The Burmese factor in Thai-Sino relations

By Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation
Published on June 8, 2009

WHILE THE TRIAL of Aung San Suu Kyi was delayed, Burma has been acting with alacrity in the past few days with a two-pronged offensive – to disrupt the Thai-Burma border, and to drive a wedge in Thai-Chinese cooperation on Burma.

The attacks on the Karen National Union along the Thai-Burma border beginning last week fit in with the pattern established in the past two decades. These onslaughts will cause concern among the Thai security forces about the influx of refugees and disrupt border trade. Indeed, they were timed to create maximum chaos among Thai decision-makers. This armed offensive, part of the comprehensive Burmese national defence strategy against Thailand, has been used time and again with satisfying success due to the predictable responses of the Thai armed forces and bureaucracy.

Whenever assertive Thai diplomacy towards Burma is in the making – this time around the Abhisit government’s attitude was the case in point – the porous Thai-Burmese border immediately turns into a conflict zone. Then, Rangoon’s additional pressure would be placed on trade and energy sectors.

The border attacks on minority groups would follow after wide-publicity of comments made by Thai officials or politicians on the negative impact if Thai-Burmese relations were disrupted. After May 19, Rangoon did exactly that. The Burmese junta-controlled media have been criticising Thailand both as the Asean chair and as its Western neighbour for violating the non-interference principle. None of them have ever questioned their government’s commitment and compliance to the Asean Charter or being part of the grouping’s collective responsibility. Comments by Noppadol Pattama and General Sonthi Boonyaratglin last week on the Abhisit government’s policy towards Burma were used to highlight the dissident views within Thai society. Indeed, they made the comments as a favour to Burma. Sonthi’s views were typical and the most damaging. He had the audacity to say that if Thailand has a conflict with Burma, it will face defeat. What boggles the mind is that Sonthi, the former coup leader, is now aspiring to become prime minister.

In February, Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya urged energy-related agencies, especially the Petroleum Authority of Thailand (PTT), to review its energy policy and take a more holistic approach on Burma. The Thai energy need has increased due to continued industrialisation in the past decades, which has further deepened the country’s dependence on Burma’s energy and natural resources. Somehow, the reckless top echelon of the Thai energy sector is very recalcitrant due to the web of vested-interest groups to think outside the box. Rather, they prefer to be the subject of Burma’s constant blackmail. Sad but true, the Stockholm syndrome is not only proliferating but firmly gripping the movers and shakers in the energy sector.

As Asean chair, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has proved to be an effective leader even when he was besieged by domestic turmoil at various regional and international outings on behalf of Asean. But on Thai-Burmese relations, he must be a thousand-fold firmer in pressing concerned agencies to cooperate with the armed forces and diplomats to come up with a long-term defence strategy on Burma. So far, Thailand does not have any centralised blueprint, most of them are piecemeal and ad hoc approaches.

The political situation in Burma will feature high on the agenda of Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya’s visit to Beijing on Wednesday and a subsequent visit by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva from June 24-26. The two nations have been consulting each other on their pariah neighbour to ascertain whether their respective positions would not undermine each other.

Thailand and China are facing a similar dilemma dealing with Burma emanating from their dependency on natural gas and resources imports and long shared common borders. China and Burma have a 2,192km border while the Thai-Burma border stretches over 2,004 km.They have been exposed to a myriad of problems, including illegal migrant workers, drugs and human trafficking. In addition, various armed minority groups are also active along the border.

In the past Burma’s internal situation was a taboo in Thai-China relations. Occasionally, they took up the issue and agreed to disagree. During 2001-2006, however, Thailand’s position on Burma was akin to China’s – do not rock the boat. Both nations defended Burma regionally and internationally urging the international community to allow Burma to settle its own problems. They no longer walk on the Burmese side.

Given the severity of international condemnation of Suu Kyi’s trial and the ongoing oppression inside Burma, both countries realise they have to work closely together to engage Burma in a more coordinated way. Otherwise, they could be targets of manipulation by Rangoon. After the Asean Charter is in force, there is more room for Beijing to express solidarity with the grouping on a broad range of issues including the situation in Burma.

The recent joint statements from the UN Security Council as well as Asean-Asem (Asia-Europe Meeting) were an affidavit of Beijing’s pragmatism. Continued strong support of the Asean chair’s statement on Burma has augured well with the current sentiment within the top Chinese leadership who have for years been looking for a unified Asean position on Burma that they can back and use as a rallying point. As a matter of policy, China will support the Asean collective position on Burma.

From Beijing’s viewpoint, instability in neighbouring countries directly impact on its own security situation. Currently, four out of 14 countries sharing borders with China are in perpetual crisis and chaos or luan in Chinese. China is concerned about the possible spill-over effects of fighting against the al-Qaeda and Taleban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. With the rising tension in the Korean Peninsula in recent weeks, China is sitting near a time bomb, if it fails to convince North Korea to stand down on its nuclear missile threats.

With Beijing’s growing clout in world politics so its international responsibility becomes bigger. China cannot be seen as an indifferent player. Worse of all would be the perception that China is undermining the Asean charter and the Asean chair, which happens to be Thailand, a close friend. Deep down, China would like to see stable Thai-Burma as well as Burma-Asean ties. However, under the current circumstance, China would need to play the balancing act between its own national interest and rising expectations in Asean and international community.

Abhisit on behalf of Asean must strongly appeal to China for support and impress on Burma to accommodate the grouping’s concern. A stronger Asean is good for China. A stable Burma is good for both China and Asean. Then, the grouping can concentrate on its internal integration and community building. China can give its full energy and resources to its ever increasing international engagement.

Furthermore China’s much-needed support would create a reservoir of goodwill within Asean – the score card Beijing might find useful in the future. After Thailand, Vietnam will assume the next Asean chair. As is well-known, Vietnam has long-standing conflicting claims with China over the resource-rich group of islands known as the Spratly and Paracels in South China Sea.

Truth be told, the reason Burma was admitted to Asean on a fast-track in 1997 was mainly due to the Asean senior officials’ decision in January 1995 to check China’s advance southward to the mainland Southeast Asia. Embracing Burma quickly was one measure to halt Beijing’s influence by enabling the regime to be part of the regional community.

For the first time, China has to face-off with the new regional situation – coping with two pivotal neighbours – one is strategically located giving Beijing access to two oceans and numerous logistic advantages and the other is a traditional friend and concurrently the Asean chair. Soon, China will show its true colour.

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