Dr Bryan Wong discusses Burma-China relations post election

A surprising move by the Burmese military elite has just taken place as the forthcoming November general election fast approaches. The sudden removal of Chairman Thura Shwe Mann and Secretary-General Maung Maung Thein of the military-back Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is regarded by some Western analysts as incumbent President Thein Sein’s rather blatant and self-serving manoeuvring to secure his second presidency in the coming election.

Originally running as a main rival-candidate towards presidency, Shwe Mann was seen to gain stronger popular support after astutely striking a power-sharing deal with the opposition party National League of Democracy (NLD), headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, who is however barred from running for the presidency.

This author anticipates that Sino-Burmese relations after the election will be determined by two different forms of power embedded in the two countries’ new state security apparatuses, i.e. Burma’s veto power versus China’s hegemonic power.

The shift in Burma’s security strategy towards veto power

Thein Sein’s move should only be regarded as one of the manifestations of the self-perfection process of the newly instituted Burmese state security apparatus: the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC). It was formed in 2011 by the military elite as the most important executive arm. Before establishing the NDSC, the junta was constitutionally protected and separated from the government. It was therefore exempt from civilian monitoring and enjoyed exceptional powers – it often acted as an autonomous entity above governmental powers. It completely controlled the top positions of the three ministries of defence, interior, and border affairs. The 2008 constitution also reserved 25 percent of parliamentary seats for the military and guaranteed the president and one of the vice-presidents is from the military. The pre-NDSC junta was considered to enjoy ‘hegemonic power’ over the entire body politic of Burma, officially known as Myanmar.

To prepare for the November 2015 election in which the junta knew well it could no longer be assured of a majority of seats in parliament, the establishment and institutionalisation of NDSC will serve two critical purposes. On one hand, it will allow the majority of parliamentary seats to be taken by non-military-backed political parties and the diverse ethnic groups. The parliament will become a key instrument for the junta to contain and negotiate with their competing interests and conflictual agendas. On the other hand, it will allow the junta to rule through a non-hegemonic form of ‘veto power’ after the legislative authority is handed to a civilian-dominated parliament. While the military will not administer the daily operations of the government, they have now gained full control over any possible changes to the constitution, the presidency and security matters.

In other words, the NDSC grants the junta the privileged position and sovereign power to intervene and suspend all possibilities generated in the future legislature. We have already seen ongoing vibrant dynamics in the electoral campaigns for which three nationwide political parties and more than 30 local ethnic parties will join the November contest. Naturally, the inter-ethnic faultlines will continue to strain the parliament in future.

The coming election could historically give birth to a civilian parliament in which NLD may win a majority. Parliamentary unity will however hardly be achievable because House activities will be under constant surveillance, threat and intervention of the NSDC’s veto power, resulting in self-censorship, internal divisions and splintering of the parliament. This would give the junta various manoeuvring entries to re-enact the British colonial governance technique of ‘divide and rule’ into a body politic of historical-ethnic fragmentation. And the continued ethnic armed conflicts will continue to serve the junta’s desire for perpetual rule. For instance, army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing recently stated clearly that the military will not step back from politics until a peace deal is reached with all the ethnic insurgents. He said, “It could take five years or ten years – I can’t say”, implying complete pacification may take unpredictably long, as far as there will be a single ethnic insurgent in Myanmar, the military will not step out of politics.

Moreover, Burma’s new ‘veto power’ security shift would likely bring the junta further advances and possible benefits while the China’s security apparatus is shuffling to the form of hegemonic power.

The shift in China’s security strategy towards hegemonic power

In China, despite a long time of discussion, it was only President Xi Jinping who established the Chinese National Security Commission (CNSC) in November 2013. With the purpose of coordinating and managing the country’s complex security apparatus not just from the traditional military approach, it also aims to achieve comprehensive and unifying security strategy by pulling in economic, political and social as well as foreign relations.

In July 2015, Beijing passed a new national security law to strengthen the commission’s role in China’s national security policy. CNSC is now an institution of the Communist Party of China, directly led by President Xi Jinping, who concomitantly chairs the Politburo – the top decision-making body. Such unprecedented centralisation of state powers to the president signals that China’s security strategy is undergoing a major paradigm shift.

Such change is in response to the increasingly complex global strategic environment where China and the United States are both facing global security issues, increasing competition and structural rivalry. In the past, China’s external affairs were chiefly characterized by the distinction between friend and enemy. From Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping, Chinese leaders crafted security policies largely based on their own experiences and lessons learned in wars. However, as China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 when problematic economic situations have then emerged more frequently, issues of domestic and external security became enmeshed. Security threats are not just traditional security issues but also of non-traditional security. A consensus within the Chinese Community Party was an urgent need for a more interactive and integrative security strategy to address the internal and external threats flexibly.

In parallel to the establishment of the CNSC, President Xi launched the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative in mid-2013. It is actually an alternative global governance structure constituted by the institutions of the New (BRICS) Development Bank (2013), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (2014) and the Silk Road Fund (2015). It is regarded as an alternative global financial system rivalling the US-led post-Bretton Woods system, which comprises of such institutions as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank.

Facing an increasingly complex and uncertain global environment where China’s overseas presence is increasingly felt, China’s overseas interests become more scattered and China’s economic growth is increasingly dependent on the foreign countries, while CNSC is both the policymaking and the executive arm of China’s comprehensive security, the ‘Belt and Road’ institutions would provide the financial resources and negotiation tables with a range of diverse stakeholders from the foreign countries. In other words, by pulling the CNSC and ‘Belt and Road’ institutions together, President Xi is preparing to engage with diverse stakeholders in concomitant arenas of competition and multiple processes of negotiations in foreign lands. In short, under President Xi, China’s security strategy has already shifted towards the ‘hegemonic power’ approach in which identifying diverse interests and organising competing stakes in foreign states and societies have become an essential task.

Burma’s veto power niche over China’s hegemonic quest

After November, while the Burmese military will probably lose the majority of seats in parliament, its security shift from hegemonic power to veto power will guarantee its complete control over the legislature. As Burma is of strategic significance to China ranging from energy security, geopolitics to economic relations, Beijing will enhance the new ‘hegemonic power’ approach to identify and organise competing interests within Burma. This would mean that China’s engagements with the military, the opposition and the ethnic groups of Burma will only be strengthened.

What will happen when Burma’s veto power meets China’s hegemonic power? While win-win deals would be achievable, Naypyidaw will likely gain the upper hand because of a simple reason: it is always harder for an aspiring hegemon who tries to engage with different groups in such a diverse country as Burma. In contrast, having the final veto power in hand, the Burmese junta would find it more comfortable to just sit back, relax and watch from a distance. If a deal between China and a Burmese ethnic group irritates one or two conservative generals, the junta can just veto and pleasantly re-invite China to do it differently.

This article was originally published by DVB Multimedia Group, who have kindly given permission for us to republish.

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