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China-Pakistan-Myanmar: The triangular relationship needs careful watch

 

Paper 401                                                       29.01.2002

by C. S. Kuppuswamy

The strong and “all weather” friendship between China and Pakistan is well known.  A third dimension to this relationship is being discerned with the active participation of Myanmar, which had  strong ties independently with China ever since the Army in Myanmar took over the government.  This developing triangular relationship needs to be watched by the Indian security analysts.

China-Pakistan:

Despite the improvement in the US- Pak relations since September 11, 2001, Pakistan continues to look up to China for all its military and nuclear development requirements.  Since the standoff with India, consequent to the attack on the Indian parliament on December 13, 2001, Pervez Musharraf has visited China twice to garner its support.  The strategic alliance between these two nations continuing for the last few decades benefits both countries  in denying India the dominant power status in the South Asia. 

China is the major supplier of conventional weapons to Pakistan and has also played a major role in many aspects of Pakistan’s nuclear programme.  As per a US CIA estimate (as of Sep 2001)  “ China is continuing to provide significant assistance to Pakistan’s ballistic missile program and Pakistan is moving toward serial production of solid  propellent  SRBMs.  China has provided extensive support in the past to Islamabad’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.  Pakistan continues to rely on China and France for its ACW  requirements and has negotiated to purchase an additional 40 F-7 fighters from China.”    Newspaper  reports of 11 January 2002 indicate that the first consignment of 10 F-7 PG fighter aircraft was delivered to Pakistan in December 2001.  A naval base at Gwadar is also being modernized with Chinese help as an alternate inland route in the event of Karachi port becoming non-functional.  China is also involved with Pakistan in joint production of Pakistan’s trainer aircraft and its main battle tank.  Pakistan’s Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff  Committee held talks with Chinese officials in Beijing in the second week of  January 2002.  He was visiting China at   the  invitation of Gen. Fu Quanyou,  Chief of the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army.  The motive and the reasons for Pakistan and China to continue this strategic relationship appears to be: 

* to deny strategic space to India in the South Asian region. 

* The Chinese interests can be seen in their quest for oil from the Gas reserves in Baluchistan province of Pakistan, to obtain information on  technologies of Western weapons acquired by Pakistan and Pakistan’s help in neutralizing Islamic terrorist elements in Xinjiang. 

*  Presence at Gwadar would help Chinese to keep track of US naval ships in the Gulf.

* China itself could seek a land route in the event of Malacca straits being denied to them, to use Gwadar for access to West Asia. 

Pakistan-Myanmar:

In December 2001 it came to light that two Pakistani nuclear Scientists (Suleiman Asad and Mohammed Ali Mukhtar) had moved over to Myanmar in November 2001 when US intelligence officials  were investigating  the involvement of the Pak nuclear scientists with the Al Qaeda network.  This report assumes greater significance as Myanmar has acquired recently a nuclear reactor from Russia. 

Prior to President Musharraf’s visit to Myanmar (May 1-3, 2001) three Pak naval vessels a submarine, a tanker and a destroyer made port calls to Myanmar.  The Myanmar government had always been maintaining that no foreign vessels would be permitted to visit the country’s ports.  Pakistan is known to have supplied conventional weapons to Myanmar and have also undertaken training of their army personnel in Pakistan. 

Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt, the intelligence chief, perceived as a rival to the Myanmar army chief paid a highly publicized visit to Pakistan in June 2000, when perhaps the modalities of the military assistance were worked out.  Khin Nyunt is a powerful official in the Myanmar hierarchy and is known to be close to Pakistan. 

Pakistan has also a sinister motive in cultivating Myanmar for fomenting trouble in the North Eastern states of India. 

China-Myanmar: 

Bertil Lintner, points out that “Beijing long ago identified Burma as vital to the well-being to its impoverished  provinces in the South-West – Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou”.  The dependency of Myanmar on China is understandable for China was the only state that stood by Myanmar since the military took over power in 1988. Myanmar is heavily dependent on China for all its military requirements as they have been buying them at “friendship prices”.  China on the other hand is wooing Myanmar both for its economic and strategic interests.  To exploit the river and road networks in Myanmar, China has entered into a long term agreement with Myanmar.  China is building new roads linking Myanmar with the South-West provinces, clearing the Irrawady river for bigger barges and modernising some of the ports and shipyards of Myanmar. 

Chinese President Jiang Zamin visited Myanmar from December 12-15, 2001, the first by a Chinese President since 1988 when the military took over power.  Media reports indicate that the intelligence Chief Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt is pro-China and in the power struggle with the Army Chief Maung Aye, Khin Nyunt  is more likely to succeed. 

Chinese ambitions in the Indian ocean are evident by its help to Myanmar in modernizing its naval bases at Hanggyi, the Coco islands , Akyab and Mergui.  Despite the professed  economic interests of China, India believes that China (in developing Myanmar & Bangladesh) is pursuing its strategic interests to have a clear access to the Indian Ocean. This view is further strengthened by the London International Institute of Strategic Studies  observation  that Burma is close to key shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia and  “Burma could help China to extend its military reach into a region of vital importance to Asian economies” (Asiaweek-December 21,2000) 

J.Mohan Malik in an article in the Pioneer(19 December,2001) writes that “Chinese strategists see Myanmar occupying the same place in the Chinese calculus of deterrence vis-à-vis India in South-Southeast Asia  that Pakistan does in South-Southwest Asia”. 

India’s Concerns:

The triangular relationship of these three countries, China-Pakistan-Myanmar, should be of concern to India. 

* Despite improvement of relations between India and China, China considers Pakistan as a long time ally and continues to assist Pakistan in its missile and nuclear technology programs. 

* The insurgency problem in the NE states of India cannot be controlled effectively without the  help from Myanmar.  Despite India’s efforts in improving its relations with  Myanmar  with its proactive “Look East” policy, Pakistan and China can influence Myanmar to foment trouble at any time. 

* Myanmar has officially confirmed in January 2002 that it is building a nuclear reactor.  Two Pak scientists are known to have been in Myanmar in an advisory capacity.  Though the IAEA officials state that the reactor is unlikely to be suitable for production of nuclear weapons,  the likelihood of  transfer of know how by Pakistan cannot be ruled out. 

*There are reports to indicate that these countries are already having an intelligence sharing agreement regarding India’s force deployment in the North-East and the Bay of Bengal.  This is crucial especially in a war or war-like situation (as in Dec 2001). 

Conclusion:

India’s  " Look East " policy has suddenly stopped in its tracks  after September 11 attacks on WTC in USA.  The growing triangular relationship is not threatening but could become one in the long term.  This needs to  be watched by the security managers of India

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