EXCERPT | Decline of Burmese Geo-strategic Status in Chinese Diplomacy
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EXCERPT | Decline of Burmese Geo-strategic Status in Chinese Diplomacy

Dr. Hongwei Fan
via The Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs

EXCERPT | Decline of Burmese Geo-strategic Status in Chinese Diplomacy

The broken relations between China and Burma due to the anti-Chinese riots in 1967 were re-normalized in 1971. Compared with the bilateral relations before 1967, their ties in 1970s and 1980s were characterized by China’s new perception on Burmese geographic location. During this period, the significance of Burmese geographic location for Beijing and its status in Chinese diplomacy declined. In 1950s and 1960s, whether as the outlet to the world or as the buffer state between China and the western camp, Burma could not occupy a central position in Chinese diplomacy without two preconditions: the importance of Burma increased because of the confrontation between China and the West, led by the United States, and the U.S.’s policy of containment threatening China’s security. At the same time, Burma in that period had adopted a neutralist and non-alignment policy and possessed geopolitical significance to China. 

Both Beijing and Washington attached strategic importance to Burma in their respective diplomacy towards Southeast Asia. For example, when Beijing still decided to “firmly support Ne Win” in 1962 although China ideologically disfavored Burmese Socialism, it explained the reason was that “Burma’s geo-strategic position is of great importance and the changes of Burmese domestic situation have significant influence on us.” [1] Likewise, Burma occupied an important position in American Southeast Asia policy. Washington believed that - 

 [i]f Burma and Indochina can be held against communism, we can probably hold all of Southeast Asia. If either Burma or Indochina falls, Siam would probably follow; and Southeast Asia would be practically defenseless against the onrush of Communism.[2]

Strategically a non-communist Burma is of utmost importance to the security of the Southeast Asian region as a whole and especially to our SEATO allies-Pakistan and Thailand, which flank Burma.[3]

The first precondition disappeared after the normalization of Sino–U.S. relations in 1970s and the value of Burma therefore declined. The 1972 U.S.–China rapprochement caused great changes in Asian geopolitics. The U.S. stopped the encirclement of China and in succession American Asian allies established relations with China. During 1972 and 1975, one after another, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand established diplomatic relations with China. Compared with the 1950s and 1960s, the security environment of China’s southern and eastern border was greatly improved and Burma’s strategic value as a buffer state for China was thereby lessened. The radical changes of the international situation and Asian geopolitics deprived the Rangoon route of special significance for China. Of course, it was impossible for China to ignore Burma in this period because of Soviet and Vietnamese expansions in Indochina, but the threat caused by the expansion was less serious than that of the western camp.

In addition, China’s adjusted foreign policy and the structure of its foreign relations heavily influenced the decline of Burmese importance. Starting from the late 1960s and early 1970s, Beijing gradually rectified its radical foreign policy and returned to a realist policy, although China had not completely deserted its belief of world revolution at that time. The reorientation of China’s foreign policy and Sino–U.S. rapprochement greatly decreased Beijing’s isolation. Between 1970 and 1972 alone, China re-normalized or improved diplomatic relations with Korea, Yugoslavia, Kenya, Tunisia, Burundi, Ceylon, and Ghana, and established diplomatic relations with 23 countries. In 1975, China formally recognized ASEAN as a regional organization and favored the ASEAN-proposed establishment of the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) in Southeast Asia. China  

...progressively disassociated itself from the communist-led insurgencies in Southeast Asia because of a perceived need to secure ASEAN support on the Indochina question, thus alleviating the suspicion and apprehension of Southeast Asian countries caused by Chinese ties with insurgent communist parties. Beijing hoped to reassure these countries that China had no covert expansionist ambitions towards them and that its intentions with respect to Kampuchea are similarly benign (Heaton 1982: 781).

After the third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of CCP in 1978, China changed its perception that an imminent world war was unavoidable, and turned to take an optimistic view about the international situation. Beijing defined “peace” and “development” as the two major themes of the contemporary world, which were the foundation stone for China’s domestic and foreign policies (People’s Daily 1984). China also abandoned the ideal of world revolution and focused on economic modernization. 

Of major importance now are China’s economic needs and the political changes that will ensure order and security in the world, overcome the backwardness of the country, and fulfill its plans for modernization. The necessity to create favorable external conditions in order to realize its program of economic growth made the Chinese leadership change its view of Soviet–American relations (Deliusin 1991: 58-59).

China abandoned the policy of the international united front against the Soviets framed in the 1970s and pursued nonalignment with all great powers. The 12th CCP National Congress attempted to outline a new policy agenda for the 1980s. In September 1982, Deng Xiaoping proposed at the opening ceremony of the Congress that China faced three major tasks in the 1980s: national reunification, anti-hegemonism, and maintenance of world peace. “Economic construction is at the core of the three tasks as it is the basis for solution of China’s external and domestic problems” (Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping 1993: 3). The core task determined that China’s foreign affairs centered on raising foreign resources to suit the needs of modernization, and China’s diplomacy towards developed countries weighed heavily. China hungered for greater capital and advanced technologies.

When China increasingly de-ideologized foreign policy and didn’t perceive the outside world through some ideological lens in the 1980s, Burma, by contrast, still pursued a policy of autarky-economic isolation from the world. The catastrophic Burmese Way to Socialism had turned Burma into one of the world’s most impoverished countries. Consequently, the isolated and economically backward Burma, which had adopted a closed door policy, was not important to China and failed to arouse Beijing’s special attention and interests like in 1950–60s. 

About the Author:

Prof. Dr. Hongwei Fan is an associate professor at the Research School of Southeast Asian Studies (Nanyang Yanjiu Yuan), Xiamen University, China. His research focuses on Burma/Myanmar issues; Overseas Chinese issues; China-Southeast Asian relations. 

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Cite this Article:

FAN, Hongwei (2012), China–Burma Geopolitical Relations in the Cold War, in: Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 31, 1, 7-27. ISSN: 1868-4882 (online), ISSN: 1868-1034 (print). Persistent Identifier (PID)  : http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:gbv:18-4-5103

Publication Details:

Published by GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Institute of Asian Studies and Hamburg University Press. The Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs is an Open Access publication, published under Creative Commons - Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works


[1]  Foreign Ministry’s Reply to Chinese Embassy to Burma on 1963 Burmese Politics Review and 1964 Work Programming, Archive of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, People’s Republic of China, File No. 105-01864-01.

[2]   “Policy Statement Prepared in the Department of State”, June 16, 1950, FRUS, Vol. VI, East Asia and the Pacific, 244. 

[3] “Outline Plan by the Operations Coordinating Board”, 2.27, 1957, FRUS, 1955- 1957, Vol. XXII, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989, 90.