China’s Burma Fightback

Burma may welcome the thaw in U.S. ties marked by Hillary Clinton’s visit. But its interests still lay with China.

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.

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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.