When the world’s two most populous countries held a summit this month in Beijing, their agenda was brimful with collaboration. India and China, once adversaries that fought a war in 1962, are now leading trading partners.
But, while they see eye to eye on several key geopolitical issues such as Iran and have even conducted a joint military exercise, there is an item on the bilateral agenda that elicits somewhat less cooperation—the country that borders them both, Burma.
Burma is not as significant a thorn in the side of the emerging alliance as Tibet or territorial claims. India’s provision of safe haven to the Tibetan resistance movement and China’s territorial claims over parts of India both figure more prominently in cross-border tensions. But the different approaches that the two Asian powers have taken toward the resource-rich but poor and isolated Burma, the largest country in Southeast Asia, reflect important differences in tactics and philosophy.
“After 1988, India with missionary zeal cut off all contact with the junta in Burma and gave the Nehru Award to Aung Sang Suu Kyi,” explains Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi who was the keynote speaker at a January 16 seminar in Washington, DC sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. “By the time India reversed that policy, it realised that it had lost Burma to China. China had built reconnaissance facilities on the Coco Islands. So, this shift from a moral, value-based foreign policy to realpolitik on Burma came after India burned its hands and feet and didn’t have much to show for it.”
China, on the other hand, has for some time hewed close to realpolitik in its support of Burma’s military government. “China always wants to have neighbors that are friendly,” explains Minxin Pei, director of the China Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Burma is like a client state. If China can’t have Burma, it will deny it to another power.” Although the level of trade between the two countries remains rather modest, China provides the military junta with arms, directs considerable investment into the country, and eyes Burma’s energy resources.
In addition, China wants to stabilise several cross-border problems, including AIDS and refugees, argues Derek Mitchell, the director for Asia in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Also there is opportunism,” he continues. “China sees strategic opportunity to have access since the United States is ignoring Burma.”
This strategic opportunity hinges a great deal on Burma’s location. “For China, Burma is the entryway to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, and it oversees vital communication lanes in the Strait of Malacca,” Chellaney points out. “China is busy completing the Irrawaddy Corridor involving road, river, rail, and energy-transport links between Burmese ports and Yunnan province.”
China’s economic growth depends on increased imports of energy. Burma is one potential source. “Burma sits on vast gas reserves which are coveted by its neighbors,” Chellaney adds. “But Burma, because it is hit by sanctions and is an isolated state, hasn’t reaped those dividends. Foreign investments in Burma’s gas exploration and production have not been too significant. Sanctions have prevented Burma from accessing liquefaction technology to become a liquid natural gas exporter. Its only choice is to sell natural gas by pipeline to its immediate neighbors—to Thailand or to China once a pipeline is complete.” Chellaney predicts that the pipeline to China, news of which broke at the end of last year, could be operational within a year.
The relationship between China and Burma, which might look cozy from the outside, is not without tension. Most of the energy and transportation plans are only at the agreement stage. “Work may have started on the pipeline,” argues Priscilla Clapp, former US charge in Burma from 1999 to 2002. “I cannot believe that it will happen in a year. Nothing happens in a year in Burma.” Indian reports of a major Chinese military facility in Burma’s Coco Islands, she continues, are exaggerated. “They have some antennas down there. A few years ago India claimed that it was a major Chinese naval base, but that’s bunk. The Burmese won’t allow that. The Burmese are ferociously neutral. They’re not going to allow any other power to establish a military base or significant military presence in their country.”
“China is a partner of last resort,” explains Derek Mitchell. “The isolation strategy means that the Burmese junta has to turn to China. They don’t like it, but it helps them stay in power.”
The competition between India and China for influence in Burma reflects a larger jockeying for power between the two Asian giants.
Inter Press Service, January 18, 2008