China turns to Burma as the ‘friendly giant in the neighbourhood’

18-Jan-2020 Intellasia | SCMP | 6:02 AM Print This Post

China’s president, on a visit to Myanmar, took in the sights with a tour of the Buddhist temples in Bagan and vowed to pour investment into the country even as the United Nations criticised the local government for violation of human rights.

That was 19 years ago and the visitor was Jiang Zemin.

On Friday, when President Xi Jinping arrives in Myanmar for the first state visit since 2001, he may well gaze upon the same temples his predecessor saw, he will repeat plans for investment in the neighbouring country, and again Myanmar faces condemnation over human rights abuses. What’s changed, though, is China and its ambitions.

In between the two visits, China leapfrogged Thailand to become Myanmar’s biggest trading partner and eventually unseated Japan as the world’s second-largest economy after the US. With that economic clout, Beijing asserted itself in international affairs China now has more embassies around the world than any other country only to bang heads with the West, especially the US, as its influence spread.

Closer to home China has exercised claims over regions of the South China Sea, causing disputes with Asian neighbours from Vietnam to the Philippines and Indonesia.

Myanmar is different. The two countries share a 2,200km land border, China’s longest after Russia and Mongolia, and have 70 years of diplomatic relations, the longest held by the People’s Republic of China. All of which presents a particular opportunity for Xi and Beijing’s broader ambitions when he arrives in the capital Naypyidaw for his first state visit of 2020.

Oil and gas pipelines

The opportunities are in more pipelines to expand alternative land routes for the Middle East oil and gas China now imports by tanker to keep its economy running, as well as access to other resources in Myanmar itself, including energy. With an eye on the economic benefits, Beijing has always taken a hands-off approach to Myanmar politics.

That may also prove useful in China’s dealing with the Association of South East Asian Nations, or Asean, which Myanmar is a member of and also includes nations in dispute with Beijing over the South China Sea.

When Jiang visited, he said Myanmar’s military junta government “must be allowed to choose its own development path”.

That was after world condemnation of a bloody crackdown by the military in 1988 on protesters demanding democratic reforms. The military government in 2010 began loosening its control and allowing some political freedoms, leading to installation of a government led by former opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

While the country is now less isolated, the Myanmar military has once again been accused of attacks on civilians, in this case the Rohingya Muslim ethnic group in August 2017, which caused the Rohingya to flee across the border into Bangladesh where as many as 700,000 live in refugee camps.

The United Nations has labelled the attacks on the Rohingya as acts of genocidal intent, while UN secretary general Antonio Guterres has said the Rohingya lacked the most basic of human rights in Myanmar.

Myanmar’s government has rejected the UN charges and China has said the issue was a domestic affair to be dealt with by the government.

China’s support of Myanmar’s opening and its stance on the Rohingya issue will be crucial for Suu Kyi before a general election in November as the West withdraws or imposes sanctions on the country, said Fan Hongwei, a professor at Xiamen University’s Research School of Southeast Asian Studies.

‘A friend in need’

Xi’s trip was to cement fraternal ties, China’s ambassador to Myanmar Chen Hai told state news agency Xinhua in an interview this week.

China has been Myanmar’s closest ally for two decades, offering economic and military aid during Jiang’s visit in 2001 amid Western sanctions after the military’s crackdown, said Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Centre in Washington. Relations took a step back during Myanmar’s political reform, but now China has repaired its ties and regained its influence.

“For China to show support to Myanmar back in 2001, now China is saying ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed’,” Sun said.

China brings what Myanmar needs, said Herve Lemahieu, director of the Asian Power and Diplomacy Programme at Australia’s Lowy Institute think tank. Beijing may also play a role behind the scenes as a possible mediator between the military and Suu Kyi’s government over the Rohingya and other conflicts, he said.

Chinese money, US human rights: in Myanmar’s Kachin state, a delicate balance

Xi will also, of course, come bearing gifts in the form of billions of dollars worth of investment projects, from a high-speed rail line to a makeover for the commercial heart of Yangon.

The crown jewel, though, is the $1.3 billion Kyaukphyu port project, which will serve as Beijing’s gateway to the Indian Ocean deep-sea port off Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, the centre of the Rohingya conflict.

Alongside the port, the plan is to build a vast industrial park of garment and food processing factories on land now filled with paddy fields and teak forests. Officials from China and Myanmar said ethnic Rakhine would be the first in line for some of the 400,000 jobs the zone is slated to bring.

If that brings jobs and benefits that can draw back Rohingya refugees and help stabilise Rakhine state, it’s all in the broader interests of Beijing, which is particularly sensitive to stability on its borders, as seen in its far western region of Xinjiang.

China has been accused of human rights abuses in that area for a crackdown on ethnic Uygur Muslims and holding them in detention camps. Beijing argues its actions were in the face of a separatist, terrorist insurgency in Xinjiang, which borders Afghanistan and several other countries.

If jobs and trade bring stability, Beijing will be pleased with its business with Myanmar. It’s now the country’s largest investor and trading partner. In the first nine months of 2019, the value of that trade jumped 18 per cent year-on-year to $13.54 billion.

China’s ties with Myanmar aimed to show that “the so-called Washington model should not be the only development model for all nations”, said Huang Jing, a US specialist at Beijing Language and Culture University’s Institute of International and Regional Studies.

China is global threat to individual freedoms, says new Human Rights Watch report

Once the Kyaukphyu port is complete on the Bay of Bengal, it will give Beijing another link to oil supplies from the Middle East. Kyaukphyu is at one end of a massive oil and natural gas pipeline network that runs to Kunming in China’s southwest Yunnan province.

China, like other Asian nations such as Japan and South Korea, is reliant on oil imports from the Middle East and Africa, which are delivered in tankers through the narrow and congested Malacca Strait, long regarded as a choke point in Asia energy supply in the event of conflict or natural disaster.

China gets more than 60 per cent of its oil and gas from Middle East and African suppliers and nearly 80 per cent travels through the Malacca Strait, which links the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea.

But development of Kyaukphyu is part of Beijing’s wider plan to expand its footprint in South Asia. It has invested heavily in Indian Ocean ports through its Belt and Road Initiative, much to the concern of New Delhi.

“China already has the oil and gas pipelines running [in Myanmar] so it is less about energy security, but more about the Indian Ocean access,” Sun of the Stimson Centre said.

Though China started negotiations on construction of projects in Myanmar years before the belt and road scheme began, the country officially joined Xi’s ambitious infrastructure plan in September 2018. That’s when they both agreed and signed the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor agreement, which is set to be part of the initiative.

Strategic corner

Sourabh Gupta, a policy specialist at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington, said the US was being elbowed out of geopolitical space in this strategic corner of Southeast Asia.

“I don’t think the US has an answer to China’s infrastructure diplomacy in Myanmar,” he said. “And given China’s political leverage and Myanmar’s historic inward-looking tilt towards neutrality, the Bay of Bengal will not become a second South China Sea any time soon,” Gupta said.

The most remarkable element considering Myanmar’s upheavals over the past 19 years is that Beijing has managed to retain its pole position in the country that sits at a highly strategic crossroads within the Indo-Pacific, said Gupta. Even Japan, which has partly broken from the Western positions on Myanmar and invested in the country, has had difficulty holding its own in Myanmar, he said.

“Geography, perseverance, attentiveness, diplomatic dexterity playing both peace process facilitator and key ethnic groups’ arms supplier, economic largesse, and having something real to offer, as well as soft-skills and soft institution-building, beats high-minded but mostly empty talk any day, every day,” Gupta said.

At the same time, “China is diversifying and consolidating ties with Asean and showing the US the strong and unique influence China has over Southeast Asia,” Sun said.

On the public diplomacy aspect, Xi’s visit is largely focused on the Kyaukphyu port and to show Myanmar as a willing party in the belt and road scheme, according to Lemahieu, of the Lowy Institute.

“That will be very important for Xi to show that [the belt and road] still has attraction and is still favoured by countries despite criticism in the West,” he said.

China’s belt and road: an environmental disaster for Southeast Asia?

While this all looks good for China in Myanmar, there are other issues.

One is whether Myanmar will endorse Xi’s diplomacy drive to establish his so-called community of shared future for mankind, said Xu Liping, an expert from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. If they do sign, it means recognition of China’s “peaceful rise”, he said.

Xi will also seek Myanmar’s support in Asean to help mute the criticism it faces from other member states over its South China Sea expansion, he said.

China also wants to renegotiate one of its biggest investments in Myanmar, the $3.6 billion deadlocked Myitsone dam project. It was suspended by Myanmar in 2011 in the face of fierce public opposition and environmental concerns that strained bilateral relations.

“Enormous changes have happened in the 19 years, not least the beginning of a decoupling between the US and China and the decision by Xi that China’s moment has come for it to be assertive,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.

“China now needs to ensure Aung San Suu Kyi is on side and embraces the [belt and road],” Tsang said. “But in general terms Xi can still count Myanmar as on China’s side as he projects China’s image as a ‘friendly giant’ in the neighbourhood.”


Category: China

Print This Post

Comments are closed.