China’s challenge to America and its drive for global primacy will dominate international politics for the foreseeable future. This contest will play out across the full spectrum of international affairs: economics, politics, science and technology, ideology and geographic/territorial control.
A quick glance at the map will suggest where China’s initial territorial ambitions are focused. China is at the geographic center of East Asia. Southeast Asia sits like a southern portico — a potential bridge between interior/southern China and the tropical seas along the equator. For China, the attraction of Southeast Asia is obvious. It is a region rich in natural resources with relatively prosperous, relatively small states that can be natural trade and investment assets for China. Moreover, there are large, relatively prosperous, primarily urban, ethnic Chinese populations throughout the region thanks to two centuries of prior migration. The attraction and importance of the region grew exponentially when China embarked on its ambitious national modernization program at the beginning of the 1980s. China’s economists quickly determined that the sea would be critical for China’s future. China’s long coastline provided access to international markets and foreign investment; and those same seas would be critical to China’s defense. In the 19th and 20th centuries the threats to China came from the sea — first the Europeans and then the Japanese. A modern, powerful China would require a modern, powerful navy. This became all the more vivid as China became increasingly dependent on oil imports from the Middle East. The oil arrived via sea lanes through Southeast Asia and the South China Sea.
One other key consideration elevated Southeast Asia into a priority for Chinese strategists. Beijing has long taken it as an article of faith that America, the established global superpower, viewed China as a rival that must be contained and “kept down.” As part of its strategy of unfriendly intent, the Americans had surrounded China with a ring of military encirclement — with U.S. forces stationed in Japan, South Korea and Australia (and a quasi-alliance with Taiwan). Add to this the U.S. 7th Fleet actively patrolling the sea lanes between Okinawa and the Middle East. As Chinese strategists look at this “encirclement” they also look for weak spots — where China can “break out.” The answer is Southeast Asia, the perceived weak link in America’s “containment” of China. As a consequence, the countries of Southeast Asia have been the focus of Chinese efforts to build economic, diplomatic and security ties displacing those that already exist with the United States. The signature Chinese program has been the “Belt and Road” initiative announced a few years ago. It intends to move trillions of dollars of Chinese infrastructure spending into Southeast Asia — knitting Southeast Asia economically and physically with China, itself. At the same time Beijing continues to search for opportunities to build defense/security ties with Southeast Asian governments.
One of the most interesting and consequential targets of China’s ambitions is Myanmar (aka Burma), which has a long common border with China. For most of the 70-plus years since it gained independence from British colonial rule, Burma was ruled by an oppressive, brutal and economically incompetent military junta. The country is naturally endowed with abundant natural resources including tropical timber, rich rice lands, oil and gas and precious gems (sapphires, rubies, jade). Instead of building a prosperous economy, the generals spent the nation’s wealth on a series of interminable small wars intended to establish control over ethnic minorities in Burma’s borderlands.
Periodically, the long-suffering Burmese population went into the streets in protest, only to be brutally suppressed. This produced international sanctions and deeper poverty. It also produced a profound dependence on the one major country prepared to overlook the human rights abuses — China. China supplied the economic support and military equipment necessary to keep the army in power. Meanwhile, Burma became ever more isolated and ever more impoverished.
In 1990, this writer conducted interviews with senior Burmese military officers and asked them whether they were comfortable with their deep-seated dependence on their huge northern neighbor. The answer was decidedly “no.” They felt trapped and they didn’t know how to escape. But in 2010 the junta finally embraced the obvious strategy; they launched democratic political reforms that produced an elected civilian government (led by an internationally revered Nobel Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi). Suddenly, dramatically, everything changed. President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton paid two visits. American and other investors showed up, as did NGOs offering advice on everything from a free press to how to be a modern civil servant. On the foreign policy front, Burma moved to disengage from China’s suffocating embrace. A major, and deeply unpopular, Chinese hydroelectric project was put on hold. Chinese investments in ports and infrastructure were subject to review. The Burmese military sought relations with its Southeast Asian neighbors as well as India and Japan. But above all, the Burmese wanted to develop close ties with the Pentagon.
Everything seemed hopeful and possible. Then in 2015 it all fell apart when the Burmese army launched a scorched earth assault on the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority, deeply despised by the majority Burman Buddhist population. Nearly a million Rohingya, under desperate circumstances, fled for their lives across the border into neighboring Bangladesh. There they currently reside, trapped in squalid camps with no place to go. The resulting international outcry destroyed all the good will built up over the previous five years. The Burmese government responded with a tone-deaf defense of the indefensible.
Guess what the other consequence of the Rohingya disaster has been? China has re-emerged in its former role as Burma’s “only true friend,” ready with an open checkbook and an ambitious agenda to re-establish Chinese influence. Last Friday, China’s president, Xi Jinping, paid a state visit to Burma with all the attendant pomp and ceremony. The two governments reportedly signed several agreements (no public details), including a port to be built with Chinese money and Chinese workers and that would potentially be available to the Chinese navy. Back to the future.