MYANMAR AND CHINA: A Special Relationship?

Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

MYANMAR AND CHINA: A Special Relationship?

Tin Maung Maung Than

Introduction: Myanmar and Its Foreign Policy

The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which assumed power after a military coup on 18 September 1988 in response to a widespread breakdown of government authority, changed the country's name from Burma to the Union of Myanmar on 18 June 1989. SLORC was reconstituted as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in November 1997 and the latter currently rules Myanmar by decree.

Myanmar is the second largest country (after Indonesia) among the ten states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to which it was admitted in July 1997. Situated within continental Southeast Asia, Myanmar has a 1,385 miles-long coastline and shares land borders with five neighbouring states as depicted in Table 1.

TABLE 1 Myanmar's Borders


With a population of around 50 million at the turn of the century, the country is situated at the interface of South and Southeast Asia. Wedged between the two most populous states in the world and with over 2 billion people in the immediate neighbourhood, Myanmar has always been conscious of the geographic and demographic realties in formulating its foreign policy. The fact that the country is inhabited by some 135 (officially recognized) indigenous nationalities with many of these groups straddling the porous borders also complicates the policy calculus of Myanmar's foreign relations that has to take into consideration the dynamics of the international system and domestic imperatives of economic, political, and security concerns.

The cornerstone of Myanmar's foreign policy during the first fourteen years of independence under the parliamentary regime had been described as "neutralism". With the advent of military rule, after the coup of March 1962, many observers saw shades of "isolationism" in its "non-aligned" policy stance. However, according to one senior Myanmar diplomat, "no single term" such as "'neutrality", "neutralism", "non-alignment", "isolationism", or "independence" could "fully express" Myanmar's "basic foreign policy" up to the late 1980s.1 On the other hand, Myanmar's foreign policy has been summarized by its current practitioners as "independent" and "non-aligned" (in the Cold War context) up to 1971 and as "independent" and "active" thereafter. As such, "Myanmar will not align with any bloc on international issues except to consistently stand on the side that is right" while it "actively participates in activities for world peace; opposes war, imperialism and colonialism; and maintains friendly relations with all countries".2

Myanmar-China Relations: A Historical Perspective

Myanmar historians regarded the visit, in 802 A.D., of the Pyu delegation to Chang-an the capital of the Tang dynasty as the first confirmed diplomatic contact with China. Thereafter, there were more official contacts in what was deemed to be a cordial relationship between two sovereign states ruled by independent monarchs. In the thirteenth century a series of border skirmishes led to a Mongol invasion of Myanmar in 1283 resulting in a fifteen-year occupation of Myanmar territory after a truce was concluded in 1287. Another invasion in the fourteenth century was also resolved peacefully. In the late seventeenth century hostilities between the Ming emperor and the Manchus spilled over into Myanmar territory for a short while. The last round of conflict occurred between 1765 and 1769 when forces of the Konbaung dynasty repulsed four Chinese incursions resulting in a treaty of peace and friendship that was signed in December 1769. Thereafter, regular exchanges of letters and visits continued on an equal footing until 1874, some eleven years before the Myanmar kingdom lost its sovereignty to the British colonialists.3

Small-scale cross-border trading with Yunnan probably dated back several centuries but substantial and regular commercial links between Myanmar and China were established only in the eighteenth century and were sustained throughout the colonial period under British rule. …

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