New Leaders Forum

Why Burma Matters

Tensions are growing between China and Burma. India will be watching, but US policy has made America irrelevant.

By Matt Anderson for

While the world’s attention is focused on the ongoing tension in the South China Sea, rebels in Burma are creating problems for the western extreme of Southeast Asia.  Though never fully pacified, Burma has made modest gains in subduing — or at least co-opting — the various ethnic groups that challenge the central government’s rule. But the past few days have seen troubling signs that this relative tranquillity may begin to unravel with Kachin rebels in Burma’s northwest fighting a series of skirmishes with government forces. 

Ethnic unrest in Burma isn’t new and certainly isn’t surprising. A Chinese-built dam under construction on the Taping River in Burma has concerned the local population since construction began. The dam, which is in the area just opposite the border with China’s Yunnan Province, is intended to send electricity to China, Burma’s biggest patron. The Chinese working on the project are said to feel threatened and many are fleeing back to China. The refugee situation is reminiscent of the Kokang clashes in 2009, which created rare public tension between China and Burma’s leaders. 

Further to the south, China is enlisting the help of another ethnic opposition group to help find four missing Chinese engineers. These engineers were also working on an unpopular hydropower project. In this case, the rebels made a demand to the Chinese that they restrain Burma’s government forces from entering the area while they search for the missing Chinese, lest they start a larger conflict

These developments must be unsettling to China given its extensive interests in Burma. To begin with, as noted in a recent Economist article, an estimated 2 million Chinese live in Burma’s northern states. Economically, China has many resource extraction and hydropower production operations in the country.  Furthermore, Burma is a key geopolitical asset to China in that friendly relations with its government offers access to the Indian Ocean and an outpost against further Indian penetration into Southeast Asia. 

China desires stability in the region as a means of protecting its interests there. As demonstrated in the Kokang clashes, China will chastise Burma if it sees the junta’s actions as inimical to Chinese interests. However, this time is different in that it’s the pursuit of Chinese interests, namely clearing the area of the hydropower project from hostile Kachin entities, that’s disturbing the peace.  Consequently, KIA spokesmen have hinted at the possibility of intentionally targeting Chinese assets. If this happens, then China can’t sit idly by. There is already speculation that the situation may necessitate some level of Chinese involvement. However, increased Chinese involvement in this area could elicit a response from Burma’s other neighbour in this region.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

India values Burma just as much, and so is watching these developments closely. India’s growing economy requires the same resources from Burma currently heading north to China.  India would also like to push its influence further into Southeast Asia, and Burma is crucial to that end. In regards to security, northwest Burma is thought to be a safe haven for insurgents operating in India’s restive north-eastern states. Finally, unresolved border disputes with China and a growing paranoia within India of Chinese encirclement makes minimizing Chinese influence in Burma a key security goal for India. Distrust of Chinese motives in Burma is the motivation behind India’s warming relations with the country’s generals, despite their continued abhorrent behaviour. 

Clearly, the situation must be handled delicately by all parties. The tri-border area sits ominously between a Sino-Indian rivalry that will shape the future of the region. Something must therefore be done by the Burmese government to reinstate some level of control over this region, otherwise, it could become a vacuum in which Chinese and Indian interests directly clash. 

But despite the gravity of the situation, the United States has still been missing from this discussion. The problem is that US policy has removed it from relevance in Burma. Developments in Burma should be of concern, yet the United States has so far chosen to allow human rights concerns to inhibit meaningful engagement. 

Selective US policies in the ‘Arab Spring’ demonstrated that US diplomacy can be pragmatic when necessary.  With this in mind, US policymakers should re-evaluate relations with Burma. Without improved US-Burma ties, the country could evolve into an unstable, WMD-proliferating client state of China, serving as a buffer to India while also giving China valuable access to the Indian Ocean. This outcome conjures images of a tropical North Korea. But contrary to appearances, there’s no deep affinity between Burma and China; it’s purely a relationship of necessity for Burma. Conversely, improving ties with it and possibly dislodging it from Beijing’s orbit could benefit the United States by aiding a budding ally in India while removing a source of tension within ASEAN.   

Matt Anderson is currently a Resident Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS.