China’s Relationship with Myanmar

Posted by Reading Time: 6 minutes

This is the eleventh in a series of articles that looks at China’s borders. As China has grown in the last 30 years, so have the often complicated relationships it has with its many varied neighbors. In this article, we take a look at Myanmar.

By Joyce Roque

Aug. 27 – On a map, Myanmar sits squeezed between two emerging players: India, to its northwest and China, to its northeast. There is also Thailand on its southeast and Bangladesh on the west and the Bay of Bengal to the southwest.

But for all its proximity to the world’s most promising neighbors, Myanmar might as well be another world. It is country mired in its own self-created vacuum of corruption, oppression and intolerance. A former British colony, the country has been ruled by a military junta since 1962.

The junta has been ruthless in its efforts to maintain power at any cost. There have been reports that thousands of Buddhist monks and civilians have been killed in a series of massacres and efforts to clamp on dissent.

It has been accused of sanctioning mass rape campaigns targeted on women and children in the strategic border province of the Shan State from 1996-2001. Twenty years ago, an estimated half a million people dared to take to the streets to challenge the one party rule only to be met by gunshots. In the end, three thousand civilians were killed and thousands more jailed.

In 1989, the government changed the name of the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar and its capital from Rangoon to Yangon. A name change that in itself has garnered controversy with some countries acknowledging the change while other countries refusing to accept the name in defiance to its government.

When the first multi-party elections in the country were held in 1990 and led to the majority win of the National League of Democracy headed by Aung San Suu Kyi. The military junta refused to honor the results of the elections and chose instead to jail Aung San Suu Kyi, who was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In the following years, Suu Kyi was to be released and arrested several times, but after her convoy was attacked by a government-sponsored mob while touring northern Myanmar in 2003, she was arrested and placed in the infamouse Insein prison. While she was later released and placed under house arrest, her movements continue to remain restricted to this day.

The junta garnered further controversy in 2005 when they relocated their capital to remote Naypyidaw, 390 kilometers to the north. The Chinese diplomats criticized the move at the time. “To set up a thriving city with complete facilities and infrastructure in this patch of land without a single foundation,” the embassy in Yangon said, “will doubtless be a serious test for the government.”

The country is currently ruled by its top military leader and State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) chairman Senior General Than Shwe. The SPDC, composed of its top 12 military generals, control all aspects in the country. Mr. Shwe is known to be career military man with an introverted personality and a habit of consulting astrologers for auspicious dates.

In November 2006, the International Labour Organization charged the military junta for subjecting its citizens to forced labor. The most recent incident to incite global outcry has been Myanmar’s reaction after the deadliest cyclone to hit the Indian Ocean ripped through the densely populated country.

In the critical days following the disaster, the junta refused international aid despite being ill-equipped to handle the catastrophe. They relented only after accepting Indian aid.
According to the official Myanmar death toll, Cyclone Nargis killed an estimated 146,000 people with thousands more missing. It is speculated that the figure may be closer to a million given that the report may have been falsified by a government afraid of political repercussions.

Battle for the Indian Ocean

Myanmar is the largest mainland country in Southeast Asia. Much of the country’s ancient monuments, cities, jungles, snow-capped mountains and beaches have remained unexplored. It is rich in natural resources notably, oil, jade, teak, natural gas and rubies but remains desperately poor because of a government that mismanages funds instead of plowing it back to infrastructure and education.

The country has long been under international pressure to reform its despotic regime with the EU and the United States going a step farther and placing economic sanctions that includes forbidding Western companies from investing in Myanmar.

Notably absent from Myanmar’s list of detractors are India and China. Both countries have chosen to remain silent and engage the ruling junta while not publicly supporting their rule. China has been supplying the Burmese arms and military training for years while India has actively sought agreements to establish transport corridors that will connect it to the country.

The answer lies in the historical and strategic significance of Myanmar to both emerging countries. Myanmar has cultural ties with India. The last Mughal King, Bhadur Shah Zafar lived in the country where Indians have long flourished. The Burmese language is related to both the Tibetan and Chinese languages and Chinese immigrants have done well as merchants.

The country that outmaneuvers each other for dominance in Myanmar will enjoy the strategic advantage of having access to the Indian Ocean region via the Bay of Bengal in the west and the Andaman Sea in the south.

In 1993, India and Myanmar signed a memorandum of understanding that the countries hope will help maintain border tranquility. In addition, India promised to that it would not interfere in Myanmar’s domestic affairs while Myanmar assured India that it would not give China free reign over its territory.

Currently, it seems China is winning the game to curry favors from the junta. In August, China volunteered to help upgrade the facilities in Coco Islands by agreeing to build two more helipads and storage systems for arms in addition to a vague provision of improving communication facilities on the island.

The Coco Islands includes three small Indian Ocean islands found about 50 kilometers northeast of India’s Andaman Islands. Sources speculate that Chinese military presence on the island will allow it to monitor Indian activity and flow of ships between the Bay of Bengal and the Strait of Malacca.

Moreover, the Chinese military are also known to be building a port on Ramree Island located along the Burmese coast and only 60 miles to the south of India’s Sittwe development capable of accommodating oil tankers and naval vessels. There is speculation that Beijing wants to establish its presence on the Burmese coastline in case fragile relations with India fall apart.

One other consideration that factors in the Myanmar equation is the country’s abundant supply of natural gas. Burmese gas reserves are estimated to be worth at least 90 trillion cubic feet plus 3.2 billion barrels of recoverable crude reserves in 19 onshore and three major offshore fields.

This year, South Korean company Daewoo International who operates Myanmar’s A-1 and A-3 natural gas fields has agreed to sell and transport natural gas to China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). India has a combined stake of 25.5 percent in the project through the Oil & Natural Gas Corporation and the Gas Authority of India Limited and ironically it looks as if India will end up selling the gas it produces to China.

Myanmar is also a part of the so-called Golden Triangle of opium along with Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. According to the 2008 World Drug Report, opium poppy cultivation in Southeast Asia increased by 22 percent last year, mainly driven by a 29 percent increase in opium cultivation in Myanmar. Drug smuggling at the border is regulated by the ethnic group, the United Wa State Army and is a huge source of income for the Burmese army. It is interesting to note that most of the drug lords in the country have been either Chinese, ethnic Chinese or of Chinese/Burmese parentage.

In the country’s southern Shan State, poppy production has increased by as much as 25,400 hectares (62,738 acres) and with as many as 150,000 households engaged in the opium poppy cultivation.

Burmese drugs are then said to be transported to China’s Yunnan province until it reaches the mainland and is exported to markets in Taiwan, United States and Europe.

Betting on a gamble

One characteristic that has always defined the Burmese junta is its driving paranoia of losing power. As political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi said in her speech, Freedom From Fear: “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

At 77 years-old, the aging Senior General Than Shwe is closely watched as the country’s course is linked to his xenophobic and superstitious personality. There is always a danger and an instability that hangs on regimes based on tenuous circumstances.

In the meantime, China may hold court in Myanmar’s eyes now. But even then its unflinching support of a despotic regime will have its limits if the country becomes too unstable and threatens Chinese interests.

This is the eleventh in a continuing series that focuses on China’s borders. The complete series to date can be found here.

For more commentary on the emerging nations of Asia, please visit out sister website,