U Nu presents a cheque to President Eisenhower for the families of Americans who fell in Burma in the Second World War. (Wikimedia Commons)
U Nu presents a cheque to President Eisenhower for the families of Americans who fell in Burma in the Second World War. (Wikimedia Commons)

The US, China and the ‘tender gourd’

Recent public exchanges between the American and Chinese embassies in Yangon have echoes from the Cold War that test Myanmar’s long-standing neutralist stance.

By DAVID I STEINBERG | FRONTIER

The verbal confrontation between China and the United States has extended to Myanmar. The situation brings to mind an observation of Prime Minister U Nu. Describing the international relations plight of recently independent Burma engulfed in the Cold War and with a seemingly aggressive new China on its northern border, he pictured his nation as “a tender gourd amidst the cactus”.

This was in the era when Chinese leader Chairman Mao Zedong decried that any country could be neutralist, and when American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles believed that neutralism was immoral. Non-alignment served Burma better than any other possible international stance at that difficult time.

Indeed, during that period, whatever multiple traumas it suffered internally, Burma tried to keep a delicate balance between all sides, including during the Vietnam War. That balance may have been severely tilted one way or another, but never lost its central ideological footings. 

U Nu could personally write an anti-communist play, “The People Win Through”, but then expel the US foreign economic assistance program in 1954 because of US clandestine support to the anti-communist Nationalist Chinese (Kuomintang) military remnants in Shan State – only to then later invite it back in.

China, historically and contemporaneously, has been and is still remarkably important to Burma/Myanmar. Burma’s former tributary status to China is not forgotten, at least by some in China. As one Burmese government official remarked to me, “When China spits, we swim.”

Although deadly anti-Chinese communist riots broke out in Rangoon in 1967 when the Chinese Cultural Revolution came to Burma, amicable relations with the People’s Republic of China were generally maintained, in spite of overt Chinese support for the Communist Party of Burma.

Yet Burma was, in the pre-Ne Win era before 1962, a country receiving foreign assistance from the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern European states, as well as from Japan, the US, and the Colombo Plan – an intergovernmental development organisation backed by the West – to mention only major bilateral donors. This balance reflected its neutral stance.

The balance in foreign assistance began to shift away from the West in the socialist era and accelerated after 1988 with US and European Union sanctions policies. There has been a dramatic reversal since 2010, however, with political and economic reforms enabling Myanmar to again became a recipient of extensive bilateral and multilateral foreign aid, and to welcome the international private sector. Even the balance of foreign military cooperation, which had swung in China’s favour (and to Russia as well to a lesser degree), began to be redressed after 2010.

Over the decades, Burmese leaders have reasserted and maintained their conception of a neutralist policy position. In 2019, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi accurately called Myanmar’s neutralist stance “commonsensical”.

But things have changed. A recent op-ed by Mr George N Sibley, chargé d’affaires at the US embassy in Yangon, articulates anew a Cold War anti-Chinese stance that reflects the US Foreign Assistance Act of 2019 and the anti-Chinese tone in its section about Myanmar (which the law refers to as Burma).

The piece accused China of undermining the “sovereignty” of the Myanmar state, a concept specifically and constantly articulated at the pinnacle of the Tatmadaw’s objectives. It claims that Myanmar is vulnerable to the debt trap of Chinese investment and asserts that the US for 70 years was the friend of the Burmese people. The Chinese have responded in kind – strongly critical of the US, and reiterating their long history of support for Myanmar.

It is important to separate myth from reality. All states create, condone, and articulate myths that may have some element of remembered reality. Myths often contain a dollop of accurate memory.

In Scoop, his satirical novel about journalism published in 1938, Evelyn Waugh wrote of newspapers: “It is seldom that they are absolutely point-blank wrong. That is the popular belief, but those who are in the know can usually discern an embryo of truth, a little grit of fact, like the core of a pearl, round which have been deposited the delicate layers of ornament.” The same could be said of myths. Anthropologist Joseph Campbell wrote, “All myths are public dreams.”

Myanmar and its international interlocutors have all participated in this charade to some degree. Chinese claims of a paukphaw (sibling) relationship with Myanmar, dating to at least 1956 and recently reiterated by President Xi Jinping, is one such myth. Rather, if one characterises these familial interactions, one might, as the Chinese do, consider China as an elder brother, whose influence is paramount within the relationship. After all, Chinese governments until the mid-1950s considered a large part of Kachin State as Chinese territory on official maps, and that Chinese residents of Burma were subject to Beijing’s control.

The US has its own myths about its relationship with Myanmar, particularly its longstanding support for mythic democracy and human rights. Although this has been part of a broader idealised foreign policy, Myanmar is a rare example where it has been implemented to the exclusion of other commanding US national interests.

Based on the emotional appeal of Aung San Suu Kyi, US foreign policy toward Myanmar was effectively based on the myth of her articulated concepts of democracy and the absence of American security or economic interests in Myanmar.

But even the concept of Myanmar neutralism is in part myth. It is not only based on a fear of the overwhelming influence of any one power or group on the state, but it also is an attempt to manipulate relations: to use the potential influence of one power to ensure that an alternative power does not abandon Myanmar. In a broad sense, this international stance has been more successful than its internal policies toward development and governance.

All countries pursue their national interests in Myanmar, appealing to both international audiences and to their domestic political constituencies. Myanmar, however its policies and actions have retarded internal peace and prosperity among its diverse peoples, has tried to uphold the myth of neutrality and the kernel of its accuracy. That myth is important.

China and the US seem to have discarded the niceties of diplomatic language and interchange, and once again Myanmar has been unintentionally drawn into the dispute. Myanmar may have quadrupled the size of its military and increased its mechanised capacity since U Nu’s days, and its economy has grown and diversified, but it still remains a “tender gourd” amid the prickly cactus.

By David I Steinberg

By David I Steinberg

David I Steinberg is distinguished professor of Asian studies, emeritus, at Georgetown University in the United States.
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