- - Wednesday, October 12, 2011


China’s $3.6 billion gambit to finance and construct a massive hydroelectric project, the Myitsone Dam, on Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River was abruptly and unilaterally suspended by the Southeast Asian state’s government on Sept. 30.

The halt in the proejct is a major blow to Beijing because the dictatorship-to-dictatorship relationship between China and Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, had seemed legendarily solid.

In 1949, Burma was the first non-communist nation to diplomatically recognize Mao Zedong’s regime. In recent years, the military-controlled government of Myanmar agreed to allow China to build a $1.5 billion listening and surveillance outpost in Myanmar to monitor the maritime activities in the Bay of Bengal.

In return, China is steadfastly supporting Myanmar’s regime. Beijing has since given up large areas of historically contested territory to Myanmar, although China has over the years turned the border area on the Burmese side into a Chinese colony.

China views Myanmar as a strategic partner in combating perceived Western “containment” of China and has been especially eyeing Myanmar for building a strategic oil and gas land pipeline to bypass the U.S.-influenced Strait of Malacca, through which 80 percent of China’s energy imports pass.

Last November, a rigged “election” resulted in a nominally civilian-run Myanmar government that still jails more than 2,000 political prisoners. However, sustained international sanctions and condemnation began to show positive results in recent months. To regain international respect, the government unconditionally released the long-detained human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi, allowed exiled dissidents to return home, held peace talks with armed ethnic insurgents, allowed U.N. human rights officials to visit, reduced anti-West propaganda and even loosened up Internet censorship.

Earlier this month, Myanmar’s foreign minister visited Washington to express a willingness to reform.

Burmese activists seized the opportunity to launch a momentous grass-roots anti-Myitsone Dam campaign, galvanizing anti-China sentiment nationwide, which apparently forced President U Thein Sein to announce to Beijing the unceremonious suspension owing to “worry of the public.”

As expected, China reacted with rage, issuing tough words for the Myanmarese. An open spat erupted two days ago over an unrelated incident. On Oct. 5, an armed hijacking of two Chinese-owned cargo ships on the Mekong River in Thailand resulted in a gunbattle between police and the hijackers, resulting in the gruesome killing of all 13 Chinese sailors. The Chinese media blamed Myanmarese drug dealers for the incident, which the Myanmar government vehemently denied.

Beijing’s screws appear to be tightening.


On Tuesday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin began a visit to China, but not with the normal hero’s halo over his head, as bestowed in the past by the Chinese government.

Traditionally portrayed as China’s stalwart anti-West partner on the world stage, Mr. Putin irked Beijing this time more than ever. Days before Mr. Putin’s departure for Beijing, Moscow announced the arrest of a Chinese citizen for military espionage, even though the actual arrest had been made over a year ago. At the same time, two Russian professors were put on trial in St. Petersburg for spying for China.

Atop Mr. Putin’s agenda in Beijing is protection of intellectual-property rights, in light of China’s voracious appetite for acquiring and stealing Russian military hardware over the past two decades.

But the thorniest issue dividing Moscow and Beijing, unfolding even as Mr. Putin visits China, is the breakup of the two nations’ formerly unified stand on Syria.

Last week, China and Russia jointly vetoed a U.N. resolution designed to toughen pressure on Syria’s regime for its brutal suppression of demonstrations, further emboldening Syrian President Bashar Assad to kill more innocent civilian protesters.

While Chinese leaders were still savoring this U.N. united front with Russia on Syria, Moscow suddenly reversed course on Mr. Assad the day after the U.N. veto, with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev calling for political reform in Syria or for Mr. Assad to step down.

The Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov immediately invited Syrian opposition groups to go to Moscow for peace talks with Syrian government representatives.

The Chinese official media cried foul over the Russian about-face, accusing Moscow of playing the same trick on China as it did back in May on the Libyan situation.

In that case, Russia initially sided with China, but also abruptly abandoned Libya’s Col. Moammar Gadhafi, leaving China on the world’s stage as the lone key supporter of Col. Gadhafi’s crumbling regime.

Miles Yu’s column appears Thursdays. He can be reached at [email protected]

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