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  • Modern China-Myanmar Relations: Dilemmas of Mutual Dependence by David I. Steinberg and Hongwei Fan
  • Balázs Szalontai
David I. Steinberg and Hongwei Fan, Modern China-Myanmar Relations: Dilemmas of Mutual Dependence. Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Press, 2012. 480 pp.

This book, a breathtakingly panoramic analysis of Sino-Burmese relations from 1949 to the present, demonstrates that this traditionally neutralist Southeast Asian country occupied a more significant role in Beijing’s Cold War strategy than one would assume from the standard monographs on China’s policy in Asia, focused as they are on the battlefields of Korea and Indochina.

From China’s perspective, the importance of Burma (or, by its current official name, Myanmar) lay in two, closely interrelated factors: the country’s precarious geographical situation and its determined efforts to pursue a nonaligned course. Sharing a common border of more than 2,000 kilometers, both Chinese and Burmese leaders were acutely aware of the possible negative consequences of any serious disagreement between Rangoon and Beijing, all the more so because Burma’s other neighbors—particularly India and Thailand—also mattered a lot in Chinese security policies. Although the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had a strong stake in preventing any major power from gaining a foothold in Burma and using it to encircle the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Burmese governments, frequently troubled by domestic instability, could ill afford to arouse the wrath of the behemoth to the north.

Under such circumstances, both Chinese and Burmese leaders were keen on presenting their bilateral relations as a pauk phaw (fraternal) partnership. With the exception of a few short periods (e.g., 1967–1969), they carefully refrained from publicly criticizing each other, even if they did harbor suspicions about their partner’s intentions. In the post-Cold War era, this tendency has been particularly pronounced, as the PRC became a virtual ally of the Burmese military junta in the face of Western sanctions. Consequently, foreign observers, many of whom felt unnerved by the strategic and human rights implications of that alliance, were often prone to depict Myanmar as “a client state of China” (p. xvii).

The two authors of this book who endeavored to challenge these views by marshaling solid factual evidence are exceptionally well qualified to do so. Fan Hongwei of Xiamen University, an expert on modern Sino-Burmese relations, unearthed an impressive amount of hitherto untapped Chinese archival and oral history sources to investigate China’s policy toward Burma in the Cold War era (1949–1988). David I. Steinberg of Georgetown University, a distinguished specialist on Burmese politics and economy with previous experience in the field of Chinese studies, analyzed the post-1988 evolution of the China-Myanmar partnership, paying particular attention to economic and strategic relations.

As Fan insightfully notes, “China-Burma relations were one of [the] highlights in Beijing’s peripheral diplomacy. … The Cold War was the defining factor in [End Page 245] Sino-Burmese relations” (p. 7), both before and after the Burmese military coup of 1962. Instead of a narrow focus on bilateral ties, Fan aptly places the Sino-Burmese partnership into the broad context of Beijing’s relations with other Great Powers. Anxious to foil U.S. (and later Soviet) strategies of containment, the PRC sought to cultivate amicable relations with Burma so as to demonstrate China’s benign intentions toward the non-Communist Southeast Asian countries, and outcompete Washington, Moscow, and New Delhi in regional geopolitics. Occasionally, even such distant events as the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956—which shocked and frightened Burma and other nonaligned states—could induce the CCP leaders to make concessions to Rangoon. Such Chinese considerations considerably enhanced the bargaining position of the otherwise vulnerable Burmese governments. For instance, Fan provides extremely valuable documentary evidence indicating that India’s recognition of Ne Win’s newly established military regime in 1962 prompted Beijing to act likewise, and that CCP leaders initially refrained from protecting the interests of Burma’s beleaguered ethnic Chinese minority lest they alienate the junta in Rangoon.

At the same time, Fan correctly points out that the Chinese conception of using Burma “as a positive policy example to...


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