By Eric Baculinao, NBC News Beijing Bureau Chief
BEIJING – Defying Western criticism and sanctions, Myanmar’s military junta proceeded with Sunday’s controversial elections that once again drew attention to the clashing strategies of the United States and China towards the poor, but strategically important, Southeast Asian nation.
(Note: The ruling junta changed the country’s name to Myanmar in 1989. While the United Nations has adopted the new name, some journalists and countries, such as the United States, continue to use its old one Burma.)
With President Barack Obama virtually within hearing distance in India, Myanmar’s generals effectively delivered the message that America’s lack of engagement, focus on human rights and consequent inability to influence events in the country may only draw the country deeper into the strategic embrace of its giant neighbor.
“Some analysts noted that a peaceful power reshuffle is in China’s interests,” said Guo Qiang of the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party-run newspaper.
The elections, which China has supported, are seen as critical to institutionalizing and stabilizing military-led rule in Myanmar, and securing China’s strategic gains in the county.
And of these strategic gains, none is more powerful a symbol of China’s growing dominance as the mammoth $2.5 billion Trans-Myanmar oil and gas pipelines project, which has far-reaching economic, military and geo-political consequences.
‘Neither free nor fair’
Obama decried the Nov. 7 elections as “based on a fundamentally flawed process” that was “anything but free and fair.” In addition, overwhelming evidence pointed to the regime’s intention of silencing and sidelining the pro-democracy opposition forces, with their leader Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi still under house arrest.
But the election was “a step forward,” according to the China’s Global Times, which warned against “following the West blindly” in opposing Myanmar’s step-by-step process of political change.
Earlier, a Chinese government spokesman stressed hopes for Myanmar’s “domestic stability” and “continued progress in democracy” with smooth elections.
Before the elections, the U.S. supported plans for an international probe into possible war crimes by Myanmar’s military rulers arising from their human rights records, deemed to be among the worst in the world, but two months of China high-level lobbying at the United Nations effectively killed the initiative.
(Amnesty International says that the country’s 50 million “live in poverty and suffer ongoing human rights violations.” Click here for more on the human rights situation in the country according to Amnesty International).
Indeed, China sees its interests served internationally by promoting friendly relations with its neighbors, regardless of these neighbors’ domestic policies.
“It is in China’s own interests to maintain good relations, regardless of who is in control of the country,” said current affairs commentator Victor Zhikai Gao.
For many critics, China’s own interests are best exemplified by its breakthrough agreement with Myanmar’s junta – the construction of the oil and gas pipelines that will provide strategic shortcut from the shores of the Bay of Bengal to the strategic rear area of China’s landlocked Southwest.
Planners expect the project, which will cut through the heart of Myanmar, to be operational in 2013 and guarantee Myanmar’s rulers nearly $30 billion for 30 years from the sale of natural gas alone.
With a designed capacity for 22 million tons of oil and 12 billion cubic meters of gas annually, the project will at last help deal with the so-called Malacca Dilemma, which has engrossed China’s strategic planners since President Hu Jintao raised the issue in late-2003.
The 550-mile long Malacca Strait connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans, is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and is crucial for China’s trade and security. Between 70 and 80 percent of China’s oil imports from the Middle East and Africa must pass through this congested lane that can easily be blockaded in the event of conflict. Recent disputes with the United States over the South China Sea issues, has certainly added to China’s sense of vulnerability.
In two years’ time, China’s oil tankers from the Middle East and Africa will be able to unload their cargo at Myanmar’s deep sea ports along its western coast. From there, the fuel will be delivered to refineries in Southwest China, avoiding the Malacca Strait and saving nearly 2,000 sea miles and one week of transport time.
And down the road, critics warn that Myanmar’s coastlines could provide China with naval access in the proximity of strategic water passages that connect with the Pacific and Indian oceans.
“The pipeline in Myanmar will be a plausible reason for China to send its advanced submarines…or consider protecting its interests in Myanmar under nuclear umbrella,” warned Mizzima news agency, a Burmese opposition group based in India.
Myanmar as ‘province of China’?
Critics of the projects say they will serve China and Myanmar’s elite well, but do little for average Burmese citizens.
China’s projects “will not bring any benefits to the local communities,” argued Wong Aung, international coordinator for the Shwe Gas Movement opposition group. The military regime will only continue to “systematically abuse its people” and “use the earnings to keep themselves further entrenched in power,” he told NBC News.
He also warned of potential environmental problems, citing an investigative report accusing the Swiss-American firm Transocean of subcontracting for drilling work in an offshore field in Myanmar – in possible violation of American sanctions. Transocean operated the Deepwater Horizon rig in the center of the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster.
Transocean denied the charges.
“No Transocean affiliate that is subject to the U.S. ban has ever done business in Myanmar,” Managing Director Lou Colasuonno told NBC News.
“Safety is a core value of Transocean,” he further said, noting that there had been seven consecutive years without a single lost time incident or environmental event before the Gulf oil spill in April.
But probably the most vocal critic of the state of affairs in Myanmar comes from the United States itself.
Sen. Jim Webb, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations East Asia subcommitee, called on the Obama administration to pursue a more active engagement policy towards Myanmar’s military junta.
“We are in a situation where if we do not push some sort of constructive engagement, Myanmar is going to basically become a province of China,” Webb told a group of defense reporters in Washington last week.