Burma: At the Center of the U.S.-China Competition
Burma: At the Center of the U.S.-China Competition
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February 3, 2021

In today’s issue:

1. China Lays Out Its Position

  • 'A Conversation with Politburo Member Yang Jiechi'

2. The U.S. Lays Out Its Position

  • 'Biden's whole-of-National Security Council China strategy'
  • 'National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on U.S. Policy Toward China'
  • 'Secretary of State Antony Blinken on U.S. Policy Toward China'

3. Burma: At the Center of the U.S.-China Competition

  • 'Burma’s Coup and Biden’s Choice'
  • 'Coup a further complication for tricky Myanmar-China ties'
  • 'Coup Puts Myanmar at the Center of the U.S.-China Clash'

4. Burma or Myanmar?

  • 'Myanmar, Burma and why the different names matter'

During the Cold War the U.S. and the Soviet Union never met in a direct military confrontation.

  • Instead they pursued their aims through ‘proxy wars.’

It’s hard to imagine where and how the U.S. and China could fight those sorts of wars.

  • Their proxy wars – if that term is even applicable - will be fought over economic and political influence in smaller countries.
  • Which brings us to the coup in Burma.

While the U.S. had no hand in the coup in Burma, and China, as of this writing, didn’t appear to either, their competition for influence in Burma somehow brings the idea of a proxy war to mind.

  • Since the Obama administration, the U.S. has worked to coax Burma into the democracy camp and at the same time decrying its human rights abuses.
  • All this time, China courted Burma’s leaders (and certainly corrupted some of them), invested billions, and promised billions more to increase its influence and its access to the Bay of Bengal through Burma.

In these few days since the coup, China seems poised to claim victory over U.S. interests.

  • Craft overcame principle.

That matters because as The Wall Street Journal right points out:

  • ‘The top U.S. priority in Asia is limiting Beijing’s ability to control independent states like Burma, which is strategically situated in the Indo-Pacific.’
  • ‘The U.S. response needs to take into account China’s regional designs.’

Good advice for the Biden team.

  • And for us, good reason to study the history of Sino-Burmese/U.S.-Burmese relations, especially in the last decade. (And to read the reports and analyses below)

Burma won’t be the only arena for this sort of proxy war.

  • The lessons learned won’t be wasted.

Note: I had forgotten how we got to ‘Myanmar’ from ‘Burma.’ The AP explained:

  • ‘For generations, the country was called Burma, after the dominant Burman ethnic group.’
  • ‘But in 1989, one year after the ruling junta brutally suppressed a pro-democracy uprising, military leaders suddenly changed its name to Myanmar.'

‘By then, Burma was an international pariah, desperate for any way to improve its image.'

  • ‘Hoping for a sliver of international legitimacy, it said it was discarding a name handed down from its colonial past and to foster ethnic unity.'
  • ‘The old name, officials said, excluded the country’s many ethnic minorities.'

‘Unlike most of the world, the U.S. government still officially uses “Burma.” ’

  • ‘Washington’s response to the coup seemed designed to highlight old criticisms, with both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and President Joe Biden pointedly avoiding the country’s legal name.
  • Burma works for me.

Through speeches and interviews, the distinctions between the positions of the U.S. and China are becoming clearer.

  • Here are excerpts of comments made in the last week in different forums by Politburo member Yang Jiechi to the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
  • Each was in a different venue, not speaking and responding to each other.
  • I have paired these separate comments up by issue.

For the most part these tell us what we already knew: that positions of China and of the U.S. are vastly divergent.

  • Of particular importance though is China’s explicit statement of Hong Kong, the Uighurs, and Taiwan being ‘red lines’ for China.
  • And statements of the U.S. intent to run right over them.

On how to deal with the other

Mr. Yang:‘Over the past few years, the Trump administration adopted misguided policies against China, plunging the relationship into its most difficult period since the establishment of diplomatic ties.’

  • ‘Some in the United States, sticking to Cold War thinking, perceived China as a threat.’
  • ‘Their rhetoric and actions have interfered in China's internal affairs, undermined China's interests, and disrupted exchanges and mutually beneficial cooperation between the two sides.’
  • ‘There have also been attempts to seek "decoupling" and a so-called "new Cold War".’

‘China should be seen as it is. The previous administration has pursued some misguided policies towards China. ‘

  • ‘The root cause, I would say, is a strategic misjudgment by some in the United States - they view China as a major strategic competitor, even an adversary.’
  • ‘That, I am afraid, is historically, fundamentally and strategically wrong.’

‘It is a task for both China and the United States to restore the relationship to a predictable and constructive track of development, and to build a model of interaction between the two major countries that focuses on peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation.’

Mr. Blinken: ‘There’s no doubt that China poses the most significant challenge to us of any other country, but it’s a complicated one.’

  • ‘There are adversarial aspects to the relationship, there are certainly competitive ones, and there are still some cooperative ones, too.’
  • ‘But whether we’re dealing with any of those aspects of the relationship, we have to be able to approach China from a position of strength, not weakness.'

‘And that strength, I think, comes from having strong alliances, something China does not have; actually engaging in the world and showing up in these international institutions.’

  • ‘Because we when pull back, China fills in and then they’re the ones writing the rules and setting the norms of these institutions;’
  • 'standing up for our values when China is challenging them, including in Xinjiang against the Uyghurs or democracy in Hong Kong;’
  • 'making sure that our military is postured so that it can deter Chinese aggression; and investing in our own people so that they can fully compete.’

On China’s aims

Mr. Yang: ‘China never exports its development model or seeks ideological confrontation.'

  • 'China has no intention to challenge or replace the U.S. position in the world, or to carve out a sphere of influence.’

Mr. Sullivan: ‘China is essentially making the case that the Chinese model is better than the American model.’

  • ‘And they're pointing to dysfunction and division in the United States and saying, “Take a look at that, their system doesn't work, our system does.” ’
  • ‘Increasingly over the last few years, you've heard their leaders right from the top speak more explicitly in these terms.’
  • ‘This is not any one or some kind of implied contrast, it is an explicit statement that there is an alternative model to the democratic market economy model that these United States has been advancing over the course of decades.’

On Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Taiwan

Mr. Yang: ‘Weexpect the United States to honor its commitment under the three Sino-U.S. Joint Communiqués, strictly abide by the One China principle, and respect China's position and concerns on the Taiwan question.’

  • ‘The United States should stop interference in the affairs of Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, which all matter to China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and stop attempts to hold back China's development by meddling in China's internal affairs.’

‘They constitute a red line that must not be crossed.’

Mr. Sullivan: The U.S. is ‘prepared to act as well to impose costs for what China is doing in Xinjiang, what it’s doing in Hong Kong, for the bellicosity of threats that it is projecting towards Taiwan.’


CHINADebate, the publisher of the China Macro Reporter, aims to present different views on a given issue. Including an article here does not imply agreement with or endorsement of its contents.
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