Myanmar shaping up as Beijing's main ally in Asia

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 June, 2007, 12:00am

Mainland forging strategic ties with southern neighbour

The mainland has been courting Myanmar in recent months, with leaders in Beijing having decided that the junta is now its most important ally in Asia.

Beijing's support for the military regime has strengthened immeasurably recently as Myanmar has become the cornerstone of its revised Southeast Asia strategy in the face of what Beijing regards as the growing and unwanted influence of the United States in the region.

Since the beginning of the year there has been a flurry of diplomatic and business visits between the two capitals, with the aim of boosting economic, trade and technology ties.

A mainland delegation led by Gu Xiulian, vice-chairwoman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress and president of the All-China Women's Federation, is now in Myanmar.

She is there as the president of the recently formed China-Asean Association, which aims to promote co-operation and communication, especially in politics, culture, business, technology and transport, between the mainland and its Association of Southeast Asian Nations' allies. The delegation includes government officials, legislators and a large contingent of businessmen.

Ms Gu met acting Myanmese Prime Minister Thein Sein this week in the new capital Naypyidaw, and agreed to further boost political and economic ties between the two countries, including co-ordinating their positions on international and regional issues.

More importantly for Myanmar, the China-Asean Association also signed a co-operation agreement with Myanmar's government-sponsored mass grass-roots organisation - the Union Solidarity and Development Association.

It is the first time the community movement, founded by Myanmar's top military leader, Senior General Than Shwe, has received international recognition. It has been shunned because of the regime's violent attempts to crush pro-democracy groups.

The mainlanders' visit follows Lieutenant-General Thein Sein's first major trip to the mainland, from which he returned last week. In Beijing he met top lawmakers and discussed a wide range of issues of concern to both sides.

Both countries are keen to boost bilateral trade and investment ties, as well as develop social and cultural exchange programmes.

The mainland is anxious to explore co-operation with Myanmar in almost all economic and business areas. During a provisional visit by mainland officials three months ago, 600 businessmen from both countries discussed mutual co-operation covering a wealth of resources.

Beijing decided a while back that Myanmar was crucial to the mainland's economic development, especially that of its backward southwestern regions. But while relationships have flourished, Beijing remained cautious, fearing instability in Myanmar could threaten security and stability in its sensitive border regions.

It also feared losing its investment should the regime fold, according to a senior official dealing with foreign-policy issues.

Beijing's greatest fear remains instability in Myanmar. More than a million mainlanders - farmers, workers and businessmen - have crossed into Myanmar in the last 10 years and are working and living there.

Mainland leaders worry that any upheaval would cause these people to flee back across the border, creating increased industrial and social unrest in the border regions.

In the past few years, mainland businessmen and provincial government enterprises have boosted their investment in Myanmar - Lashio, Mandalay and Muse are virtually Chinese cities now.

Even in Yangon, over the last two years mainland business has expanded enormously. They are also involved in building a special tax-free export zone around Yangon's port.

Beijing decided some time ago that the only way to ensure existing investment in Myanmar was to strengthen it.

'Some six months ago China's leaders sanctioned an increase in economic and business ties with Burma (Myanmar),' one mainland official said. Although Beijing is well aware that the junta's failure to implement political reform and release opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will cause it some problems, the leaders have decided it is a cross they can bear because of strategic priorities.

Beijing has long been eyeing the US' growing influence in the region, especially in what it regards as its own backyard and natural sphere of influence - Cambodia, Vietnam and, to some extent, Laos.

So it is unlikely Beijing will criticise the junta in Naypyidaw - publicly or privately.