you think that Chinese investments are good for Cambodia or harmful to Cambodia in the long run? Do you think that, due to China’s economic power, China can help power Cambodia into economic prosperity? Finally, the Chinese leadership has tremendous political leverage over the Cambodian leadership, as strong as the political leverage they had with the Khmer Rouge leadership in the 1970s. With this kind of political influence, is there a risk that Cambodia could plunge into a situation like during the Khmer Rouge regime?

Since the comprehensive free trade agreement took effect last year, more and more investment has been pouring into Cambodia, especially from the government and agricultural sector and things like that. So some things are happening that are bad for the environment of the Mekong River countries. You mentioned deforestation, which isn’t only bad for downstream countries, but also for China itself. As far the water problem, China and mother Mekong countries are cooperating and sharing these limited resources. But the problem should not be sharing a limited resource, but finding ways to make more water resources.

So what China can do is to protect the environment and the resources of the river, to keep the forest. But the Chinese Government can’t stop illegal logging inside China, and Chinese resources aren’t enough, so people are going outside China for them. I think that investment is necessary to support development, but the problem is what kind of development. Development could be just as China did in the last three decades, depending only on human resources and consuming natural resources. I think we should try to help them avoid this kind of development.

I think an undeveloped country is just one that hasn’t developed yet, so they have more opportunities than developed countries. They have access to more modern technology, so I think countries that want to make investments should think about what kind of welfare it can bring to the local country and the local environment. If development is just as China did in the last three decades, well…you have the financial wealth, but you completely destroyed the environment. We have to make sure Cambodia doesn’t develop like that.

The original version of this article appeared here.

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