It’s the only way to escape the encirclement being attempted by the US – most recently by co-opting Ukraine and Myanmar
US seems on track to steal previously vilified Myanmar away from China
The US has been tightening its containment noose around Eurasia’s multipolar anchors over the past few years, having notably succeeded in wooing Myanmar away from China in 2011 and transforming Ukraine into a geopolitical enemy of Russia in 2014.
In the face of these American asymmetrical advances, Russia and China have opted to make game-changing peninsular pivots as a means of escaping the strategic traps being set, with Moscow moving to the Balkans and Beijing being beckoned towards Indochina. Their effort to sidestep the containment wall being built around them places both theaters, the Balkans and Indochina, front and center in the US’ upcoming destabilization campaigns.
This article examines the historical-strategic lead-up to the present situation and explains the necessity of Russia and China’s respective peninsular pivots.
The US has been encircling Russia and China since the first days of the Cold War, and the 1990s onward represented a hyper application of this process. The pursuit of unabated NATO expansion in Eastern Europe alongside the creation and strengthening of strategic economic partnerships with the Asia-Pacific states set the stage for the forthcoming American containment policy, which wouldn’t be formally activated until the 2010s.
In the context of this article, it’s argued that the two most important elements of this two-pronged Eurasian approach are Ukraine and Myanmar, the pro-Western flipping of which inflicted immense harm on Russian and Chinese strategic security and ushered in the necessary peninsular pivots that will be explored later on.
The First Crisis
It’s common knowledge how EuroMaidan set in motion a cascading wave of events the led to the New Cold War, but what’s necessary to highlight in this piece is the effect it had on Russian strategic security, specifically in the energy realm. Ukraine constitutes the primary bottleneck for Russian gas exports to Europe, and consequently, it’s the gatekeeper for the expression of Moscow’s soft power influence attached to this resource.
The earlier energy crisis that the pro-Western Orange government provoked in 2006 proved that the country’s American patron wanted to weaponize its geostrategic location in order to endanger this, and in some ways, they succeeded.
The EU, under the US’ guiding influence, began seriously discussing non-Russian energy alternatives such as the Southern Gas Corridor, and it enacted discriminatory legislation like the Third Energy Package to frustrate existing and future Russian interests. The cause and effect chain that resulted from the 2006 gas crisis strongly implies that it was staged to justify the EU in taking these premeditated anti-Russian steps, which incidentally worked out to America’s grand strategic benefit by weakening Russian influence in Europe and keeping the two actors apart (per the Brzezinski Doctrine outlined in The Grand Chessboard).
Still, there wasn’t an outright rift between the two until the US instigated another crisis in Ukraine, this time with EuroMaidan. The end result, as is known, is that Russia and the American-controlled EU are in the midst of a New Cold War, and that energy resources play a strong factor in this competition.
Russia cannot depend on a hostile Ukrainian government to securely guarantee its energy transit to the EU, and Brussels is signaling that it’s interested in diversifying its supply as much as possible. However, the EU cannot make this shift overnight, and its strategy is dependent on a long-term vision that leaves its dependence on Russian supplies in place for the foreseeable future.
So with Russia and the EU both in need of the other (despite the heated rhetoric between them), it’s clear that Ukraine’s radical pro-Western government has essentially taken the continent hostage by hijacking the umbilical cord of energy that has strategically linked Moscow and Brussels.
The Russian establishment doesn’t appear too optimistic that the ‘hostage situation’ will be rectified in the near future, and understanding the overwhelming strategic threat to its interests by maintaining energy supplies through a hostile Ukraine, it announced that all energy transit through its territory would stop by 2019 and be replaced by the forthcoming Turkish Stream project, itself a replacement for South Stream.
The US hasn’t been able to irreparably separate the EU and Russia because, as was underlined, they both need one another as energy partners. Brussels needs Russian gas to power its industry and heat its citizens’ homes, while Moscow needs the revenue stream and influence that such an arrangement provides.
The complicating factor is obviously Ukraine, which has made it impossible for affairs between both parties to continue as normal, but it hasn’t diminished the demand of either party to indefinitely prolong their business partnership.
The announcement that transit through Ukraine would be discontinued in 2019 is a gamble for all the parties involved. For one, Russia is betting that Ukraine’s days of stability are long behind it, and that it can no longer depend on the country as a reliable passive partner.
Additionally, Moscow is betting that it will finish constructing the Turkish Stream pipeline (and its Balkan Stream extension to Hungary) by the time it stops sending gas through Ukraine, and that the US won’t be successful in obstructing it.
Russia believes that the EU has a pivotal interest in seeing these pipeline plans reach fruition because it simply can’t do without Russian gas, no matter its on-the-books discriminatory legislation or anti-Russian rhetoric. Thus, this is also a gamble for Brussels, since it won’t have any realistic alternative to Russian supplies if the Turkish and Balkan Streams are scuttled.
The US is faced with its own gamble too, since it needs both to dupe the EU elite into believing that a non-Russian energy alternative exists, as well as simultaneously stop the new pipeline projects.
All the while, it still has to ensure that Kiev remains under its control well past 2019, so that there won’t be any talk of continuing shipment through its territory even after the deadline is passed (in the event that the two Streams fail). Thus, the US must juggle heavy propaganda, covert destabilizations, and regime reinforcement in order to successfully contain Russia, envelop Europe, and maintain its unipolar dominance in Western Eurasia.
If it can tie together these loose ends, then Russia would be strategically constricted in its future activity, yet if Russia can tie together its own loose ends of building the two Streams on time, then it can pull off a strategic breakout that would change the entire dynamic of the New Cold War.
Thorns In Each Other’s Side
Myanmar’s internal contradictions and decades-long civil war have always been a thorn in the side of its stability, and its resultant destabilization has been a thorn in the side of China’s, too. As an overly brief summary, Myanmar is plagued by a group of significant ethnic-affiliated rebel groups located along its periphery that have been fighting against the central government for independence.
The low-land authorities have had difficulty entrenching their influence in the highland rebel regions, and the rebels haven’t ever been able to fully kick the government out of their territories, thus resulting in the decades-long strategic stalemate.
The instability in Myanmar has always had the threat of spilling over into China, and there was also a time during the Cold War when Beijing didn’t want the central government to come out on top in the conflict. China had supported some of the rebel movements as a means of spreading Maoism into Myanmar (at the time still called Burma), with the end goal being that an ideologically friendly and politically dependable neighbor would emerge along its pivotal southern border.
Until that could be the case, China was content with having some of the peripheral rebels serve as de-facto ‘internal buffers’ within Myanmar to separate it from the central government as a type of geopolitical ‘insurance’ in case the country was ever used as a launching pad for anti-Chinese activity (as it feared a US- and UN-dominated unified Korea could have been prior to its 300,000-man conventional intervention there).
An Ocean View
China’s calculations towards Myanmar changed in 1988 after the latter came under harsh Western criticism and sanctions for its supposed ‘anti-democratic’ actions. Beijing saw a window of opportunity in co-opting the country as a strategic ally, seeing as how Myanmar’s government literally had barely any other options available.
Not only that, but China has always been a natural partner for Myanmar owing simply to geopolitical considerations, and it was only ideological considerations and Cold War unease (which was entering into its twilight years) that kept the two apart for so long.
The West’s rejection of Myanmar inadvertently threw it into the arms of China (much as the current policy against Russia is doing as well), and this afforded Beijing the opportunity to create a strategic corridor to the Indian Ocean. Such a route has always been in its prime interests since China’s economy and energy imports are exceptionally vulnerable to an American blockade of the Strait of Malacca chokehold, thus necessitating the search for alternative routes in order to safeguard its sovereign interests.
China’s grand vision towards Myanmar thus switched from having a fraternal Maoist neighbor to having a prized strategic partner instead, regardless of ideological affiliation, and this flexibility thus gave great prospects to Chinese-Myanmar bilateral relations.
Blocking The Seaside Path
The honeymoon wasn’t to last, however, since a confluence of factors came into play in influencing Myanmar’s clumsy strategic pivot away from China and back towards the West. For starters, the West quickly caught on to China’s plans, and the US in particular wanted to make sure that China remained dependent on maritime routes controlled by its navy.
At the same time, a suitable pretext and marketable self-interest needed to be concocted to justify this pivot, and Myanmar’s lurch towards Western-style democracy as a means of alleviating Chinese overdependence provided a handy explanation.
The reason that Myanmar embarked on this process in the first place is that the Chinese-Myanmar relationship wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be, and the latter was getting the short end of the stick for at least the past decade.
Be it out of Chinese political oversight and/or resource overreach, the prevailing mood in Myanmar was that the country was being exploited by its northern neighbor and receiving barely anything in return. The tipping point appears to have been the Myitsone Dam, a Chinese-financed project that would have flooded an area of the size of Singapore in order to export electricity to China.
The government’s symbolic suspension of this project indicated that China’s earlier fears of its ally’s political pivot (speculated upon as the country ‘transitioned to democracy’ with the 2010 general election) turned out to be quite prescient.
Making The Best Of A Bad Deal
While Myanmar’s geopolitical affiliation is arguably shifting, China’s geopolitical interests remain constant. Beijing still needs to acquire a non-Malacca outlet to the sea, but just as Russia cannot depend on Ukraine to guarantee safe gas transit, no longer can China depend on Myanmar to function as a stable maritime outlet (be it for resources or products).
That isn’t to say that strategic cooperation between the two is nonexistent, as two important oil and gas pipelines currently transit the country, but that Myanmar made a bad deal by moving towards the West and is now reaping the destabilizing consequences.
Since China’s interests are so heavily tied in with Myanmar’s stability, it too is falling victim to the West’s maneuvers against Naypyidaw, and it needs a stable backup plan in case the situation in the country becomes unmanageable (as it appears to be moving towards).
Ever since the 2010 general election that symbolized Myanmar’s pivot, the country has been targeted with a new form of destabilization. Ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks affiliated with ‘opposition’ leader Aung San Suu Kyi waged war on the country’s coastal Muslims (self-identified as Rohingya) and precipitated the current Southeast Asian maritime migrant crisis.
The implications are now enormous, since a possible Rohingya rebellion (which would appear justified in the eyes of conditioned foreign observers) could set the stage for the creation of a South Asian “Kosovo”, which might then foreseeably trigger the Yugoslav-like collapse of the entire Union of Myanmar.
On top of that, the Indian anti-terrorist operation recently conducted in the country might provoke the assortment of rebel groups in the country to break their ceasefire with the government and reinitiate all-out war, which could then interfere with the upcoming elections in early November.
About those, China already appears to be hedging its bets, having just hosted Aung San Suu Kyi in Beijing. While she can’t run for president, her visit to China can be read as the country’s attempt to play political hardball with the Myanmar government and signify its extreme displeasure at its current geopolitical orientation.
All around, Myanmar moving towards the West has been a bad deal for both the country and China, offering only a political benefit to the US in its efforts to divide the two and sow ethnic-based destabilization along their mutual border. Faced with such a predicament, China needs to engage in geopolitical damage control in quickly finding an alternative Southeast Asian corridor to the Sea, and the only opportunity that realistically presents itself is the ASEAN Silk Road through Laos and Thailand.
ANDREW KORYBKO is a geopolitical analyst based in Moscow.
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