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Heading Toward Peaceful Coexistence: The Effects of the Improvement in Sino-Burmese Relations from 1953 to 1955.

In March 2016, the National League for Democracy (NLD) of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) came to power, and democratic movement leader Aung San Suu Kyi became its de facto leader. Aung San Suu Kyi had long criticized those who supported military junta governments in Burma (1988-2010). Additionally, she had personally benefited from Western support for her promotion of democracy in Burma. Thus, many observers assumed the NLD government would lean to the West, in particular to the United States, in its foreign policy and would not pay much attention to China. But since coming to power, the NLD has unambiguously indicated that it will carry out Burma's traditional foreign policy since the time of its foundation (i.e., an "independent, active and non-aligned foreign policy") (Maung Aung Myoe 2017, 91). To be specific, the aim of the NLD government's foreign policy is to impel Burma's return to the international arena so that it can play a more active and independent role in international society. The keywords of Aung San Suu Kyi's foreign policy are neutralism, comprehensive friendship, and human rights. Maintaining a balance between China and the United States has become an important tool for safeguarding Burma's national interests (Maung 2017, 90-96). Retrospectively, we can trace the historical precedents of the NLD's foreign policy to Burma's foreign policy during and after the Korean War in 1953. At the time, the U Nu government carried out a policy of neutralism, making an effort to improve relations with China and pursuing a balanced diplomacy between China and the United States.

The rapid improvement in Chinese-Burmese relations was the highlight of Burmese diplomacy during the Korean War period. Scholars generally agree that 1954 marked the turning point for warmer Sino-Burmese relations, and the reciprocal visits between Premier Zhou Enlai and Premier U Nu that year were the landmark events (Fan 2008; Li 2013; Maung 2008, 100; 2011, 22-27). After careful examination of the archival documents relating to this period and the historical record, I argue that previous scholarship has failed to consider the improvement of Sino-Burmese relations as a longer historical process. Indeed, the transformation of bilateral relations from estrangement to peaceful coexistence was not accomplished in a single stroke. In 1953, China and Burma had taken a step forward in terms of the economy, trade, and personnel exchanges. Recent scholarship has not given Zhou Enlai's June 1954 trip to Yangon a comprehensive treatment, and some historical truths remain unrevealed. This scholarship has also ignored the effects of the rapprochement and improvement in Sino-Burmese relations. Indeed, the improvement in Sino-Burmese relations further prompted the two countries to adjust their foreign policies, enhancing the China factor in US-Burmese relations, providing a new channel and platform for preventing further deterioration of Sino-US relations, and maintaining peace and stability in Asia. Based on Burmese, Chinese, Indian, and US official documentation, and following an international history approach, in this article I explore the background, process, and effects of Sino-Burmese relations in the period of 1953 to 1955.

Establishing Substantive Connections: Diplomatic Diversion and Economic Motivations

In the early years of the People's Republic of China (PRC), Sino-Burmese relations were in an icy state of estrangement. On December 16, 1949, only after learning that Britain and India would soon recognize the new China, Burmese foreign minister E Maung telegraphed Chinese prime minister and foreign minister Zhou Enlai that Burma was ready to recognize the People's Republic of China. He hoped the two countries would establish formal diplomatic relations and exchange envoys, which they did on June 8, 1950 (Liang 2016, 48-51). In order to forestall any misunderstanding of Burma's recognition of new China, E Maung soon announced in a radio address that Burma's recognition did not mean it agreed to the policies of the Chinese communist regime. Likewise, establishing formal diplomatic relations did not mean that China trusted Burma. On January 16, 1950, the bimonthly English-language magazine People's China published an editorial entitled "Diplomacy and Friendship," which pointed out that China should separate Burma from socialist countries on the issue of recognition. The editorial argued that Burma was pressured to recognize new China and that China should watch out for this kind of government (Butwell 1963, 172; Maung Aung Myoe 2011, 14; Renmin ribao 1950). In the period from 1950 to 1952, China and Burma had grudges against each other because of ideological differences and geopolitics and had very little friendly discourse. Nonetheless, the two countries exchanged opinions on border issues, the remnants of Chinese Nationalist troops in Burma, and cultural exchanges. To a certain extent, these exchanges promoted an understanding between China and Burma and somewhat lessened the suspicion and envy between them (Liang 2016, 51-55).

There is much archival evidence showing that Sino-Burmese relations started to improve in 1953. There were both inevitable and accidental factors in this amelioration. The adjustments in both countries' foreign policies, along with the identical attitude and interests of both countries on various international issues, made the improvement in bilateral relations inevitable. Burma's difficulties with the United States over the issue of the remnants of Chinese Nationalist troops in Burma and Sino-Burmese mutual demands to enhance trade relations were chance events. But they all were directly and indirectly related to the Korean War.

Even before the founding of the PRC, Mao Zedong developed the concept of an "intermediate zone" between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the eyes of Mao and his comrades, China occupied a central position of intermediate zone and needed to improve relations with capitalist countries and colonial and semi-colonial countries (Chen 2010, 9-11). In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Mao proclaimed that revolutionary China was a natural ally of the "oppressed peoples" in the intermediate zone and sided with the Soviet Union (Xia 2011, 161-164). It is the intermediate zone theory that laid the foundation for the improvement in Sino-Burmese relations from 1953 to 1955.

According to the historian Niu Jun, "When the Korean War stalemated in 1952, the Chinese leaders started to turn their attention to domestic affairs. They were considering China's policies toward newly emerging nations in Asia" (2012, 73). On April 30, at an internal meeting, Zhou Enlai elaborated on the aims of China's foreign policy, expressing a desire to establish contacts with former colonial and semicolonial countries and certain capitalist countries. Specifically, Zhou claimed that

Southeast Asian countries have contradictions with imperialist countries (the heart of the matter was about war and peace). We should make good use of these contradictions. They just established political power and wanted to maintain their control. They are afraid that war might break out. In time of war, we should endeavor to win their neutrality. In peacetime, we should make efforts to keep them separate from imperialists. (ZETLW 1981, 13-29)

After Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's death in March 1953, the new leadership of the Soviet Union tried to lessen international tension. Accordingly, as an ally of the Soviet Union, China also took initiatives to improve relations with neighboring countries. In June, Zhou Enlai pointed out that the main contradictions in international society consist of four aspects: war and peace, democracy and antidemocracy, imperialism and colonialism, and relations among imperialist countries. Thus, "The basic point in our policy is that we dare to carry out peaceful coexistence and peaceful competition between countries with different political systems." In the process, China attempted to win over the "peace" forces, including certain capitalist countries (ZEWW 1990, 5862). From China's perspective, in the process of adjusting its diplomatic policies, Burma moved from being a country that China had to guard against and win over to a country with which it could pursue a peaceful coexistence (Brazinsky 2017, 76-82).

After the outbreak of the Korean War, Burmese leaders came to see the negative effects on a small country of aligning with a great power and started to emphasize the diplomacy of neutrality. According to U Nu, like South Korea, since Burma was a small country, it could not defend itself. South Korea joined the capitalist bloc and then was caught in war. Burma should in the future avoid such a fate. On many occasions, Burmese leaders, such as U Nu, clearly indicated that Burma would not join any great power bloc. It would promote independent diplomacy in accordance with its own values, not based on the wishes of great powers. To be specific, it included at least four aspects: to be friendly with all countries; to accept foreign aid if it did not undermine Burma's sovereignty; to handle all issues in accordance with Burma's own values; and to provide aid to those countries in need (Butwell 1963, 173-174; Liang 1990, 62-63; Preston and Partridge 2005, 52-53). By the end of the Korean War, Burma's concerns about Western countries deepened, and accordingly it softened its attitude toward the socialist countries, in particular China. Burma was attempting a policy of neutrality.

After the outbreak of the Korean War, the Truman administration began to provide covert aid to Li Mi's Chinese Nationalist troops, which had fled to northern Burma, in the hope that it would alleviate the pressure on UN/US forces on the Korean battleground (Clymer 2014; Qin 2002). Through various sources, the Burmese government confirmed that Washington was providing Li Mi's troops with covert aid. But the United States denied the accusation and made numerous attempts to prevent Yangon from bringing the issue to the United Nations (Clymer 2014; Taylor 2015). In March 1953, losing patience, the Burmese government finally took the issue of the remnants of Chinese Nationalist troops in Burma to the UN, notifying the Eisenhower administration to terminate the US economic aid plan to Burma. Under such circumstances, US-Burmese relations were on the verge of collapsing (Clymer 2014; Foley 2010).

In sharp contrast to its deteriorating relations with Washington, the Burmese government sent a delegation to Beijing to investigate China's industry and working conditions. In his talk with Zhou Enlai, Boh Hum Aung, the head of the Burmese delegation, said that Yangon had turned down US aid, requested that China provide aid to Burma, and indicated his hope that all Asian countries would unite to fight against Western domination. Accordingly, Zhou Enlai expressed his hopes of developing trade relations between the two countries on the basis of equality and mutual benefits. Zhou emphasized China's and Burma's shared historical misfortunes and common tasks of developing their economies and safeguarding their national independence. To dispel Burma's doubts about China's Asian policies, Zhou further pointed out, "Asian countries need a peaceful environment in order to recover and construct their countries. Neither are we willing to be invaded, nor are we going to invade others. It would be beneficial to all Asian countries if China and Burma have friendly exchanges on the basis of equality, mutual respect for each other's sovereignty and non-interference in each other's internal affairs" (CFMA no. 105-00110-01; ZEN 1997, 302).

As with the colonial period, for at least one decade after independence Burma's economy mainly relied on exporting rice. After the outbreak of the Korean War, there was a rising demand for rice, and consequently the price increased. In 1950, Burma exported 1.1 million tons of rice, but this did not last very long. After the end of the Korean War, Burma's exports of rice dropped below 1 million tons. More seriously, because of the decrease in the price of rice in the international market and the gradual change from a seller's to a buyer's market, Burma's income from rice exports decreased dramatically. Thus, after turning down US aid, Burma turned to socialist countries, including China, for aid. In April 1954, China and Burma signed a barter trade agreement, and Burma traded its rice for China's commercial products and technical aid (Butwell 1963; Foley 2010; Liang 1990; New York Times 1953, 3; Washington Post 1953, 29).

After China entered the Korean War, in December 1950, the United States announced that it would implement an all-out embargo against China. Both strategic and nonstrategic goods, such as petroleum, waste rubber, and textiles, all became embargo items (Tao 1997). Because of the needs of war and its domestic economic construction, China made a huge effort to acquire imported rubber. In late 1952 and early 1953, China asked Burma if it had rubber to trade with China (NAM no. 12/6-499). Soon, despite opposition from the United States, Burma signed a rubber trade agreement with China. According to the US Embassy in Burma, in March and June 1953, Burma twice exported rubber to China, which amounted to one-third of its total rubber exports in 1953 (Glennon 1987; National Archive II 1953, box 5538).

Elevating Political Trust: The Effects of Mutual Visits Between the Two Prime Ministers

Three factors promoted the improvement in Sino-Burmese relations in 1954: the Burmese government's doubts about China's intentions, China's wish to develop relations with all Asian countries, and the improvement of Sino-Indian relations.

In the latter half of 1953, India proposed holding comprehensive negotiations with China on its relations with Tibet on numerous occasions. On December 31, Zhou Enlai told the Indian negotiation delegation that China had "established principles for handling Sino-Indian relations after the founding of new China, i.e., mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality, mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence" (ZEWW 1990, 63). On April 29, 1954, China and India signed the Agreement Between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of India on Trade and Intercourse Between Tibet Region of China and India. Its preamble included "the five principles of peaceful coexistence," which Zhou proposed. This was the first time that these principles were written into a diplomatic document. Indeed, as historian Niu Jun puts it, "Chinese leaders [had to] separate revolutionary ideology from [the] state's foreign policies and acts. Doing so would avoid turning 'the five principles of peaceful coexistence' into fancy empty words" (2012, 73-74). The improvement in Sino-Burmese relations in the mid-1950s demonstrates that Chinese leaders achieved this goal.

After its independence in 1948, and for a long period of time, Burma maintained a special relationship with India. Historically, both countries had been British colonies, and Burma for a while had been part of British India. More importantly, both U Nu and Nehru submitted to the principle of nonaligned diplomacy, and the former had great trust and appreciation of the latter. India also provided Burma with a large amount of military and economic aid. Thus, the development of Sino-Indian relations became an important variable affecting the course of Sino-Burmese relations (Liang 2016).

In 1953, although China and Burma strengthened their economic and trade relations, and they both saw the possibility and necessity of achieving strategic cooperation, Burma was still deeply concerned about and fearful of its "powerful neighbor" to the north. In late April and early May 1954, U Nu asked Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to write to Zhou Enlai on his behalf, complaining about "China's arrogant attitude toward Burma ... China's non-government organizations providing support to Burma's anti-government activities," and "China providing support to Vietnam for its invasion of Laos and Cambodia" (NAM no. 12/9-54). U Nu also hinted that Burma might give up its policy of neutralism. On May 8, Nehru wrote to the Indian ambassador to China, N. Raghavan, asking him to informally convey the U Nu government's reaction to China's policies. Soon after, via K. K. Chettur, the Indian ambassador to Burma, Nehru suggested to Yangon that as India and China had recently reached agreements over the Tibetan issue, which included several basic principles for handling bilateral relations, if these principles could also be applied to Sino-Burmese relations, they would be conducive to removing certain high-level Burmese officials' doubts about China (Gopal 2000, 476-479; NAM no. 12/9-54). Raghavan soon held an informal meeting with Chinese deputy foreign minister Zhang Hanfu to explain Burma's view of Sino-Burmese relations to him. According to the Indian records, Zhang Hanfu was very much shocked to learn the Burmese opinion, indicating these accusations might not be true. He promised to report to Zhou Enlai immediately (Gopal 2000, 480-482; NAM no. 12/9-54).

In mid-June, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee accepted Nehru's proposal to invite Zhou Enlai to visit India, indicating China's determination to develop relations with nonsocialist countries such as India (CFMA no. 203-00005-06; Niu 2012, 75). On June 21, Chairman Mao Zedong further asked whether Zhou Enlai should also stop in Burma after his trip to India. Zhou replied that if Nehru discussed Sino-Burmese relations and suggested that he visit Yangon, he would accept the suggestion (CFMA no. 203-00005-01; MZN 2013, 253-254). On June 25, Zhou Enlai arrived in India. During their first meeting, Nehru discussed Burma's apprehension about war and the significance of Yangon's neutralism for maintaining peace in Asia. He proposed that Zhou travel to Burma to visit U Nu. In his second meeting with Nehru, Zhou expressed the hope that the five principles for handling Sino-Indian relations could become the general principle for relations among Asian countries. Nehru responded that Burma would certainly accept these principles. He proposed that China and Burma issue a joint statement affirming the five principles of peaceful coexistence. Zhou expressed his willingness to visit Yangon on his return route to Beijing. On their third meeting, Nehru read a telegram from Yangon indicating that U Nu warmly welcomed Zhou to visit Burma (Gopal 2002).

Zhou Enlai arrived in Burma on June 28. During their first meeting, U Nu said that although the Burmese government knew China was not assisting the Burmese communists, some Chinese merchants were doing so. Some Burmese communists also crossed the border into China. Regarding Burma's policy toward the United States, Burma did not allow US military bases in Burma and had also stopped accepting US aid. Although confronted with civil war, the Burmese government fought against the remnants of Chinese Nationalist troops in Burma. Additionally, Burma was the first noncommunist country to recognize the new China and had actively supported the new China's entry into the UN. Zhou Enlai replied that the five principles of peaceful coexistence applied to Sino-Burmese relations, and China would not export revolution to Burma. He suggested that China and Burma should jointly issue a statement, affirming these principles the Chinese side had proposed. Regarding the concrete issues U Nu had brought up, Zhou stated that those were either rumors or misunderstandings between the two sides. Zhou declared that China would respect Yangon's policy toward the remnants of Chinese Nationalist troops in Burma and would continue to be patient (CFMA no. 203-00007-03). The next day both sides continued to hold talks and formally wrote the five principles of peaceful coexistence into a Sino-Burmese joint statement (CFMA no. 203-00007-03).

Overall, Zhou Enlai's trip to Burma achieved its goal (i.e., dissipating Burma's suspicion of China). In his letter to Nehru on July 1, U Nu indicated that everyone who met with Zhou Enlai had a favorable impression of him and that Zhou's visit would greatly enhance the development of bilateral relations. In his speech of July 19, U Nu pointed out that China had experienced fundamental changes under Mao Zedong's leadership, earning respect from many foreigners. On September 23, a Burmese diplomat in China told the British charge d'affaires that China and Burma had no intention of signing a nonaggression treaty because the five principles of peaceful coexistence, which the two prime ministers had signed in the joint communique, would be enough to discourage Burmese communist subverters. During his visit, Zhou also invited U Nu to visit China and promised to accompany U Nu on a tour of Yunnan in order to get a better understanding of China. This laid a foundation for further improving relations between the two countries (Chicago Daily Tribune 1954, 8; Gopal 2002; NAM nos. 12/9-54, 12/9-70). Also during the trip, Zhou came to appreciate U Nu's willingness and determination to maintain neutralism. In other words, Zhou's trips to India and Burma, and his attendance at the Geneva Conference, became the impetus for China to further improve relations with neighboring countries, even capitalist ones, and to establish an international peace united front (Jin 1998; Pang and Jin 2003). From then on, Chinese leaders received many visiting delegations from all over the world, more frequently using concepts such as peace, peaceful coexistence, and intermediate zone, which were related to the same status as the phrase two blocs in their meaning. Meanwhile, in Chinese leaders' diplomatic discourse, certain Asian countries that had been regarded as imperialist "vassals" were now renamed "newly emerging nationalist countries" or "peaceful neutralists." They were distinguished from the US "war party" and the British/French "status quo faction" (Jin 1998, 1155-1156; Niu 2012, 78; ZEN 1997, 419-420).

On November 30, U Nu traveled to China and stayed for over half a month (Renmin ribao 1954f). Mao Zedong and U Nu met on December 1 and 11. During these meetings, Mao emphasized the commonalities of China and Burma in their stages and aims of economic development. He made efforts to alleviate U Nu's suspicions and concerns over numerous sensitive issues in their bilateral relations (MZN 2013; MZWW 1994; Pang and Jin 2003). On November 2, 3, 5, and 10, Zhou met U Nu five times and exchanged views on Sino-Burmese relations, the Asian-African Conference, the US-Taiwan treaty, and trilateral trade relations among China, Burma, and Ceylon. In particular, Zhou stressed that China's economic aid to Burma had no strings attached. It was purely economic in form, with no political agenda. Zhou also told U Nu that China and Indonesia were negotiating to resolve the issue of the dual nationalities of overseas Chinese and had come to an agreement in principle: first, on the basis of personal wishes, overseas Chinese would have to make a decision about whether to maintain their original nationality or acquire the nationality of their country of residence; second, those below eighteen years old should follow their father's blood lineage in identifying their own identity. Those who were older than eighteen years should have the right to decide their own nationality. China wanted to indicate that the issue of overseas Chinese in Burma might be resolved on the basis of the Sino-Indonesian Agreement on Overseas Chinese (ZEN 1997, 428-429).

There is no doubt that the mutual visits between the two prime ministers promoted the betterment of Sino-Burmese relations in 1954-1955. On the one hand, Chinese leaders were very pleased with the developments in Sino-Burmese relations and clearly identified Burma as "a peaceful neutral country" (CFMA nos. 207-00004-01, 207-00004-06). On the other hand, U Nu publicly praised China's foreign policy, thanked China for its aid, actively supported China's position on the Taiwan issue, and communicated with China on the issues in bilateral relations (Lian 2007, 34-35; Renmin ribao 1954b, 1954e, 1954i, 1955e, 1955h, 1955m; Wall Street Journal 1954, 6). The two countries established consulates general in Lashio and Kunming (Renmin ribao 1955k, 1955l). On November 20, 1955, Chinese and Burmese troops clashed at Huangguoyuan near the border area, an event known as the Huangguoyuan Incident. After the conflict, the border situation became very tense. But as the two governments closely consulted with each other and were restrained in their reactions, the border situation soon stabilized in early 1956 (Feng 2014). Economic and trade exchanges became institutionalized, and China frequently provided Burma with additional help, such as purchasing Burmese rice at a price and in the method favorable to Burma (CFMA nos. 105-00130-01 [1], 105-00165-02[1 ]; MWCZ 1957, 3; Renmin ribao 1954d, 1954e, 1955g, 1955n; ZRGB 2009, 908, 910; ZRGJDZX 2000, 1110-1111, 1123-1125). China and Burma also signed an air transport agreement (ZRGB 2009). Delegations in the areas of agriculture, economy and trade, religion, culture, and sports paid visits to each other's country and were often received by the prime ministers of both countries (Renmin ribao 1954a, 1954c, 1954d, 1955a, 1955b, 1955c, 1955d, 1955f, 1955i, 1955j, 1955o, 1955p, 1955q, 1955r).

Overflow Effect: Multiple Echoes from the Improvement in Sino-Burmese Relations

From a broader perspective, the improvement in Sino-Burmese relations not only enhanced the trust between the two countries and brought about more frequent exchanges, it also transformed the foreign policy orientations of the two countries. It even had a certain impact on the international situation in Asia.

In the mid-1950s, after the exchange visits between the two prime ministers, China regarded Sino-Burmese relations as a paragon for carrying out the five principles of peaceful coexistence (Renmin ribao 1954h). Utilizing it as an example, Beijing showed its desire to live up to peaceful diplomacy and opened more doors to Southeast Asian countries. For instance, early in July 1954, Mao Zedong had hoped to use Chinese ambassadors in Burma or India to establish informal contact with Thailand. In his talks with U Nu in December, Mao twice asked U Nu to help China establish contacts with Thailand. U Nu promised to convey China's intentions to Thailand. During the preparations for the Bandung Conference, the Chinese government continued efforts to establish contact with Thailand. As a result of these tireless efforts, the Thai government first sent a delegation to China for a secret visit in late 1955, and then sent a delegation for a public visit in early 1956. During the meetings, the Chinese side noted that recently developed friendly relations between China and Burma were sufficient to demonstrate that the PRC was willing to establish normal relations with its neighboring countries on the basis of the five principles of peaceful coexistence. China was willing to treat Thailand in the way it had treated Burma. In particular, in handling the issues of Burmese communists and overseas Chinese in Burma, China matched its words with its deeds. Thereafter, Thailand and China gradually built a relationship of trust (CFMA nos. 207-00004-01, 20700004-06, 105-00315-03; Liu 2010; MZN 2013, 259-260, 500501, 524-525; MZWW 1994, 180-181, 190-191).

In its close contact with China, the U Nu government came to see that it was possible for countries with different political systems to coexist peacefully. He thus was even more determined to carry out his policy of neutral diplomacy, and this became the basis and condition for Burma's improved relations with other socialist countries. During the Korean War, Burma had sought to pursue neutral diplomacy at the UN deliberations on the Korean issue and maintained a balance between the two conflicting blocs (Crocker 1958). But overall, Burma's diplomacy prior to 1953 was strongly pro-Britain and the United States. By late 1954, with the warming in Sino-Burmese relations, U Nu expressed a wish to send a trade delegation to the Soviet Union in order to sell rice. The following year, the Soviet Union received the Burmese delegation and signed barter trade agreements. In October 1955, U Nu made a two-week trip to the Soviet Union. In the signed communique, Burma supported the Soviet Union in many of its diplomatic agendas. In turn, the Soviet Union praised Burma's neutral diplomacy. In early December, Nikita Khrushchev, first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Central Committee, and Nikolai Bulganin, chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union, visited Burma. The two countries signed a trade agreement, and Burma traded its rice for Soviet agricultural and industrial aid. Four months later, Anastas Mikoyan, deputy chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers, arrived in Yangon and signed an agreement extending the Soviet-Burmese trade agreement from one year to five years. Meanwhile, Burma also established trade relations with Eastern European communist countries (Butwell 1963; Foley 2010; Mueller 2016; NAM no. 12/3-216; Renmin ribao 1954g; Thomson 1957; Wall Street Journal 1954, 6).

The China factor also had important effects on Burmese-US relations and for a period of time even dominated their direction. After Zhou Enlai's visit to Burma, the US National Security Council argued that Burma was even more aware of the "threat" of the Chinese communists than it had been before (USDDO no. CK2349399850). After U Nu's visit to China, the Eisenhower administration's attitude toward Burma started to change, taking the development of Sino-Burmese relations as an important factor in determining whether the United States would provide military aid to Burma (Glennon 1987). The administration believed that Burma asked for covert US military aid because it was afraid that this would become known to China (Glennon 1989). In the meantime, the U Nu government often used Sino-Burmese trade relations to pressure Washington to help Yangon resolve the issue of its overstocked rice. Accordingly, US diplomats in Burma suggested that the United States stop selling rice or providing rice aid to those countries where Burma depended on selling its rice. When appropriate, Washington should provide Burma with certain urgently needed economic aid. Doing so would enhance the US presence in Burma, reverse the trend in the development of Sino-Burmese relations, and even prevent Burma from becoming a CCP "satellite" (Glennon 1989, 10-15; New York Times 1954, 5). Roughly half a year later, the Burmese government informally asked Washington to provide a loan of US$50 million. The State Department argued that this was the last chance Washington had to prevent Burma from being dragged into the communist bloc and decided to negotiate the deal informally with Yangon (Glennon 1989). But in the subsequent negotiations, a US law restricting aid recipients from having trade relations with socialist countries prevented the loan agreement from being signed (Glennon 1989). In late September, General Ne Win led a high-level military delegation to China. To vie for Burma with China, the US State Department again seriously considered providing military equipment to Burma. But Burmese government officials were no longer interested (Glennon 1989; Renmin ribao 1955o). In view of the situation, the US National Security Council predicted that because the United States was unable to provide large-scale military aid to Burma, Washington could delay the process of Burma's being dragged to the communist bloc (USDDO no. CK2349388674).

The improvement in Sino-Burmese relations also offered U Nu the possibility and preconditions for pursuing his strategy of positioning Burma as "a small nation with big diplomacy." After Zhou Enlai's visit to Burma, U Nu publicly stated that he planned to mediate Sino-US conflicts in order to prevent war from happening (Chicago Daily Tribune 1954, 8). The most successful Burmese mediation was in the case of US spies detained in China. On November 23, 1954, the Chinese government pronounced prison sentences on thirteen US spies. The US government responded strongly, threatening war (Li 2008). Soon U Nu visited China. In the meantime, British foreign secretary Robert Anthony Eden cabled U Nu, asking him to plead with Zhou Enlai to release the US spies (Glennon 1989, 18; MZWW 1994, 192193; ZEN 1997, 428-429). Persuaded by U Nu and Nehru, the Chinese government agreed to receive UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold to Beijing to discuss the release of US spies. Both sides agreed that China would provide information about the health and living conditions of the thirteen convicted US spies and four unconvicted US Air Force personnel. If family members of those Americans in custody wanted to travel to China to visit them, China could accommodate them, and the Red Cross Society of China would make concrete arrangements for them (Li 2013). On May 30, Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Hanfu made an appointment to meet with a Burmese Embassy official in China, asking him to convey to U Nu the information that the four US pilots in custody had only invaded China's airspace and could be released the next day (NAM no. 12/6-594). On July 25, Beijing and Washington each announced that the United States and China would hold ambassadorial talks. To create a positive atmosphere for the talks, China would release eleven of the thirteen convicted US pilots on July 31 before the completion of their sentences (Xia 2006). While sharing this information with India, Zhou Enlai said that China gave credit to India and Burma for making this solution possible. U Nu wrote to Zhou Enlai, stating that the earlier release of US pilots demonstrated that China was longing for peace (CFMA no. 105-0006104; NAM no. 12/6-594).

The improvement in Sino-Burmese relations had positive effects on the Asian situation. When U Nu visited China in late 1954, Mao Zedong took the initiative to express China's wish to attend the Asian-African Conference. U Nu responded that some countries might want to invite Jiang Jieshi's Nationalist government in Taiwan. U Nu's reading of the situation turned out to be true. At the five-nation Bogor Conference of South Asian countries in Indonesia in late December 1954, participants were not able to come to an agreement regarding whether to invite the People's Republic of China to the Asian-African Conference. According to the recollection of Indonesian prime minister Ali Sastroamidjojo, U Nu threatened that if China, the largest country in Asia, was not invited to the Asian-African Conference, it was impossible for Burma to attend the conference. This was enough to close the deal: all participants agreed that China should be invited (MZWW 1994; Pang 2009; Pang and Jin 2003; Renmin ribao 1954j; Sastroamidjojo 1983). For Beijing, the Asian-African Conference offered China an opportunity to improve relations with Asian and African countries. In terms of the Asian situation, China's involvement and the success of the Asian-African Conference showed that Asia was no longer the battlefield of the conflicting East and West blocs. Asia now had more independence and was able to collectively make its voice heard in international society.


A careful exploration of the background, process, and effects of the improvement in Sino-Burmese relations from 1953 to 1955 demonstrates that exchanges between Beijing and Yangon never operated under a bilateral framework; rather, they always unfolded in a broader multinational platform. The outbreak of the Korean War, the improvement in Sino-Indian relations, and changes in the diplomacy of China and Burma all contributed to the betterment of Sino-Burmese relations. Under such circumstances, Burma was eager to express its concerns about China's policy, and China eagerly wanted to eliminate Burma's apprehensions and thus promoted the betterment of bilateral relations. In turn, the improvement in Sino-Burmese relations gave further impetus for the two countries to adjust their respective foreign policies. More specifically, China became more confident in expanding its exchanges with countries in the "intermediate zone," in advising Burma in its establishment of trade relations and even political trust with the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries, and in wholeheartedly pursuing neutral diplomacy. The China and Burma paukphaw friendship affected the direction of Burmese-US relations on a broader scale. It even created a situation in which the United States competed with China for influence in Burma. In the process, U Nu became a special conduit for both US and Chinese contacts. To a certain extent, the great improvement in Sino-Burmese relations was the initial impetus that elevated Asia's right to speak in international society.

This piece of history tells us that the influence of geopolitics on relations between the two countries was complicated and that their ideological differences were not insurmountable. China and Burma are near neighbors with different political systems. In the early 1950s, Yangon was pro-Britain and the United States and was worried that Beijing might aggressively invade south. Beijing, which was eager to promote world revolution, was concerned that Burma might be turned into a US/UK outpost for containing China. Before and after the Korean War armistice, both China and Burma started to promote peace and development in their diplomacy. Both countries were willing to turn from objective "near neighbors" to subjective "friendly neighbors." Under such circumstances, it was quite natural that ideological differences gave way to national security concerns.

Before the National League for Democracy came to power, many predicted that Myanmar under Aung San Suu Kyi would promote a pro-Western foreign policy. This reasoning is strongly ideological (i.e., it is inevitable that a democratized Myanmar would be closer to the West and alienated from China). As a matter of fact, after the new Myanmar government came to power, it first invited Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi for a visit. Similarly, Aung San Suu Kyi visited Beijing first and then Washington. Also, Myanmar welcomed China's Belt and Road Initiative, joining in the construction of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor. For Myanmar, complementing the economic advantages of ties to Beijing, winning China's support for the process of national reconciliation is among Aung San Suu Kyi's highest priorities. Similarly, China could bridge its southwestern gate with the Indian Ocean and link other ASEAN countries through Myanmar. Myanmar was so important for China's resource security and border stability that in 2013 the Chinese Foreign Ministry appointed a special envoy on Asian affairs whose main responsibility was handling issues between China and Myanmar. In other words, China is willing to develop relations with Myanmar for national interest, whether its ruler is a military regime or the prodemocracy NLD. These events demonstrate that ideological diversity has not become a stumbling block or impeded the development of China-Myanmar relations.


Liang Zhi is professor of history, Institute for Studies of China's Neighboring Countries and Regions (History Department), East China Normal University in Shanghai. He is the author of Lengzhan yu qingbao: Meiguo "Puweibuluo" hao weiji jueceshi [The Cold War and intelligence: A history of US decision-making during the Pueblo crisis] (2014) and Lengzhan yu "minzu guojia jiangou": Hanguo zhengzhi jingji fazhanzhong de Meiguo yinsu, 1945-1987 [The Cold War and "nation building": US role in the process of political and economic development of the ROK] (2011). A specialist in US policy toward the Korean peninsula and Sino-Burmese relations, he has also published over a dozen articles in Diplomatic History and leading historical journals in Chinese. He can be reached at

The research and writing of this article have been supported by the Special Entrusted Project of National Social Sciences Fund (Document Collection and Historical Studies on China's Neighbors' Policies Toward China, project #15@ZH009) and was sponsored by East China Normal University 2017 Overseas Publication Project (Cold War Studies in China, 2001-2016, Project# 2017ECNU-HWFW001).


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Author:Zhi, Liang
Publication:Asian Perspective
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Geographic Code:9MYAN
Date:Oct 1, 2018
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