Leaning to All Sides: What the United States May Learn from Chinese Political Warfare in Burma

Leaning to All Sides

What the United States May Learn from Chinese Poltiical Warfare in Burma

By Donovan C. Chau, Ph.D.
Originally published in the July-September 2012 edition of Special Warfare

“You lean to one side … To sit on the fence is impossible; a third road does not exist…. Not only in China but also in the world, without exception, one either leans to the side of imperialism or to the side of socialism. Neutrality is mere camouflage and a third road does not exist.”1

Burma today is a country with little public infrastructure, institutions or civil society. Fractures and fissures within the society are widespread: between the military junta and the ethnic hill tribes, the junta and the general populace, the hill tribes and the general populace and amongst the hill tribes themselves. In political circumstances such as this, the United States has generally followed the same policy formula: non-military pressure through economic sanctions coupled with incessant calls for democratic changes (including the refrain of multi-party elections and respect for human rights), all the while providing moral support to the pro-democracy or moderate elements of the political establishment within the country. In other words, the U.S. takes a wait-and-see approach. In the mean time, other countries are given the opportunity for more direct strategic influence. For over half a century, one country has followed such a tangible, strategic approach in Burma — the People’s Republic of China. As a result, China has gained influence with the junta and the hill tribes and, to a lesser extent, the Burmese population. But why has China desired strategic influence in Burma? And how has it gained a foothold in the country? An examination of both China’s strategic intentions and strategic actions in Burma holds much insight as the United States seeks to act more prudently across the Asia-Pacific region in the 21st century.

Strategic aims

In October 1989, a high-level Burmese military delegation paid a 12-day visit to China. Reports later indicated that China and Burma signed an arms deal worth approximately $1.2 billion.2 Although the two countries shared similar repressive, anti-Western authoritarian regimes, China may have been more interested in what lay beyond Burma. Indeed, China’s strategic purposes have been manifold in Burma, generally falling into economic and military categories.

Cross-border, overland caravan trade on both sides of the Chinese-Burmese border has been in existence since at least the 15th century. Indeed, the vast majority of Chinese in modern-day Burma migrated into the country over land.3 What this demonstrates is a long-held view of Burma as a place of economic enterprise as well as an economic outlet. Since China’s economic rise began in the mid-1980s, it should come as no surprise that China would consider the possibility of opening a more permanent trade route through Burma.

With a burgeoning civilian economy in the late-1980s, China’s southwest province of Yunnan was conducting informal foreign trade and commercial interaction with neighboring Southeast Asian countries. A lucrative market in smuggling and narco-trafficking was also taking place. In 1993, for example, trade between China and Burma was estimated at $1 billion, not including illegal activities.4 To facilitate a more international movement of goods and people, China desired the establishment of a trading port for its landlocked provinces, especially Yunnan. The Chinese press reported that the route through Burma would be 5,800 kilometers shorter than the route from Yunnan’s capitol, Kunming, to the nearest seaport (Shanghai).5 The economic imperative was a historical consideration that became a modern imperative.

China also desired influence in Burma because of its geographic location along the Bay of Bengal region, astride the Indian Ocean, and neighboring India. Since at least the 19th century, Burma had been viewed as a buffer state between India and China.6 Thus, either country with predominant strategic influence in Burma necessarily complicated the other’s security calculations. Since the end of the Cold War, China’s presence along Burma’s coast has raised India’s suspicions. A naval position on the Burma coastline could afford China the opportunity to monitor India’s movements, over land and sea. Such strategic positioning could be designed for a 21st century competition-in-the-making over the Indian Ocean between the world’s two largest populations.7

Yet, China’s intentions in Burma go beyond regional strategic competition. China also desires influence in Burma because of greater Chinese interests in sea lines of communication. Among the world’s most important shipping lanes, the Strait of Malacca connects the broader Indian Ocean with the Asia-Pacific region. With a foothold in Burma, China would be in a favorable strategic position vis-à-vis the strait in times of crisis. China’s position and activities in the waters off the southeastern Burmese coastline are particularly disconcerting to its traditional Asian rival, Japan, which is heavily dependent on the strait for strategic resources from the Middle East and Africa. Thus, China’s development of naval power coincides with its strategic interests in influencing key sea lines of communications.

A final strategic aim of China in Burma is central to its overall world view — to return to a place of centrality in international politics. The Communist Party of China has for the past three decades led breakneck economic development amidst generally peaceful surroundings. In order to continue its drive at world-power status, China requires Burma as a strategic ally or, in the very least, not a strategic nuisance. Part and parcel of this interest is China’s foreign policy views on sovereignty and territorial integrity. In the case of Burma, China has historically viewed significant portions of its territory as belonging to China, including Burma north of Myitkyina and the Shan and Wa States east of the Salween River, as far south as about 22°N.8 Taken together, China has a multitude of strategic aims in Burma — local, regional and global.

Strategic actions

Through the lens of political warfare, one may understand China’s strategic actions in Burma and how it has developed relationships with the junta and the hill tribes. Overt and covert, political warfare is a non-lethal instrument of grand strategy. Targeting groups and individuals, it comprises activities that are tangible with direct effects on peoples’ lives. Political-warfare operations include targeted economic aid, development projects, exchange visits, public pronouncements, as well as the training, arming and equipping of military or other forces. Political warfare’s purpose is determined by the user’s intent; its success, based on the extent to which it is based on detailed and factual information of the target group or individual.9 Even before its formal establishment, China used political warfare prominently in Burma.

To accommodate the growing trade with Burma, China undertook several infrastructure development projects in the 1990s. These projects demonstrated China’s awareness of the need to develop a strategic line of communication through Burma. In October 1992, Chinese engineers completed a bridge over the Shweli River. The bridge connected the Chinese border town of Ruili and the town of Muse in Burma. In addition, the Chinese upgraded the World War II-era Burma Road, which connected Lashio in northeastern Burma with Yunnan Province. Furthermore, the Chinese promised to build three new roads linking Yunnan with Burma’s northernmost state, Kachin.10 Through new and updated construction, roads became an important line of communication for China in Burma.

China took a similar route in developing additional lines of communication through Burma. In December 1993, China sold railroad equipment to Burma’s railway agency.11 Within its own borders, China constructed a railway from Kunming to Xiaguan, near Dali. The third component of the transportation link between China and Burma was the river line of communication. In March 1997, a Sino-Burmese study group investigated the possibility of water transportation from Yunnan into the Irrawaddy River Valley. The plan connected Bhamo, the northernmost port on the Irrawaddy River, to Minhla, 1,000 kilometers down the river. From Minhla, a road would be built across the Arakan Yoma mountain range, running via An to Kyaukpyu.12 Through a combination of infrastructure development projects, China developed strategic lines of communication through Burma to the Indian Ocean.13

The development of Burma’s transportation infrastructure gave China access to assist in Burma’s naval infrastructure. Chinese technicians helped the Burmese navy upgrade facilities and build bases. China also provided tangible assistance with the installation of surveillance and communications equipment. Since 1998, four electronic listening posts were strategically placed along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.14 Two posts were located on the Coco Islands, close to the Andaman Islands, and on Zadetkyi Island, near the mouth of the Strait of Malacca.15 The other two posts were located in Man-aung, along the northwestern coastline, and in Hainggyi, near the southwestern tip of Burma. Chinese engineers, technicians, instructors and naval officers were spotted at nearly all of the facilities. Clearly, China had developed tangible relations with Burma’s navy.16

Another example of China’s strategic actions in Burma involved two separate but related naval incidents. In August 1994, the Indian coast guard caught three boats fishing close to the Andaman Islands. Although the trawlers were flying Burmese flags, the crew of 55 was Chinese. Moreover, no fishing equipment was discovered on board, only radio communication and depth-sounding equipment. Three years later, reports revealed that two Chinese radar specialists had visited Burma’s southeastern seaboard. Accompanied by officers from the Burmese army engineering corps, the specialists spent two weeks at a radar station in the Mergui Archipelago, a similar facility at Zadetkyi, and a naval base on Saganthit Island near Mergui.17 In addition to these naval incidents, China signed a 30-year agreement with Burma in March 1997, allowing more than 200 Chinese fishing boats to operate in Burmese waters, a culmination of concerted Chinese political warfare targeting Burma’s strategic position along the Indian Ocean.

China has also long used political-warfare efforts to expand ties beyond the state in Burma. Early on after Burma gained independence in January 1948, elements within the Burmese Communist Party began to reach out to their Communist allies in China. In the early 1950s and again in the late 1960s, China provided direct support to what was known as the White Flag faction of the BCP. Training and arms were provided first to Burmese Communists, Sino-Burmese and Burmese-speaking Chinese in Yunnan.18 Later, the reconstituted BCP was comprised of Shan, Kachin, Wa and other ethnic tribes from both sides of the border. By the early 1970s, the anti-government forces controlled a strip of Shan State east of the Salween River along the Chinese border and forged alliances with other separatist groups among the Kachin and Shan.19 While ties with the BCP were reportedly broken in 1981, China continued to exert influence with anti-government elements in Burma.20

More recently, since 2008, it has been reported that Chinese intelligence personnel have begun operating with the anti-government hill tribes and their armies in Burma. These represent similar groups previously supported by China: the Karen and Shan in Burma’s east as well as the Chin and Arakanese, in the west.21 Perhaps not coincidentally, the ceasefire between the anti-government tribal forces unraveled more completely in summer 2011, with the failure of the government’s border guard force initiative despite China’s call for continued negotiations between all parties.22 The exact nature and extent of China’s political-warfare operations among Burma’s tribes remains unclear. But, given the historical experience, the Chinese may be revisiting old ties with the anti-government elements, which demonstrates pragmatic, long-term actions to further China’s strategic goals, regardless of changing policies of the Burmese government. Through the use of multiple forms of political warfare with the government and anti-government forces, China has achieved a strategic position in Burma, unlike the United States.

Continued moves

China has exploited the divisions and fissures within Burma for short- and long-term strategic benefit. Through the historical use of political warfare, it has divided its efforts, interacting with Burma’s military government as well as the anti-government elements among the hill tribes. This has demonstrated a strategic understanding of the landscape in the country, where stability is nonexistent and ethnic rights and the balance of ethnic power are critical, given the country’s more than 60 years of civil strife. The extent to which the United States comprehends these facts and nuances in Burma is unclear, as nothing clear is demonstrated in U.S. policy, recent changes included.

The U.S. government would be wise to think and act beyond the persistent calls for multi-party elections and human rights. Instead, the U.S. should nurture its newfound ties with the military junta while, at the same time, explore strategic ties with the hill tribes and their armies. Placing all U.S. hopes in the personage of Aung San Suu Kyi and the indigenous pro-democracy forces is narrow-minded and, more to the point, ignorant of the overall local conditions within Burma. Strategic influence in Burma is too important to leave to hopes and wishful thinking of politicians and policymakers in Washington, D.C. Concrete U.S. strategic actions are needed now to compensate for more than a half a century of uncreative and ineffective U.S. policy toward Burma. Such a policy starts on the ground, in the jungles and villages of Burma’s borderlands, leaning on all sides, not unlike the Chinese.  

Dr. Donovan C. Chau, Ph.D.,
is an assistant professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, Calif.


1. Mao Zedong’s 1949 On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship quoted in Conrad Brandt, Benjamin Schwartz, and John K. Fairbank, A Documentary History of Chinese Communism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952), 453-454.

2. Bertil Lintner, “Allies in Isolation: Burma and China Move Closer,” Jane’s Defence Weekly 14, no. 11 (September 15, 1990), 475.

3. A distinction between “Mountain Chinese” and “Maritime Chinese” in Burma may be made. Victor Purcell, The Chinese in Southeast Asia (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), 49.

4. Bertil Lintner, “Rangoon’s Rubicon,” Far Eastern Economic Review 156, no. 6 (February 11, 1993), 28.\

5. Xinhua News Agency cited in Bertil Lintner, “Burma Road,” Far Eastern Economic Review 160, no. 45 (November 6, 1997), 17.

6. Ross Munro, “China’s Waxing Spheres of Influence,” Orbis 38, no. 4 (Fall 1994), 590.

7. For a full-length explication, see Robert Kaplan, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power (New York: Random House, 2010).

8. “A Communist ‘Mistake,’” The Times (London), January 6, 1955, 6.

9. Donovan C. Chau, “Political Warfare – An Essential Instrument of U.S. Grand Strategy Today,” Comparative Strategy 25, no. 2 (April-June 2006): 114-115.

10. Lintner, “Rangoon’s Rubicon,” 28.

11. Munro, 590.

12. Lintner, “Burma Road,” 17.

13. In September 2009, the construction of oil and gas pipelines began from Kyaukpru Port, Arakan State, in Burma to Ruili, Yunnan, in China. U Tun Kyaw, “Sino-Burma Oil and Gas Pipelines to be Constructed in September,” Narinjara, August 22, 2009.

14. Ibid.

15. Bertil Lintner, “…But Stay on Guard,” Far Eastern Economic Review 161, no. 29 (July 16, 1998), 21.

16. The People’s Liberation Army Navy made its first port call visit to Burma in late August 2010. “Chinese Navy’s Escort Formation Arrives in Burma for Friendly Visit,” Xinhua Domestic Service, September 4, 2010.

17. Ibid.

18. Harold Hinton, China’s Relations with Burma and Vietnam: A Brief Survey (New York: Institute of Pacific Relations, 1958), 42.

19. Melinda W. Cook, “National Security,” in Burma: A Country Study, ed. Frederica M. Bunge, (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1984), 223-224.

20. Shelby Tucker, Burma: The Curse of Independence (London: Pluto Press, 2001), 227.

21. Robert D. Kaplan, “Lifting the Bamboo Curtain,” The Atlantic Monthly (September 2008), 88.

22. Phil Thornton, “Uncertain Futures,” Bangkok Post, August 7, 2011; and “Mongla: China Wants A Negotiated Settlement,” Shan Herald Agency for News, June 30, 2010.

THIS issue

July-September 2012
Volume 25 | Issue 3

Special Warfare cover, July-September 2012

Special Warfare

Special Warfare is an authorized, official quarterly publication of the United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Fort Bragg, N.C. Its mission is to promote the professional development of special-operations forces by providing a forum for the examination of established doctrine and new ideas.

Views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect official Army position. This publication does not supersede any information presented in other official Army publications.