Dealing with Burma Through China?

The people of Burma have high hopes for Barack Obama. Burmese still look to Washington — rather than Beijing, New Delhi, or Moscow — to provide reliable political support for democratic change. But although Burma is back in the headlines — with the Rohingya refugee crisis and Thailand’s refusal to provide these stateless Burmese Muslim boat-people with refugee status — the other foreign policy issues pressing in on the Obama administration may quickly push the Southeast Asian country to the back burner.

The United States continues to play a key role in Burma. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on her current tour of Asia, singled Burma out for attention, signaling a potential shift in U.S. policy away from the current sanctions regime. But the country with much greater influence on the ground is China. With Clinton sitting down with the Chinese to discuss comprehensive cooperation, can Beijing and Washington hammer out a “bipartisan consensus” on Burma?

East vs. West

The United States has two schools of thought when it comes to dealing with the Burmese junta. One side blindly opposes anything having to do with the Burmese military dictators, viewing the junta as evil and advocating for more sanctions to further isolate the regime. The other side, led by academics, intellectuals, and others, feels that the current stalemate and the isolation of the junta do not serve the interests of the American or Burmese people. They believe in dialogue, but not necessarily “constructive engagement” as practiced by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

While U.S. policies on Burma have been traditionally paralyzed by this standoff, China has approached Burma slowly and deliberately, based on national interest. Their policy makers are experts on Burma and they speak fluent Burmese. Most importantly, they know the culture and the motivation of the Burmese, especially the mindset of the generals. Chinese officials regularly visit Burma to closely monitor the pulse of the ruling elite. They study the players carefully, they know the sensitive nature of Burmese nationalism, and they are not arrogant in their dealings with either the government or the opposition.

China supports the present regime, but it has also taken care not to antagonize the opposition. The Chinese have met with many opposition players and have made particular efforts to build working relationships with a younger generation of leaders in exile who have the temperament to develop good diplomatic skills, and an understanding of Western thinking and policy formulation. In other words, China is looking after its own interests by dealing with the current Burmese government but also hedging its bets in case of another uprising and the toppling of the military regime.

The Chinese have considerable energy interests in Burma. They are interested not only in purchasing natural gas from the gas fields off the Burmese coast being developed by South Korean and Indian firms. They also want to convert the state of Arakan on Burma’s west coast into an oil depositary like Texas and Louisiana. They hope to ship oil from the Middle East to Arakan and then pipe it to the south China state of Yunnan, bypassing the entire trip through the Straits of Malacca to the East China Sea. In this way, Burma becomes a vital part of China’s energy security plan. Knowing the strategic importance of their natural resources and geographical location, however, the Burmese leaders are now trying to play the Russian card by seeking to build a strategic alliance with Moscow as well. This alliance with Russia would gain the Burmese generals another UN veto, just in case the Chinese get too cozy with the Americans in the Security Council. Burma is also turning to North Korea and Iran for assistance.

In this context, the United States has an important role to play in Burma but must share leadership with the Chinese. Only the Chinese have the necessary influence to convince the ruling generals to find a durable solution for Burma.

A New U.S. Policy

The Burmese junta has barely flinched in the face of the suspension of economic aid, the imposition of an arms embargo, the ban on U.S. visas for senior junta leaders, and the ban on new U.S. investment in Burma. UN special representative Ibrahim Gambari has recently returned empty handed from his seventh visit to the country. It’s time for the new American administration to review its policy. The U.S. policy of imposing unilateral trade and investment sanctions against Burma has proven to be a failure on all fronts. Forcing U.S. firms to disengage from Burma has harmed American economic interests and done nothing to improve the living conditions or human rights of the people of Burma. Furthermore, unilateral sanctions have alienated American allies in the region and strengthened the hand of China.

In light of worsening conditions in Burma and significant changes in global power politics since the turn of the millennia, a change in strategy is needed. To best achieve U.S. objectives, this strategy should leverage all four major instruments of power — economic, military, information, and diplomacy. A more focused approach consisting of smart sanctions coupled with diplomacy is necessary to force the recalcitrant military junta to respond positively. The Obama administration should lead a new effort to push the key regional states to act in unison, even as the U.S. Congress continues to highlight abuses and sustain the faith of the Burma’s various opposition forces.

A smart precondition before the Obama administration offers any carrots would be to insist that the Burmese junta unclench its fist by releasing political prisoners including Burma’s Nobel laureate Aung San Sui Kyi. The administration should also consider a high-profile special envoy for Burma. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, for instance, has visited Burma and is familiar with regional politics.

As in the Six Party talks with North Korea, the United States and China should take the lead but bring in all major global powers to have their say and to speak in one voice. Instead of China mediating between the United States and the Burmese government, the United States and China must act together to find common ground and then, in turn, act as honest brokers in a discussion among Burmese stakeholders.

Unlike Vietnam and Iraq, Burma retains a heritage of democratic governance established in the wake of post-colonial rule. In 1988, a strong democratic opposition party gained the political validation of tens of millions of Burmese people across starkly different ethnic and demographic groups. Outside powers did not create this opposition; U.S.-led operatives didn’t form the National League for Democracy to undermine the legitimacy of an unfriendly government.

By teaming up with China, the United States can devise a policy that both respects this democratic opposition and also reaches out to the current Burmese government. If the two great powers can resolve their differences over Burma policy, despite different political systems, then they can set an example for the undemocratic Burmese government and the democratic opposition to achieve a compromise that can bring Burma, finally, into the 21st century.

Kanbawza Win was a former secretary of foreign affairs to the Burmese prime minister. He is now dean of students at AEIOU (the Burmese University in Diaspora) at Chiangmai University Thailand, an adjunct professor of the School of International Studies at Simon Fraser University of British Columbia, Canada, and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.