The Nature and Management of Myanmar’s Alignment with China: The SLORC/SPDC Years

Juergen Haacke

Abstract


Recent research has focused increasingly on the strategies that Southeast Asian countries have adopted vis-à-vis a rising China. This article aims to contribute to the literature by discussing Myanmar’s alignment posture towards China under the post-September 1988 military regime. In particular, the purpose is to specify and explain the nature and management of this alignment. The argument is as follows: first, during the two decades of SLORC/SPDC (State Law and Order Restoration Council/State Peace and Development Council) rule, Myanmar sought only limited alignment with China, focused primarily on diplomatic support and protection, with only a moderate record of bilateral defence and security cooperation. Second, Myanmar’s alignment with China after 1988 was shaped by at least three important factors: the core principles of the country’s previous foreign policy after colonial rule, a deeply embedded sense of nationalism among the military elite, and Burma’s Cold War interaction with China. Third, in managing its alignment with China over the last decade, the SPDC avoided compromises perceived as unpalatable in return for the promise of diplomatic protection and instead ‘rewarded’ Beijing by consenting to economic and infrastructure projects that were considered to advance the regime’s interest in either generating state revenue or contributing to the consolidation and expansion of control over state territory. The SPDC also pushed Beijing into reconsidering its position on the sensitive issue of armed ethnic groups in the Sino-Myanmar border region. The Myanmar case thus shows that lesser powers can obtain security benefits from a major power without this necessarily requiring more than limited alignment or entailing a serious erosion of political autonomy, particularly when the former possesses valuable natural resources and enjoys considerable geo-strategic significance for the latter.

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