- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 26, 2003

Aung San Suu Kyi, Asia’s revered champion of democracy, remains imprisoned by Burma’s junta despite continual pleas for her release by Western and Asian leaders. The ruthless Burmese generals, who for over a decade have maintained a state of war against their own people, have acted with impunity. Their cold confidence is due, in large part, to the backing of their neighbor and the region’s most prominent anti-democratic power — the People’s Republic of China. The site of the May 30 mob attack, located near the historic city of Mandalay, now largely controlled by recent migrants from China, is symbolic of a larger strategic trend in the region.

The Chinese communist leadership has forged aggressive military and political alliances in support of dictatorships and military-run regimes along its borders — from Pakistan to Burma, Laos, Cambodia and North Korea. For Beijing, the strategic aim of these alliances is at once to prevent the emergence of democratic movements in neighboring countries that might influence or empower democratic movements within China, and to encircle India, its principle rival in the region. A third objective is to prevent the United States from gaining additional footholds or establishing new bases in the region.

Since 1999, Chinese military advisory teams in Burma have overseen air-land-sea-communications exercises carried out by forces of the SLORC [or SPDC] military junta. These exercises have taken place along the coast of the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, some 300 nautical miles from India and within range of the strategic Straits of Malacca. In these exercises, such as those that occurred in August 2000, Pakistan military observers joined the PLA teams. They, along with China, supply fighter aircraft and other military goods to Burma. These exercises have demonstrated not only the significant progress that the PLA has made in its hi-tech military modernization program, but also Beijing’s success in consolidating alliances with non-democratic, anti-Western nations along its border.

Burma is adjacent to the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean, as well as to the Strait of Malacca, the most vital maritime “choke point” in Asia. The multi-dimensional capability posed by the Beijing-Islamabad-Burma alliance threatens Asian democracies. The Indian Defense Ministry’s 2003 Annual Report warned that the “asymmetrical” balance of power in the region — including listening posts in Burma and missile and air bases in Tibet — now favors China.

Covert PLA efforts aimed at fostering regional instability are further demonstrated by the PLA’s direct or indirect support for military aggression, terrorism and narcotics trafficking across Southeast Asia. Thailand’s main national security threat at present is the rapid expansion of methamphetamine trafficking by the PLA-backed, 25,000-strong Wa tribal army [UWSA] in Burma. The UWSA is expanding trafficking routes to the central Burma-Thai border with the support of the SLORC. In addition, the Wa have moved army members to the border with India, where they are trafficking PLA weapons with Indian separatist groups.

Beijing is conducting a “double-edged” diplomatic strategy to further its strategic goals in the region. This is evident in China’s political/military pursuit of control over the South China Sea. When pressured internationally, Beijing has used negotiation to keep neighboring governments hopeful of peaceful compromise while the PLA continues its determined military build-up of permanent “fortresses” in the Spratly Islands. Regional security experts believe Beijing is determined to have a long-term presence on Burma’s strategic waterways to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, for both economic and strategic purposes. There are numerous reports of increasing numbers of Chinese migrants and security personnel who now dominate the banks of the strategic Irrawaddy and Salween Rivers.

In maintaining military alliances intended to intimidate regional democracies, Beijing feels most comfortable with non-democratic regimes as allies. The Burmese junta’s intelligence chief, Gen. Khin Nyunt, is Beijing’s closest Burmese ally. Nyunt is dependent on the Wa and the drug trade in his campaign to succeed Gen. Tan Shwe as junta supreme leader. The Wa United Army, formerly the militant arm of the Beijing-backed Burmese Communist Party, has been commanded by Han Chinese PLA military officers since the 1950s. In addition, as reflected in Beijing’s military partnership with Pakistan, China seeks to keep narcotics and Muslim fundamentalism from entering its territory. But it does this while tolerating campaigns by fanatics of just this sort aimed at destabilizing or terrorizing rival nations.

A serious development in this context is the growing presence of al Qaeda-related Muslim insurgents on the Thai-Burma border in areas that have been taken over by the Wa drug armies. New militant Islamist communities are being reported near both Mae Aey District, of Thailand’s Chiang Mai province, and Maesod, in Thailand’s Tak Province. This radical network is methodically spreading south along the Thai border toward indigenous Muslim areas in the Malay Peninsula where increasing incidents of violence are being reported.

Beijing’s support of such tyrannical Asian regimes as Hun Sen in Cambodia and the junta in Burma, which is aimed at persecuting democratic reformers like Aung San Suu Kyi, has a clear strategic goal. The mid- to long-term effect of Beijing’s increasing military, political and economic prowess could be the creation of a situation in which the United States is left without stable or reliable allies in this vital region, which is essential to the United States and to the economic stability and security of its Asian allies.

It is imperative that the United States develop a comprehensive Asia-Pacific security policy. It should include an effort to support and strengthen democratic movements that might replace dictatorial regimes such as those in Burma. An important first step is to secure the safety and freedom of Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders of her National League for Democracy. This must include political pressure on countries that have been providing military assistance to the junta.

Proactively, humanitarian and other forms of assistance to U.S. allies should be provided to Indian and Thai military and counter-narcotics police, as well as to indigenous anti-junta forces in Burma. In addition, more efforts are needed to encourage and strengthen political openness, and also pro-freedom and democratic groups within China and Hong Kong. Defense of democracy in Taiwan is also imperative to a more secure Asia-Pacific region.

Al Santoli is senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, director of the AFPC Asia Pacific Initiative and editor of the weekly China Reform and Asia Security Monitors.

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