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Sino-U.S. Clash Unsettles Nations Nearest China

by Boonthan Sakanond

Joint anti-drug Thai-U.S. military exercise code-named "Cobra Gold"
(IPS) -- As countries around the globe ponder the fallout from the U.S.-China spat over the collision of a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet, none are more apprehensive than Southeast Asian nations close to the Chinese mainland.

For many of them -- like the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam -- the reason to worry is obvious. They have territorial disputes with China over islands in the South China Sea and are afraid that a militarily assertive Beijing may leave no room for negotiations.

For others, the anxiety lies in the fact that a decline in relations between the United States and China is bound to negatively affect their economies already battered by the 1997 Asian economic crisis.

But while the world's attention is focused on tensions to the north and east of China, some in Thailand believe the real theatre of any military action in the near future could be to the southwest, on China's weakest flank -- Burma.

"Burma is the only true ally that China has in this entire region, apart from North Korea, and any U.S. move against the military dictatorship in Rangoon will be an easy way of telling Beijing off at its own doorstep," says an Asian diplomat in Bangkok.

While over the past decade the United States has expended much rhetoric in public against the military dictatorship in Burma, it has never considered any serious action. But this may be changing in the wake of China's new identity as the biggest challenge to the United States' status as the world's sole superpower.

Already the context for a U.S. role exists with both Thailand and Burma, which in recent weeks have amassed troops along their borders and placed their armies at the highest state of alert in many decades.

In February, shelling blamed on Burmese troops in the northern Thai border town of Mae Sai killed several civilians and prompted the closure of the once-busy border checkpoint between the two countries.

While the Thais have accused the Burmese government of actively supporting the production of methamphetamines across the border and flooding their country with drugs, the Burmese allege that the Thai military has been actively helping ethnic Shan rebels in their battle for independence from Rangoon.

Despite some attempts at resolving their conflicts through negotiations, both countries have currently moved large number of troops and armaments to their common border areas in a tense standoff ready to flare up any time.

Adding fuel to speculation about a dramatic escalation of this otherwise routine border war are a number of events that analysts claim show an increased U.S. presence on the Thai side of the border.

Since March, the northern Thai province of Chiang Rai bordering Burma has been host to more than 40 American military trainers ostensibly there to train Thai infantry battalions in 'anti-drug' warfare.

While the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has always been quite active along the Thai-Burma border that forms part of the notorious Golden Triangle -- a traditional area of production of much of the world's heroin -- this is the time first U.S. aid to Thailand for combating drugs has taken a purely military turn.

Next month, the number of U.S. troops in the area is expected to go up drastically when between May 15-29, 5,000 U.S. troops will join nearly 6,000 Thai and other regional troops for a simulated drug interdiction action.

The event is part of the annual joint Thai-U.S. military exercise code-named "Cobra Gold." But because it comes at a time of heightened tensions on the Thai-Burma border, the location of the exercise is clearly meant to send a message to the generals in Rangoon.

Burma has a history of using outside help to overthrow dictatorships
Apart from the worsening of U.S.-China relations, the possibility of the U.S. playing a more aggressive role vis a vis Burma has increased considerably because of a confluence of several other factors.

The Bush administration in Washington, for example, is seen worldwide as being far more hawkish than its predecessor and willing to push the envelope beyond the norms of usual diplomacy.

If it can pull off a major overturn in Burma's political establishment, the United States would re-establish its diminishing military role in Asia and occupy a strategic position in Burma as part of its long-term policy of "encircling" China.

"Upsetting the reigning order in Burma -- even if it takes some muscle -- would be an easy way of threatening China at its doorstep without risking a major confrontation," says a Thai defense analyst based here.

Since the crushing of the Burmese pro-democracy movement in the late eighties, the military regime in Rangoon has moved closer to China. Beijing has supplied it with military and material help, but it is doubtful if it would risk much more to defend Burma against a concerted U.S. effort to topple the regime.

Within Thailand itself, there is a strange nexus developing between the Thai military -- deprived of any political role because of changed political realities for nearly a decade -- and clueless businessmen-turned-politicians trying to steer an economy now in a deep mess.

With the flaring up of tensions along the Thai-Burma border, the Thai military senses a way of getting back to center stage of national attention. For the politicians, an anti-Burma campaign is an easy way of diverting attention from their own domestic failures on the economic front.

Furthermore, within Burma itself there is an internecine struggle underway between "hardliners" led by Gen. Maung Aye and the "moderates" under Lt. General Khin Nyunt, who is also the Secretary Number One of the ruling State Peace and Democracy Council (SPDC).

Any strong external pressure on the regime, which is possible only militarily, could even lead to a split in its top rungs and bring down the dictatorship more easily.

While a section of Burmese pro-democracy groups are strongly averse to any foreign intervention in Burma to "restore democracy," they admit that if the ball is set rolling by Thailand and the United States, there will be many in their own ranks who will join in happily.

"Though our own movement is non-violent, there will be few voices opposing any attempts to overthrow the Burmese dictatorship by force," admits a senior member of the Burmese opposition in exile.

The justification for international military intervention, he says, has existed for over a decade as has the case against the Burmese military, responsible for the deaths and displacement of thousands of Burmese and other ethnic minority dissidents.

In many ways, he points out, there is a much stronger case against the Burmese regime than the one NATO had for military action against the former Yugoslav regime of Slobodan Milosevic over its alleged atrocities in Kosovo.

Burma has a history of using outside help to overthrow domestic dictatorships. Leaders of the Burmese independence movement, led by General Aung San in the thirties, used Japanese help to drive out the British colonialists. When the tide turned in favor of the Allies in the Second World War, they invited the British back to oust the despotic Japanese army.

However, any outside intervention in Burma will not be very easy due to the complicated web of relations the military regime has woven with the country's ethnic minority groups, many of whom have signed ceasefire agreements with the government despite fighting for independence for years.

Any international effort to "liberate" Burma from dictatorship would get bogged down in problems related to renewed demands that might come from minority groups for independence. This is an issue still controversial within Burmese pro-democracy groups, many of whom support autonomy but not outright secession.

A lot, of course, depends finally on how U.S.-China relations pan out in the coming months. If they kiss and patch up, the United States is likely to back off from any confrontation on the Burma front, but if tensions escalate the chances of a U.S.-led intervention could be very much in the cards.

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Albion Monitor April 28, 2001 (

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