China’s Burma Fightback
Image Credit: Thomas Wanhoff

China’s Burma Fightback


If not quite Nixon in China, the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Burma this week has an air of history about it. Hers might be the trip that begins Burma’s rehabilitation in the United States and Europe.

However, another meeting, which took place in Beijing on Monday, was arguably even more important than Clinton’s upcoming audience with Burmese President Thein Sein. For the host of that encounter, Vice President Xi Jinping, is about to become the most important man in China; while his guest, commander-in-chief of the Burmese armed forces Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, is perhaps becoming the most important man in Burma.

When he took over as commander of the Tatmadaw last year, Min Aung Hlaing was widely written off as a puppet general, much as Thein Sein was written off as a puppet president. However, the theory that Senior Gen. Than Shwe continues to direct events from a mysterious semi-retirement grows thinner by the day, not least with official media now describing him as retired, and with his brutal imprint entirely missing from recent events.

While the extent of Min Aung Hlaing’s power relative to that of Thein Sein is impossible to judge, it’s undeniable that the Tatmadaw chief will be a pivotal character in the Burmese reform drama that has apparently now entered its first act. The army remains Burma’s most powerful institution – its only powerful institution – much more so than Naypyidaw’s fledgling parliament. The army is surely watching over the reform process that Thein Sein is initiating, ready to step in should things go too far, too fast.

Xi’s hosting of the Burmese commander and his call for closer military ties between the two countries is therefore significant in several ways. First, he’s muddying the waters of Clinton’s visit by offering Burma something that the United States can’t. It won’t have been lost on Min Aung Hlaing that the Tatmadaw has the most to gain from closer ties with China, while it’s hard to see what the Burmese military stands to win from the long, slow thaw with Washington. U.S. arms sales to Burma are surely over a decade away – even if genuine reforms occur.

The context is also important, with Thein Sein having crossed China in late September with his decision to suspend construction of the Myitsone Dam. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that decision, it was handled clumsily, upsetting the Chinese side and no doubt raising questions within the Burmese hierarchy about Thein Sein’s judgment.

By hosting Burma’s military chief, Xi was restating the case for partnership with China – and stressing that partnership’s military dimension to the very man who cares most about the Tatmadaw’s future status.

Nixon prospered in China because the Chinese had grown to loathe their former Soviet allies. In Burma, no such opening exists for Clinton. As Xi will have argued, Burma’s strategic interests still rest with China. And if Thein Sein isn’t convinced of that, then Min Aung Hlaing almost certainly is.

December 2, 2011 at 02:03

What happens to china’s “peaceful rise”? :)

duke chan
December 1, 2011 at 16:30

Brother Yang:

December 1, 2011 at 14:41

The prosperity of the countries neighbouring China lies with China; Not America. The U.S. is a sunset power. Russia and China are sunrise powers with increasing popularity despite Washington’s influenced mass medias demonizing Beijing and China or Mr Putin and Russia via their sockpuppets and trolls – of which many “reside” in the Diplomat. Save for the irrational ambitious political far right Indian extremists, most people in the world are discerning and are able to see through the falsities of American divisive propaganda in the Western medias. It is obvious Washington is losing it – Middle East, Latin America, Africa, Eurasia, East Asia. There just too many discerning and knowledgeable readers nowadays. Even the 99% of Americans are starting to get vocal and active against Washington and its 1%.

Yang zi
December 1, 2011 at 07:25

Duke Chan, I am silent because you are so ignorant. Dalai Lama want autonomy, not independence, you are welcome to give him arms do what ever, like I care. However, I think China should help Chams accross the world to get back their country. Do you want to make a deal?

The truth is, Vietnam has no claim to sprately islands, just admit it and be in peace.

Yang zi
December 1, 2011 at 07:13

Dream on, I think China should arm Chams in China and Cambodia to get Champa back. You can arm
Dalai lama to get Tibet for him so Tibet can be autonomous in China. Deal?

Duke Chan
December 1, 2011 at 05:37

Brother Yang,

My interesting observation: every time someone mentions Tibet,you are silent? 3 things can no be hidden: the Sun, Moon and Truth, right?

If you really loved China and its people,you should not defend for the CCP as you have been doing. S, VNmese love their country,that is the reason why they want to get rid of VC, red capitalists use communism to benefit themselves like their master, the CCP.

Robin Straw
December 1, 2011 at 04:25

Trefor Moss states that, “Nixon prospered in China because the Chinese had grown to loathe their former Soviet allies. In Myanmar, no such opening exists for Clinton. As Xi will have argued, Myanmar’s strategic interests still rest with China. And if Thein Sein isn’t convinced of that, then Min Aung Hlaing almost certainly is.”

Is that really so? A few years back, general Min Aung Hlaing himself had launched attack against Kokang militia group that was ally of the Chinese. Majority of the current generals leading in both the military (Tatmadaw) and Parliament are not pro-China. They used to have a good grasp on power so they could focus on enriching themselves. Now that things have changed, they become more realist.

You need to send the right handler that can massage the Chinese leadership’s back. Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo is much closer to the Chinese than General Min Aung Hlaing. Yet, sending Gen Min Aung Hlaing was the best diversion that could be done. So there he was, dancing with Xi.

The people of China were staving by the millions and their revolutions reaping bountiful failures with the communist ideology so there was the need to adopt some sort of capitalism. In Myanmar, the people are tired and weary of not only China (as were the Soviets to the Chinese) but also what Chinese companies represent. Doing business without properly taking the long-term welfare of the local population and the environment, the Burmese have no respect for Chinese business ethics.

The Chinese government have been focusing on government-to-government bilateral ties instead of people-to-people ties. This had not only alienated the Burmese people but also had pushed them away from Chinese influence and into the democratic sphere of the West.

Clinton is warmly received not just by those in power but more so by the hearts of the Burmese. Those in Burmese Parliament were elected even though election frauds took place are now becoming more aware of what “people power” mean. The democratic process in itself makes the elected MPs more responsible and accountable toward their constituents than those that came to power as can be seen in the Communist Party in China. Thus, the MPs in parliament become more aware of the undercurrent and desires of the people than ever before. If Gen Min Aung Hlaing is foolish enough to listen more to Big Brother China than his own citizens, he will be out of place in the 21st century. It may seem that Xi had won the battle. Alas, he has lost the war.

The future will tell and show who does a better job. Will it be the big boss Xi in Beijing or the smiling Secretary of State from the US. I bet on you Trefor.

Duke Chan
December 1, 2011 at 04:02

and return Tibet to Tibetans please.

Doan Ket
December 1, 2011 at 03:43

@yangzi: That’s an interesting thought. Let see the Han Chinese return the stolen southern territory to Vietnam, Tibet to the Tibetans, ect. first.

Doan Ket
December 1, 2011 at 03:39

@Yangzi: There are no South Vietnamese or North Vietnamese. There is one Vietnamese. Please dont try to pull your propaganda dirty trick to divide and conquer. And why do you assume Duke Chan is Vietnamese? Chan is not usually a Vietnamese name.

Yang zi
December 1, 2011 at 02:51

You are more insane than poster Jamie Beatle. The righteous and fairminded S. Vietnamese people should return central Vietnam to Champa, return Saigon to Cambodia. Return oil revenue to Champa and Cambodia government.

Yang zi
December 1, 2011 at 02:44

Are you insane?

December 1, 2011 at 01:57

Myanmar government should follow the way the Vietnam government practices. All the people of Myanmar are worried about China’s overwhelm to their country and the Government should listen their people. Otherwise, they will face the anger of its people. Even currently the image of the Myanmar government and army are very bad for its own people. If China continuously supports the government and the army, they will suffer the hate of Myanmar people. So China has two options. Myanmar People or Myanmar Government. They are totally different. US didn’t do anything about Myanmar’s prosper. Even then they has soft power on Myanmar people as they against the Military government and support Myanmar democracy movement.Now is not too late for China to attract Myanmar people.

Jamie Beattie
December 1, 2011 at 00:13

Please, whoever is the leader of Myanmar, all one has to do is look at modern history, to realise the U.S’s paranoiea of China is the reason for Clintons visit to Myanmar. The US weapons of mass destruction, which are being installed in Australia will be aimed at your part of the world. please remember China is a nieghbour and long time friend of Myanmar, the US and India are both seeing what they can steal from you.

yang zi
November 30, 2011 at 17:54

right, Vietnam should help Burma, sending aid and mil equipment. Vietnam is such a China opponent that its people loves to work in China, likes China’s leadership.

You S. Vietnamese exiles just want to stir up the pot so you can win over N. Vietnamese VCP.

duke chan
November 30, 2011 at 16:49

The author forgot to mention this general was in Vietnam before traveling to China. Normally, new Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar will visit China first , but thing has changed, this New Commander-in-Chief decide to visit VN – a China opponent first. It seems that Myanmar wanna get rid of China now.

yang zi
November 30, 2011 at 15:47

Burma is complicated, yet simple.

First Burma should go democratic (as should China) and decide their things democratically, they are doing it.

Then it should decide what to do with China and the west based on Burma’s own interests. China would try to woo Burma, but it is up to Burma to decide for themselves.

Hilary Clinton will put on her charm offensive again. China may be concerned, but not overly so and talk about it publicly because it is up to Burma and US.

Even with Aung San Suu Kyi in power, China is still the best bet for Burma to get better economically.

The Myistone dam project is an error on China’s part. the Kachins deserves a say in it. Kachins is a minority people in China too. China should be sympathetic to their concerns.

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