Burma Becomes New Front for US-China Confrontation as CCP Seeks to Regain Influence: Expert

March 22, 2021 Updated: March 22, 2021

Daisuke Kondo, a China expert in Japan, recently wrote an article about how Burma is as important to the United States and China as Taiwan is to these two powers. According to Kondo, the situation in Burma now deserves even more attention as Beijing is trying to regain the influence it lost on Burma from the United States after the military coup.

Since that coup in Burma (officially known as Myanmar), Beijing has demanded the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) political party. However, Beijing has also blocked the United Nations from imposing sanctions on the Burmese military. Chinese state-run media Xinhua avoided calling it a “coup,” instead calling it a “cabinet reshuffle.”

The military’s crackdown on protesters continues. On March 14, at least 40 people were killed in Yangon’s Hlaing Tharyar industrial area during anti-coup protests, Reuters reported. Anger has been directed at Chinese companies in Burma over allegations that Chinese authorities covertly support the country’s military. On the same day, several factories were set ablaze, including Global Fashion, a Chinese-owned company, and Tsang Yih, a Taiwanese-owned shoe manufacturer.

On March 16, thousands of residents fled the industrial area amid fears of further bloodshed and after the army placed it and five other townships in Yangon under martial law following the weekend violence, according to Reuters.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been accused of protecting Burma’s military government because of its geostrategic position—it is where South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia meet, and it is located between China and India, the two regional giants. China built a Sino-Burma oil and gas pipeline project in Burma, which opened in 2013, and has become one of the strongholds of Chinese economic and military expansion.

Kondo, a special editorial board member of Shukan Gendai (Modern Weekly), a weekly Japanese tabloid, wrote that with the United States and China once again going head-to-head in the country, the Biden administration will need to abandon its policies of appeasement in order to contain the CCP.

As a journalist, Kondo visited North Korea twice with former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. He studied at Peking University in 1995-1996, and then served as the representative of Kodan Press in Beijing. He once wrote for The Economic Observer, a famous economic magazine in China, and has authored books on China issues. He is also familiar with the political situation in Southeast Asia, having conducted interviews in Burma and other Southeast Asian countries for many years.

Kondo expressed reservations about whether the CCP was behind the coup. He believes that after the Burmese military began to carry out democratization in 2011, the military also started to approach the United States, shifting from “pro-China” to “pro-United States and pro-China.” On the other hand, the CCP has engaged in equal diplomacy between the military and Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD to maintain its influence in Burma, he added.

Military Shifts

Kondo pointed out that in 2011 Burma ended its military regime and made the transition to democracy. In the decade that followed, Burma’s domestic and foreign affairs transformed. The military and the political party NLD have redivided their rights and interests, during which there were constant conflicts.

In international relations, Beijing previously had tremendous influence over Burma, but the United States also began to have an influence. The reason for this is that former President Thein Sein, who is a retired general, made a major change in foreign policy. Kondo says he switched from a “one-sided pro-Beijing” approach to a “Beijing and Washington” approach.

For instance, in September 2011 Thein Sein announced the suspension of the Myitsone Dam project, which was signed between China and Burma in December 2009 during Xi Jinping’s tenure as deputy leader of China. Its suspension may have been an embarrassment to Xi.

According to Kondo, two months after the project’s suspension, Xi asked the then-Burmese foreign minister to come to Beijing to explain the situation. On Nov. 28, Min Aung Hlaing, Burma’s commander-in-chief, and the one who initiated the coup in February this year, went to Beijing to explain, stressing repeatedly that “relations with China would not be shaken in the future” to calm Xi’s anger.

The next day, however, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was invited by President Thein Sein to visit Burma, becoming the first U.S. secretary of state to set foot in the country in 56 years. The following year, in November 2012, then-President Barack Obama visited Burma and gave a speech at Yangon University.

Kondo said a series of foreign policy shifts by Burma’s military government have caused the CCP to fall out of favor, while U.S. influence began to expand rapidly.

It is reported that the construction of the China-Burma oil and gas pipelines officially began in June 2010 in Burma. The pipeline falls in line with China’s “Belt and Road” Initiative, which allows China’s imports of crude oil to circumvent the crowded Malacca Strait. The total length of the oil pipeline is about 479 miles (771 kilometers), linking Burma’s deep-water port of Kyaukphyu in the Bay of Bengal with Kunming in Yunnan Province of China. The natural gas pipeline will extend further from Kunming to Guizhou and Guangxi in China, running a total of 1,700 miles (2,806 kilometers). The pipeline started to deliver gas in 2013 and oil in 2017.

Biden Administration’s Appeasement

Following the military coup in Burma, Washington imposed sanctions on 10 military personnel and three companies of the military-affiliated Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) on Feb. 1. Two more military generals were added to the list on Feb. 22.

On Feb. 19, U.S. President Joe Biden attended his first G7 meeting after taking office, in which attention was drawn to how to deal with the Burma issue. However, in the G7 statement released after the meeting, the word “Myanmar” was not even included, triggering various comments. One view is that the Biden administration is worried that too much pressure on Burma’s military could push it to move closer to Beijing. In this regard, Kondo said that the sanctions against the 10 Burmese military generals and other measures seemed harsh, but in fact, they have little effect on the military. The Biden administration has shown the characteristics of an “appeasement government” in dealing with Burma.

Beijing, reflecting on the termination of the Myitsone Dam, has adopted an equal diplomatic strategy toward Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD, and the military, which has gained its desired results. In April 2017 and April 2019, Suu Kyi attended a “Belt and Road” conference in Beijing and expressed her active support. Meanwhile, Xi Jinping visited Burma in 2020, where according to Chinese state media Xinhua, he and Suu Kyi agreed upon a “community of a shared future for China and Myanmar” (“community of a shared future” is a CCP political slogan).

According to Kondo, after the military coup, the CCP’s plan is to continue this equal diplomacy, acting as an intermediary between the two sides to lead the resolution of the Burma issue and, in the process, replace U.S. influence in the country.

The situation is worsening in Burma as the military’s crackdown on the people continues to escalate and the number of protesters killed by the security forces continues to grow. Kondo said that as Burma becomes a new front for the U.S.-China confrontation, democratic and liberal countries such as the United States and Japan need to implement effective actions against the military to deal with Burma’s crisis.