The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
How China Lost Burma

At the end of September 2011, after Burma’s President announced that construction on a huge dam on the Irrawaddy River would be suspended indefinitely, the head of the Chinese company in charge of the project told a newspaper reporter that he was “totally astonished” by the news. Canceling construction on the dam was the most eyebrow-raising event in Burma’s nascent political liberalization movement and an unmistakeable sign that Beijing was no longer lord of its smaller neighbor, and to this day Chinese officials are struggling to figure out what went wrong.

At the recent World Economic Forum in Naypyidaw, Burma’s capital, the small number of Chinese businesspeople in attendance was striking, especially in contrast to the hordes of Americans, Japanese, and Europeans who were there, chomping at the bit to invest in this soon-to-be booming new market. “We said thank you very much to the Chinese for their help and then we asked them to leave,” one adviser to a Burmese Minister told the Financial Times.

“As President Thein Sein gave the opening address to the forum, the word in the halls of the Chinese-built convention centre was that he personally despises Beijing’s influence over its smaller, poorer neighbour,” the FT reports. “In Beijing and Naypyidaw there is recognition that China handled the bilateral relationship badly thanks to a toxic mix of arrogance, neglect and meddling by elements of China’s People’s Liberation Army.”

Indeed, an article in the nationalist, Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper that appeared a year after Burma canceled construction on the dam blamed Chinese arrogance and ignorance for the loss of its client state:

The reason why Chinese enterprises often become a target of criticism in Myanmar is that they lack a clear understanding of the national situation of Myanmar, especially the complicated interest pattern in the country….Chinese enterprises haven’t given enough attention to other interest groups besides the Myanmar government and its local partners. And they haven’t communicated well with the local NGOs and communities.

As officials in Beijing seek to understand what went wrong in the relationship with Burma, one thing on their minds will be North Korea. Though there have been signs that China is pressuring Pyongyang to calm down, the last thing anyone in Beijing wants is for North Korea to go the way of Burma. So far, that doesn’t appear to be happening. But the Burma experience was a lesson on how not to wield power over weaker neighbors.

[Image of the sun rising over Burma courtesy of Shutterstock]

Published on June 18, 2013 5:00 pm
  • Corlyss

    Priceless. I hope someday to read The Ugly Chinaman. For those too young to remember The Ugly American, it was a “slashing exposé of American arrogance, incompetence, and
    corruption in Southeast Asia.”

  • ljgude

    I became aware of Chinese colonialist involvement in Africa over 10 years ago. I watched the fiasco n Zimbabwe and noticed how China bailed out the sinking Mugabe so now that mineral rich country is hopelessly in debt to China. China is working pretty aggressively right across the continent to develop Africa’s natural resources. Post colonialist ideology prevents the West to seeing China as a colonial power but colonialism is not something non westerners are incapable of doing. I think this anti colonial blow back in Burma is a good lesson for the Chinese. The first key to successful development of poorer countries by larger more powerful ones is to make sure that economically the endeavor is a win for both parties. When the more powerful maximizes its own interests and minimizes the benefits to the host country what we call colonialism occurs – regardless of the skin color of the participants. In this case it sounds like the Chinese made the mistake of acting in a high handed manner and managed to thoroughly anger the Burmese. Poor countries don’t usually ditch a partly completed project the size of a dam unless they clearly see an overarching downside. That said, I can’t see North Korea going the way of Burma because they are the worlds leading case of ideologically arrested development.

    • Corlyss

      “Post colonialist ideology prevents the West to seeing China as a colonial power”

      I’m sure that’s true of the blinkered liberal elites in the west. They still can’t bring themselves to admit that the colonies qua colonies were many times better off under enlightened western rule than they have been for even a single day under the rampantly corrupt, invidiously tribal, dangerously lethal era of what passes for self-determination in those abandoned wastelands.

      Re: NK, nobody actually wants the place, with all their starving ignorant automatons. It would be different if someone wanted the place besides China. China uses NK to proliferate nukes to unstable regions where the US is heavily invested, like the middle east, and South America. Anything to keep the US off balance regardless of how reckless it is. Another reason why fracking has to continue and increase exponentially to liberate us from the curse of dependence on middle east oil.

      • ljgude

        I suppose post colonialist is code for blinkered liberal elites. ;-) Your comment mikes me notice something else about the 180 degree swing from colonialism to anti colonialism to post colonialism. My favorite example of colonialism comes from V S Naipaul’s History of Trinidad where he finds the most vicious form of Caribbean colonialism was under the French in Trinidad. So unbearable was the condition of black slaves who, whenever they could get their hands on any poison, would distribute it to their fellow sufferers to kill as many as possible and lacking poison ate dirt to kill themselves. It was pretty horrible but we have overacted My favorite post colonial disaster is Mugabe’s Zimbabwe where, without nearly the level of repression in North Korea or Cuba, sheer managerial incompetence has reduced one of Africa’s richest countries to desperate poverty. My favorite was Mugabe’s ‘Drive out the rubbish’ when he burned out the souvenir vendors who were managing to survive and hurting no one. White Zimbabweans notice what has happened which their betters at places like Harvard are incapable of even conceiving. Even black Zimbabweans notice. I remember one old chap I met out in the bush put it in terms any sixth grader could understand. “This black skin government no good.” And that is not a racist slap at Obama – it is expression of disgust at liberal elites that are the products places like Harvard and Yale. I myself am a product of another Ivy so I don’t say that as a disgruntled hick who went to Ohio A&M. Or Idaho State.

      • neshobanakni

        Why can’t our government see the situation as clearly as you? NK is just a cat’s paw. It’s not rocket surgery!

        • Corlyss

          Too many political interests competing for limited attention without a relevant filter being applied by the decision makers. A lot of it is mere noise, but because politicians owe so much to so many, they’ve lost the capacity to decide what’s most important and ignore the rest.
          I suspect the FFs didn’t count on so many voices wanting to be heard on any specific issue of public policy import.

  • Atanu Maulik

    The monumental incompetence of the Chinese foreign policy elite has eased a lot of pressure on the Americans as they pivot to Asia.

  • rheddles

    While this article discusses China’s colonialism, it ignores China’s imperialism. And China remains an empire, the most successful in human history. And the most effective anti-imperial force in history has been revolutionary American individualism. The 20th century saw the United States act consistently to dissemble every European empire and the nascent Japanese empire. I sense a conflict brewing.