Monday, December 28, 2009

Big brother focuses on stability in Burma

Monday, 28 December 2009 12:31 Brian McCartan

Bangkok, Thailand (Mizzima) - Chinese vice-president Xi Jinping’s visit to Burma over the weekend reaffirmed ties and resulted in the granting of exclusive rights to build and operate a controversial oil pipeline. The Chinese leader was also given assurances that stability would be maintained on the border. However, relations between Beijing and Naypyidaw have not always been so cordial over the past year.

The visit to Burma was part of a four nation tour that also included Cambodia, South Korea and Japan. The significance of Xi’s role in the weekend visit was seen by analysts as diplomatically introducing the probably future Chinese president to Burma’s leaders. It may also have been a show of support for the generals after several months of strained relations between the two countries.

Xi Jinping is widely believed to be the frontrunner to succeed current president Hu Jintao in 2012. Xi is currently the highest ranking member of the Secretariat of the Communist Party of China and ranked sixth in the Politburo’s Standing Committee. Although Xi was not selected as vice-chairman of the important Central Military Commission in September, he is still believed to be in a strong position.

The most significant outcome of the meeting was Xi’s overseeing the signing of an agreement granting exclusive rights to the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) to build and operate a crude oil pipeline. The 2,000 kilometer pipeline will extend from Burma’s western coast across much of the length of the country to China’s southwest Yunnan province and on to Chongqing. The pipeline operation will be run by CNPC-controlled South-East Asia Crude Oil Pipeline Ltd. which also received tax concessions and customs clearance rights to bring in construction materials as part of the deal.

Construction of the pipeline began in November and when completed is expected to carry an initial 12 million tons of crude oil a year. A crude oil port on the island of Kyaukpyu in Burma’s western Arakan State has been under construction by CNPC since in October. The port and the oil pipeline are part of an effort by China to avoid having to send tankers through the easily blocked Malacca Straits. In addition, a gas pipeline is planned to be built by CNPC to carry natural gas from the offshore Shwe gas field. The gas pipeline will pump 12 billion cubic units of gas per year to China when it comes online in 2012.

Burmese officials gave assurances to Xi that the junta would maintain security along the 771 kilometers of the pipeline that run through Burma. This is a contentious issue among human rights organizations which allege that the military’s efforts to secure the area will result in large-scale human rights abuses. Groups like environmental and human rights watchdog Earth Rights International say similar operations in the 1990’s to secure the route of the Yadana gas pipeline to Thailand caused widespread human rights violations.

Burma has become an increasing important source of natural resources for China, especially oil and gas. Beijing also sees Burma as essential to plans to develop its landlocked southwestern Yunnan province. To this end, China is actively promoting the construction of road networks and port facilities to make the transportation of goods through Burma for export.

Beijing’s economic influence has grown since the 1980’s when it cut support for the Burmese Communist Party in favour of better relations with the central government. Bilateral trade between China and Burma amounted to US$2.6 billion in 2008 according to Chinese official statistics, up 26.4 percent year on year. China has also risen to become Burma’s fourth largest foreign investor with contracted investment touching US$1.3 billion by the end of 2008.

China’s overriding concern with Burma is stability, both within the country in order to safeguard its strategic economic interests and along their mutual border. It needs to ensure that its access to Burma’s natural resources is secure and that its access to the Indian Ocean is guaranteed. It also worries about conflict along its border spilling over and destabilizing its southwestern region.

That stability was jeopardized earlier this year when the Burmese Army launched a brief offensive against Kokang rebels in August that pushed some 37,000 refugees across the border with China. The attack upset Beijing which had expressly asked the regime to refrain from any military actions until after it celebrated the 60th anniversary of communist rule in October.

Although China withdrew its support for the Burmese Communist Party, it maintained ties with the various ethnic armies that grew out of its collapse in 1989. This has allowed China to maintain some influence in Burmese politics and the groups provide a convenient buffer against possibility political instability within Myanmar.

The junta appeared unconcerned about the possible repercussions from Beijing. Some Burma watchers believe that by taking out the smallest of the border groups, the junta was testing China’s resolve to back the others and what actions it might take should the army attack the other groups. Although China issued a rare rebuke to the regime for the action, Beijing gave little outward support to the ethnic armies.

A flurry of meetings between Burmese and Chinese diplomatic and military officials took place afterward and relations have outwardly approached normal. “Myanmar will, as always, and working hard with the Chinese, preserve the peace and stability of the border areas,” Burma’s leader Senior General Than Shwe told Xi during his visit. “China and Myanmar share a long joint border, and Myanmar deeply understands and knows that maintaining peace and stability on the border is extremely important to both countries.”

The statement was likely meant to reassure China that some sort of arrangement will be worked out with the rebellious ethnic groups on the border that will not result in fighting and the resultant tens of thousands of refugees flooding across the border.

Tensions remain high on the border as ethnic-based armies resist attempts by the junta to force them to join a Border Guard Force under the Burmese Army’s leadership. The groups feel that joining would result in their losing any power and negotiating ability with the generals. They are currently trying to negotiate better deals with the junta before a deadline at the end of this month when they are either to agree or face renewed fighting.

Sources close to the ethnic groups say that much backroom negotiating is going on between the government, Chinese officials and ethnic leaders to avert further conflict to arrange a deal before a deadline at the end of the year. In a move which could be read as a shot across Burma’s bows, former Chinese volunteers and Wa veterans of fighting in the 1970’s have begun organizing in China, say exile media groups Mizzima and Shan Herald Agency for News, to find ways of assisting should fighting break out. This type of move would likely need the tacit approval of Chinese authorities.

Border tensions notwithstanding, China has remained a staunch supporter of Burma in international forums. This is especially the case in the United Nations where Beijing has frequently supported Burma through blocking moves by the US and its allies aimed at censuring the regime through the Security Council. During this weekend’s visit Xi assured Burma of Beijing’s continued support.

In addition, the Chinese delegation put forward a four point proposal to improve relations with Naypyidaw. The proposal suggested maintaining high-level contacts, deepening reciprocal cooperation, safeguarding peace and prosperity of the border area and strengthening coordination on international and regional affairs.

China’s proposal may be in reaction to recent US moves in an attempt to safeguard its interests in an area that until now it has had almost monopolistic control. Chinese officials are reportedly concerned by America’s new engagement policy with Burma. Although the US has so far not received any concrete indications that its overtures will amount to anything beyond diplomatic exchanges, the potential is there for America to increase its influence with the generals, particularly after nation-wide elections scheduled for next year.

Although often referred to as an ally of Burma, Chinese officials are aware of the limitations to their relationship with the generals. They are reportedly closely watching developments between the US and Burma in order to gauge how serious both sides are about improving relations. Any softening in relations between the two countries would undoubtedly be viewed as a threat to Beijing’s strategic interests in the region. Chinese officials are worried that engagement with the US could empower the generals to take less notice of Chinese concerns and negate advantages gained for the security of its seaborne lines of communication through avoiding the Malacca Straits.

Chinese officials are also concerned about the junta’s stated ‘roadmap to democracy’ wherein democratic general elections are slated for next year. While most exile groups and Burma watchers believe the elections will be anything but free and fair, the potential for political instability exists. China is less concerned about whether Burma is a democracy or a dictatorship, as long as whatever government is in power maintains stability within the country and does not pose a threat to Chinese interests.

Although the junta’s controversial new constitution has upset human rights activists and the political opposition, China is likely pleased that the military has made sure through provisions within the document that it will maintain control over the vital organs of the government. During the weekend visit, Xi gave support to Burma’s leaders saying China is happy to see Burma moving towards democracy and national reconciliation, and is confident that the Burmese government would realize its political targets and achieve national stability and growth.

Burma’s show of independence with its border offensive and a new American engagement policy have given Chinese leaders reason to rethink their Burma policy in order to safeguard their strategic interests. Xi’s visit provided Beijing with a way to show continued high-level support for the country’s military rulers. As Burma moves toward elections next year, this support may be crucial.