The missing link


from Press News, posted 04/08/2013 - 06:00

Recent events in Myanmar/Burma have raised some concerns that the West is getting the situation as wrong there as it did in the ‘Arab Spring’. Even so, Western attitudes towards the country are largely positive. For instance, the other day much was made of the government cutting the price of SIM cards by 99%, making mobile phones affordable for the general population for the very first time. As such, there is a perception that a land of opportunity has opened up in Myanmar/Burma for Western businesses, NGOs and diplomats, and generally there is a thirst for hard information on the country. (Not for nothing are we looking to publish a new book precisely meeting this need in the near future.)

As for China, this hardly figures in discussions on the latest news from Yangon. However, this ‘China blindness’ is a mistake, as can be seen in a few recent, seemingly unrelated events reported in the last week or so.

For months now, there have been widespread Buddhist attacks in Rakhine State on the Muslim minority Rohingya. On 1 April, however, claims were made that a motive for the ethnic cleansing was land clearances (marked “R” on the map below) near the southern terminal of the Shwe oil and gas pipelines, via which fuel is expected to be pumped to China by this coming June.

More anti-Muslim violence took place in central Burma in late March, in Meiktila (“M” on the map) to the south of Mandalay. Again, claims are now being made about the proximity of the town to the pipelines.

Following the pipelines further north, on 2 April The Irrawaddy quoted the Russian Interfax news agency as reporting that the security of the pipelines cannot be guaranteed because of renewed fighting in Kachin State (“K” on the map). All it would take is a stray bullet. (Strange, we thought the pipelines were underground.)

Meanwhile, on 4 March it was reported that the Indian Navy has strong indications that a fleet of Chinese nuclear submarines is making frequent forays into the Indian Ocean (22 such incidents in the past year).

What links these events (and others) is a key Chinese concern – energy security. At present, China is largely dependent on imported oil and gas, much of it transported via the Strait of Malacca. This natural choke-point could easily be closed in a conflict with (say) the United States but also it has long been recognised that the waterway is vulnerable to a terrorist attack (as pointed out years ago by this NIAS book that first raised the issues of modern piracy and terrorism in Southeast Asian waters).

To this end, China has sought to reduce its energy supply vulnerability by construction of overland oil and gas pipelines via Central Asia, skirting Russia (see map from our last post) – hence perhaps the above Interfax scare-mongering) – or up through Myanmar. To safeguard its sea route from the Persian Gulf to Myanmar, China has secured naval facilities in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar (its so-called ‘string of pearls’).

This situation is discussed in far greater detail in two recent NIAS Press books.

Focusing almost exclusively on the Sino-Burmese relationship but very much aware of the recent US ‘tilt to Asia’ is Modern China-Myanmar Relations: Dilemmas of Mutual Dependence by David I. Steinberg and Hongwei Fan. What makes this study especially interesting is its strategic analysis (see for instance the map above) and that it draws on hitherto unavailable Chinese sources.

Looking at the situation from Central Asia (indeed with a wider Eurasian perspective), The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Eurasian Geopolitics: New Directions, Perspectives, and Challenges, edited by Michael Fredholm, brings together a whole range of continent-wide issues – not just energy security but also border disputes, inter-state rivalry, economic cooperation, infrastructural development, Islamist dissent, terrorism and separatism, the Afghanistan war, other military threats and much more – and weaves them into an interesting geopolitical picture.

Aside from the present North Korean sideshow (where another NIAS book is helpful), much can be learned about current international relations in the greater Asian region – and especially about some of the factors driving Chinese foreign policy – by reading these two books. (All we need now are the scholarly reviews confirming that opinion. Sadly, academic journals seem to move at quite a different pace than international events.)


 

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