By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - Myanmar's recent suspension of the US$3.6 billion Myitsone dam project has raised speculation over cracks in the "rock-hard relationship" between Myanmar and China, while reviving debate over the extent of Myanmar's dependence on China.
Myanmar's dependence on its giant neighbor is indeed immense - China is its largest investor and arms supplier, and its third-largest trade partner - but this is on the decline as Myanmar seeks out new partners. Contrary to the Western media's portrayal of the country as isolated with few friends, Myanmar has
a string of suitors keen to engage it in diverse ways.
While the role of neighbors such as India, Thailand and Singapore in trade and investment has been the focus of much analysis, the significance of Myanmar's relationship with a more distant partner, Russia, has gone by largely unnoticed.
Drawing attention to the importance of Myanmar's relationship with Russia, Lawrence Prabhakar, a China expert and associate professor at the Madras Christian College, told Asia Times Online that by acquiring "weaponry and even possibly nuclear power from Russia, Myanmar could get itself space and autonomy vis-a-vis China and if put together with Indian civilian economic and technical assistance, the China factor [in Myanmar] could be well-balanced".
"This does not mean that 'weaning away' Myanmar from China would be complete, but at least it would be balanced," Prabhakar observed.
Defense relations between Myanmar and Russia have grown steadily over the past decade, but are not as robust as with China, which has provided $1.6 billion worth of military hardware since 1989. However, Moscow is an important option that Nawpyidaw is turning to.
In 2009, China lost a major bid for a fighter aircraft deal to Russia. The Myanmar government chose to enter into a $570 million deal with Russia for 20 MIG-29 fighter jets, turning down China's offer of its latest J-10 and FC-1 fighters. The MiG-29s are due to arrive in Myanmar in 2012. Russia's MiG aircraft company has maintained a representative office in Myanmar since October 2006. It is reported to have helped upgrade Myanmar's main military airstrip, Shante airbase (near Meiktila).
Russia has sold Myanmar 10 Mi-35 attack helicopters worth $71 million to Myanmar. In 2001, Myanmar bought 12 MiG-29 fighters and two dual-seat trainers from the Russians reportedly at a cost of $130 million. In addition, Russia has supplied Myanmar with large caliber artillery systems, air defense systems, tanks, radar and communication equipment, among others.
An important area of Russo-Myanmar cooperation is in the field of civilian nuclear energy. In 2007, Russia agreed to build a nuclear research center that would include a 10MW light-water reactor working on 20%-enriched uranium, an activation analysis laboratory, a medical isotope production laboratory, silicon doping system, and facilities for processing and storing nuclear waste. It also undertook to train 300-500 Myanmar research scientists for the nuclear research center, which was part of a larger program under which thousands of Myanmarese have been educated or received training in Russia.
While the training component of the agreement has made progress, the construction of the nuclear research center has made no headway. According to a report by Anton Khlopkov and Dmitry Konukhov of the Moscow-based Center for Energy and Security Studies (CESS), Myanmar has not yet signed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Additional Protocol or accepted the modified Small Quantities Protocol (SQP), which requires notification of the IAEA of plans to build new nuclear facilities.
These were among the conditions that were to be fulfilled before the contract for construction of the research center came into effect. Talks between the two countries that broke off in fall 2007 in the wake of monks' protests dubbed the "Saffron revolution", and are yet to be resumed.
Although the plans for civilian nuclear energy cooperation between Russia and Myanmar have stalled, the fact that the generals turned to Moscow has ruffled feathers in Beijing.
Myanmar's trade with China, which was worth $4.4 billion in 2010, dwarfs that with Russia, which stood at $114 million that year. Still, the pace at which Russia's trade with Myanmar is growing - 54% in 2009 and 110% in 2010 - is important. Machinery and various transport equipment dominated Russia's exports to Myanmar in 2010.
Unlike China, which dominates infrastructure building in Myanmar - its cumulative investment since 1988 touched $9.6 billion in January 2011, Russia is yet to embark on any major project in this country. However, it took its first step a few months ago when it won a contract to build an underground metro in Myanmar's capital, Nawpyidaw. Quoting the project's chief architect, the Voice of Russia reported in August that geological surveys and designing of the 50-kilometer-long line were underway. Russia is involved in gas exploration and mining projects in Myanmar too.
Russia's value to Myanmar stems from the fact that like China it is a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
In January 2007, Moscow along with Beijing vetoed a US-sponsored resolution in the UNSC that was critical of the junta's human-rights record. Explaining Russia's position, its ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly I Churkin said that Moscow was of the view that the situation in Myanmar "does not pose any threat to international or regional peace"; and that "this opinion is shared by a large number of states, including most importantly those neighboring Myanmar". He pointed out that "attempts aimed at using the Security Council to discuss issues outside its purview are unacceptable."
Russia has in certain cases been more supportive of Myanmar than China in the UN Security Council.
In 2009, the Myanmar government put Aung San Suu Kyi on trial for allegedly violating the terms of her house arrest when she allowed an American who swam to her lake-house to stay there for days. China voted along with the US to support a press statement critical of the junta's decision. In this case it was Russia that did the heavy lifting to defend Myanmar's government.
Analysts have been drawing attention to the role India can play in balancing China's clout in Myanmar. India as well as Myanmar's civil society believes that India has a major role to play in Myanmar's democratization process. The Indian government, for instance, is hoping to engage in capacity building and sharing its experience of building democratic institutions with Myanmar.
However, Myanmar's nominally civilian government appears to be looking elsewhere for inspiration and ideas. In July this year, a parliamentary delegation from Myanmar led by speaker Shwe Mann visited Russia as part of a "fact finding mission" on Russia's democracy model.
Given their wariness of democracy in the first place and particularly one that is argumentative and noisy like that in neighboring India, Myanmar's rulers, who have often spoken in favor of a "disciplined democracy" are looking to Russia for ideas but also to Indonesia for experience in steering a highly militarized polity towards democracy without ruffling the feathers of the military.
In the wake of recent gestures by President Thein Sein in the direction of more openness and democracy in Myanmar, many have drawn comparisons between him and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's experiments with glasnost (openness) and peristroika (openness) . Will Thein Sein meet the fate of Gorbachev? Will his moves set in process momentous changes like those the Soviet Union underwent two decades ago?
It seems that Russia's role in Myanmar's present and future will go well beyond simply counterbalancing China's clout.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.