It's not only natural gas and Myanmar's other energy wealth that interest China. In spite of several recent reversals, Beijing has preserved its hold on a whole essential segment of Burmese defense in the strategic domain of communications interception bases. Interests that will weigh heavily in Beijing's choice whether to suggest repression or negotiation with civil society to the Burmese junta.
In October 1989, General Than Shwe, the present boss of the junta, led a delegation to China to negotiate a framework agreement for the exchange of intelligence between the two regimes. Its main objective: surveillance of India.
One and a Half Billion Dollars for an Interception System
Four months after the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, the Chinese leadership was highly motivated to aid the Burmese, concluding a contract for one and a half billion dollars of material, notably radar and communications systems, and providing for the launch of six Hainan class patrol boats equipped with Electronic Warfare (EW) material.
Later, the agreement continued to spawn new offspring, with the establishment of signal interception bases (Sigint) and communications interception bases (Comint), on the coast of Coco Island, on the Ramree, Hainggyi and Zadetkyi Kyun (St. Matthew's) Islands, not forgetting the station at the Monkey Point naval base in Rangoon.
These stations are directed at India, Thailand, Bangladesh, and, of course, at maritime traffic, including the ships of the American fleet. China has invested massively in this technical cooperation and in the installation of numerous less important antennae. Thousands of advisers from the Chinese Popular Liberation Army (PLA) have given the Burmese a hand in this domain, including in the setting up of mobile Sigint units to fight the minority Wa, Chan, Karen, and other guerilla movements.
Tsunami Setback: A Base Destroyed on Coco Island
Author of a recent book of the story of Sigint in Burma, "Burma's Military Secrets" (White Lotus Press, Bangkok), Australian specialist Des Ball, whom I met the beginning of this year in Canberra, is even more specific:
"An important dimension of Burma's new capacities in Electronic Warfare is its ability to collect electronic naval intelligence (Elint) thanks to the material loaded on the Chinese Hainan class patrol boats. Which allows them to intercept, identify, and locate radar activities in their operational areas of interest, for example, on the coast, but also at the northern entry to the Strait of Malacca."
Which is to say that significant resources greatly benefit the Chinese, who assure their co-management. Nonetheless, Beijing suffered a setback in December 2004 because of the tsunami: Coco Island's Sigint base - 50 km north of the Andaman Islands, which belong to India - was destroyed. It has not been repaired since then.
At the time, General Qiu Rulin, then head of the Third Department of the PLA's General Staff (in charge of interception questions) did not succeed in obtaining that station's restoration. Meanwhile, in October 2004, the head of military intelligence (Defense Service Intelligence) and Prime Minister, General Khin Nyunt, had been dismissed from power. Now he had been at the heart of the Chinese-Burmese intelligence exchange apparatus and, at the time, the Chinese officials involved did not hide their concern. All the more so as, somewhat later, overtures in India's direction began to loom.
Muted Struggle Between China and India
General Thura Shwe Mann, Head of the Interservice General Staff and the junta's Number 3, was dispatched to Beijing to reassure the PLA's strategists. In 2006, he officially met with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. He is considered "Beijing's man" and just recently, in May, according to Western intelligence sources, he made a secret trip to China to seal Chinese-Burmese cooperation.
In Beijing, they also feared that the junta's assistant chief, General Maung Aye, rather favorable to opening towards India, might become the "Number One." So this half-Chinese was invited to a discreet meeting in Kunming (in China) at the end of 2006. During that meeting, the Chinese generals were guaranteed that their apparatus in Burma would not be threatened should the man who had provoked the fall of their friend, General Khin Nyunt, be promoted. In particular as far as their vast technological espionage apparatus - now under the control of intelligence head and regional military boss for Rangoon, General Myint Swe (also nephew to Than Shwe, the junta leader) - was concerned.
In Beijing, the Popular Liberation Army must weigh in heavily in favor of a muscular form of intervention in Rangoon, while the more political leaders clearly see the danger that a violent repression would represent one year away from the Olympic Games. Preaching calm, they nonetheless also feel that the peaceful surge of Burmese demonstrators may give ideas to Tibet, or even to Beijing, where the Falun Gong Sect could once again get itself noticed as it did during the big peaceful demonstration of April 1999. A real brain-teaser for President Hu Jintao and the new class of generals he promoted this summer.