Burma's ruling junta leader Gen. Than Shwe, left, meets with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2010 in Beijing. Than Shwe is on a five-day visit in China since Tuesday, seeking backing from his country's strongest ally for November elections that mark the first nationwide balloting in two decades.

By Aye Chan

Aye Chan is a historian and professor at Kanda University of International Studies Japan. After studying at Kyoto University, PhD in history of Burma, .he was detained in Burma’s jail for 7 years from 1990 to 1997 for pro-democracy movement. Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Nobel Peace laureate who is currently under house arrest the military Junta, was also a researcher at Kyoto University during the same period.

Burmese Junta leader Than Shwe arrived in Beijing on September 9, 2010, on a state visit, two months before the so-called Multi-party general elections were scheduled to be held in accordance with the new 2008 constitution in Burma. Those who observed the current events unfolding in Burma knew that he was going to seek the recognition of Chinese leaders of “ the government by the military” to be formed after the elections. Than Shwe, whose regime is often criticized in the International Community for the country’s human rights records and political repression, said to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that he appreciated China’s aid and support over the decades. Beijing welcomes present development in Burma, viewing it as one step forward towards democracy. China furthermore extended a loan of $4.2 billion, without interest; obviously, China has showed its confidence in Burma’s ruling junta and the future government run by the military after the forthcoming elections.[1]

For years the debate continues on whether Burma has become a strategic pawn of China since the early 1990s. In the geo-political dimension, Burma is important for China in the context of being a “land-bridge” for its Tri-Junction situation between China, India, and the ASEAN. By the Irrawaddy River which is navigable all the way to Bhamo, near to the Chinese border, and from the Burma-controlled Coco Islands ( about 30 kilometers north of the Indian Controlled Andaman Islands), the Chinese navy could rear up from the Indian Ocean in a matter of only a few hours. China has been endowed with a shortcut across Burma that reduces the journey of its vessels by 3300 kilometers (or five to six days), instead of having to pass through the straits of Malacca.

In 1994, China reportedly completed construction of radar and electronic surveillance facilities on the Coco Islands, which have been given to China on lease. A deep water port is being constructed on the Ramree Island off the Burmese coast in the Bay of Bengal. The military installation on the Southern tip of Burma (formerly known as Victoria Point) close to Sabang, the northern point of Sumatra, Indonesia, aroused suspicion among the Western allies and India.[2]

The international diplomacy of Beijing in the twenty-first century is a modified version of the traditional tributary system of Old Imperial China, one that maintained the neighboring countries in the south as satellites in the Sino-Centric Orbit. It seems that the policy of Mongol (Yuan) Dynasty of the Landmass Empire of Eurasia was combined with the Ming Dynasty’s policy of invigorating the maritime commerce in the Eastern Seas. The present-day Chinese leaders may have well understood Alfred Mahan’s theory that the influence of a government would be felt in the most legitimate manner in its maintenance of an armed navy to protect its sea routes.

Currently Beijing’s strategic aim seems to be the command of whole South China Sea, where China has disputed for its sovereignty over hundreds of islands with Southeast Asian countries. China never wanted the presence of American Naval power in the Pacific, seeing it as a remnant of the Cold War years. The Chinese aggressive diplomacy in the Senkaku Islands Incidents has recently proved that China wants to show itself not only as a rising economic power but also as a rising military power in the Pacific.

It is certain that Beijing has a plan to form a sphere of maritime power that would encircle India to also check the growth of Indian Naval power in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese have built naval bases in Marao in Maldives, claiming that those bases are only for securing energy supplies. In recent years, however, the Chinese nuclear submarines have become ubiquitous in the Indian Ocean. Besides its influence over Burma and Maldives, China has recently become the largest donor of Sri Lanka, supplanting Japan and China’s “Soft Power Policy” by successfully building a deep water port at Chittagong in Bangladesh, simultaneously strengthening more friendly relations with Pakistan and Iran.

Burma became a close ally of China with North Korea after the United States placed broad economic sanctions against it after the crackdown of the democratic movement in 1988 and the junta’s annulment of the 1990 elections (which Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory). The European Union also imposed economic sanctions on the junta, putting direct pressure on the military regime in support of the democracy movement in the country. The poor human rights record of Burma has continuously been denounced in the international community since the 1990s. Measures have varied; in 2006, a United Nations resolution firmly called on the military regime to end its systematic violation of human rights; in January 2007, China and Russia vetoed a draft resolution of the U.N. Security Council, for Burma to respect human rights and begin actual national democratization.[3]

After its establishment of close ties with China, Burma entered into the negotiation with North Korea, a pariah state that the top brass of the Burmese army wanted to emulate. The Burmese generals seemingly thought that the Western powers would pay more attention or would change their attitude towards them if Burma was to own nuclear power like North Korea. Burma cut off diplomatic relations with North Korea after the Rangoon Incident in 1983, in which the North Korean agents attempted to assassinate the South Korean President at the time, Chun Doo-huan. North Korea never apologized to Burma for this incident, but relations were normalized again in April 2007. Under the pretext of a U.S. threat, Burma and North Korea are strengthened their strategic ties. North Korean experts helped the Burmese Army begin constructing a tunnel system for military installations in Naypyidaw (the new capital), and also provided nuclear technology, and biological and chemical weaponries. Some observers wonder if, ironically, all these projects could be possible without the green light from Beijing.

According to the 2008 constitution, then, the international community knows that there would be no free elections in Burma and, as opponents announced, this was clearly an attempt to legitimize military power within the format of civilian rule. Article 59(F) bars a citizen married to a foreigner from competing in the elections, a clause clearly aimed at Aung San Suu Kyi. The key ministries, including Home, Justice, and Defense, would remain under control of the military. A quarter of the 440 seats of the People’s Congress (Lower House) were reserved for military officials.

Twenty members of the junta (Cabinet), including Prime Minister Thein Sein, have been retired from their military posts for running as the candidates of the junta-sponsored USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party). The USDP was set up and supported by the generals since 1993. It was financially supported by the junta, and organized like a military institution, free from any restrictions with its branches omnipresent in the whole country. Without freedom of media or expression, the election cannot be either free or fair, said the NLD Party spokesman Ne Win.[4] The National League for Democracy was officially disbanded for boycotting the elections. There was only a limited time for other parties to register, to recruit their candidates, and to campaign for the elections. The United States Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell noted, “What we have seen to date leads us to believe that these elections will lack international legitimacy.[5]

An Axis of Evil between North Korea and Burma has become the threat to the nuclear-free Southeast Asia. Sino-Indian rivalry, the stretch of Chinese maritime defense line in the Indian Ocean, and the Chinese buildup of naval power in the South China Sea are the signs of the beginning of a new Cold War in the East, in the Southeast and South Asia. Japan must ensure if its lifelines of commerce from the Persian Gulf to the Japan Sea are safe enough. Perhaps the geographical term “Indian Ocean” may indeed not be changed; the historical term South Sea (Nan-hai), however, was changed to “Minami Shina Kai.”

[1]AFP 9:9:10 (4:14 PM); BBC

[2]Pon Kin Shee. Ritsumeikan Annual Review of International Studies , 2002 Vol. I, 33-34.

[3]UN documentation research (http://www.un.org/depts/dhl/resguide/scact2007.htm)

[4]AP 9:8:10 (2:40 PM)

[5]New York Times (August: 142010)