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One evening in late November 2006, workers at a port south of Rangoon were greeted by the sight of a North Korean cargo vessel approaching; several hours earlier the boat had put in a distress call to Rangoon claiming it had encountered technical problems, and was allowed to drop anchor. An inspection by Burmese authorities “found no suspicious material or military equipment” on board, and the boat was patched up and sent back out to sea. The incident was kept under wraps and garnered little attention in the media, for the two pariahs had only just resolved a 23-year feud that saw them freeze diplomatic ties, and relations were still icy; it was a tentative first toast to the renewed friendship, a courtesy act by Burma.
But seven months later, on 21 May 2007, a second North Korean vessel, the Kang Nam 1, put in a similar distress call as it navigated the Andaman Sea close to Burma’s southern coast, and Thilawa port, 20 miles south of Rangoon, opened its doors. Exactly what was onboard the Kang Nam 1 that day in May 2007 has remained a mystery, but the port-call was one of the first indicators of an alliance that has brought much of the Western world, and several regional players, standing to attention.
The two countries are perhaps the world’s most secretive; alarmingly little is known of life inside the borders of the DPRK, while the Burmese generals’ relocation of the capital in 2005 to deep within the jungle symbolises their perennial retreat away from international eyes. Both justify their hermit tendencies – to their own populations and to frustrated visiting diplomats – with talk of state sovereignty and the need to repel foreign invasions. In North Korea, that became a more tangible concern for the Kim Jong-il regime following global condemnation of its first nuclear test in 2006, but for Burma’s generals, their almost pathological fear of the West was to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Until last week, that is: revelations about Burma’s nuclear ambitions and the depth of its relationship with North Korea have left interested parties wondering how the two countries managed to both circumvent tough sanctions, and hide this alliance from the world. Everything from excavating machinery for Burma’s underground military bunker system to missile components has been passed over from North Korea, and the trade appears to be a healthy one: one of many purchase orders for the bunker project, which includes “Tunnel drill equipment” and ‘Bombproof & sealing system”, and is cited to a “Korean seller”, was billed at $US21.5 million.
And no-one will feel these concerns more than the US. With two wars raging in the Middle East and decades-long fears of a red tide sweeping Latin America, the US has focused attention away from Southeast Asia since its bloody departure from Vietnam in the 1970s. Ironically, US senator Jim Webb, who last week cancelled a trip to Burma as evidence of its nuclear programme began to trickle out, had paid a visit to South Korea days prior to mark the commencement of the Korean War. He told a memorial ceremony in Seoul that the 1950-53 conflict had “provided Asia with a balance and a guarantee of stability and prosperity that were unimaginable when the war began”.
Those words now hang like diving bells over the region, as the formation of another sinister nexus, or what Bushites would likely coin the new ‘axis of evil’, appears to be well underway. The situation appears to have worsened for the US since former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice in 2005 brand Burma, along with North Korea, Cuba, Belarus, Zimbabwe and Iran, as “outposts of tyranny”, because the chains between at least two of these have been fastened.
And over the two stand China, the great puppeteer of the East, and the first real threat to US global dominance since the fall of the Soviet Union. The billion or so cogs driving the Chinese wheel have steered it to friends in the darkest of corners, with Burma now economically subservient and diplomatically dependent on its northern neighbour. Burma’s lucrative gas sales to neighbouring countries have largely financed the nuclear programme and supported burgeoning trade with Pyongyang, while the inking of further multi-billion dollar energy deals with China look set to sustain their accounts. In turn, the US and UK have been unable to pass any substantial legislation on Burma in the UN security council because China stands in the way, and shows no signs of moving.
On the flipside, China’s dependence on Burma is also growing, and beyond purely energy needs: over the past decade Beijing has backed the construction of a string of deep-sea ports from India to South Korea, via Pakistan and Burma. Their purposes vary: a port mooted this year for Bangladesh would allow Chinese imports to flood the market there, while the Bay of Bengal port on Burma’s western coast will allow oil shipped from the Middle East to be funnelled into the multi-billion dollar Shwe pipeline project that runs the breadth of Burma into China’s energy-hungry southern provinces. If one joins the dots on a map of Chinese-backed ports in the Asia region, what appears is a sturdy line of defence for China’s southern coastline: indeed, work began on the Gwadar port in Pakistan – effectively a Chinese naval outpost – shortly after the US invaded Afghanistan and set up military bases throughout Central, Southern and Western Asia, virtually bringing its troops to China’s doorstep.
What may be underway is an attempt to thwart the further encroachment of US influence across Asia: China is worried about the stability of the Straits of Malacca beneath Singapore – where much of its Middle Eastern oil cargoes travel through – because US warships man the route and could blockade it in the event that China presses the wrong buttons. Thus Beijing’s passage through Burma circumvents this risk, and both countries benefit: the Shwe pipeline project could bag the Burmese regime up to $US3 billion when it comes online, and China gets a secure supply of oil and gas. North Korea, crippled by sanctions, now has a wealthy fellow ‘rogue’ to trade with, and what forms is a powerful triangular relationship of convenience.
So Burma’s efforts to develop a nuclear weapon may be another show of force in this increasingly worrisome nexus. The Burmese generals have been witness to the bellicose, often arrogant, rhetoric that the US has levelled at its enemies, and may feel that they are next in line. Burmese defector Aung Lin Htut claims that soon after junta chief Than Shwe came to power in 1992, he “thought that if we followed the North Korean example we would not need to take into account America or even need to care about China. In other words, when they have nuclear energy and weapons, other countries…won’t dare touch Burma.”
Whether the US is ‘interested’ enough in Burma is debatable: pro-democracy groups often accuse Washington of treating Burma as a ‘boutique’ issue, with real concern paling in comparison to the fixation the US has with oil-rich “outposts” in the Middle East. Obama himself has barely mentioned Burma in public and instead defers responsibility to lower-ranking state department staff. While Burma’s gas reserves are enough to tantalize nearby China and Thailand, its oil reserves are meagre and their refining abilities even worse. So recent history would suggest that the US will stay away.
But when a country like Burma – one of the world’s few ‘blackspots’ run by a sadistic army clique that has dined out on inflated anti-imperialist sentiment for decades – shows such aggressive intentions, the world should stand up and take notice. The argument that a nuclear power cannot condemn another state with similar ambitions is perfectly valid, but in Burma, as in North Korea, crucial money and resources for the project have been channelled away from a starving population and into the hands of a megalomaniacal regime. While it is too early to say whether a shift in the world’s geopolitical balance is underway, Obama may be now questioning the worth of his non-proliferation campaign. The East is now sizing up to the West, and the rise of China, accompanied by its band of trigger-happy brothers, shows few signs of abating.