Ambivalent allies

In the wake of Xi Jinping’s state visit to Naypyitaw, Sudha Ramachandran charts the 70 years of Myanmar’s volatile relationship with Beijing

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar in Januarysaw the two sides sign 33 agreements, memorandums of understanding, protocols and letters of exchange relating to infrastructure development, railways, power, trade, investment and human resources.

Yet no new deals were struck during Xi’s visit. The agreements signed were aimed at reaffirming commitments made by the two sides under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and speeding up implementation of China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) projects.Xi firmed up three components of CMEC: the Kyaukphyu special economic zone, the China-Myanmar border economic zone, and an urban development plan for Yangon.

An inverted Y-shaped corridor, CMEC will run from Kunming in China’s Yunnan province to Mandalay in central Myanmar, where it will fork southwards to Yangon and westwards to Kyaukphyu located on the Bay of Bengal coast in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Pipelines along the Kyaukphyu-Kunming route, which predate Myanmar’s signing on to BRI, began transporting gas and oil in 2013 and 2017. These have been brought under BRI’s ambit.

CMEC has enormous strategic and economic value for China. It gives China overland access to the Indian Ocean as well as a trade route to Africa and West Asia that is not only shorter than other options – shipments from Africa, West Asia and South Asia headed for China via the CMEC route will be shorter by around 5,000 km – but also reduces Beijing’s dependence on the crowded Strait of Malacca. Thus, CMEC eases China’s Malacca Dilemma considerably. Signalling the significant role it will play in the realisation of China’s economic and strategic ambitions, Xi described CMEC’s completion as a ‘priority among priorities’.

Xi’s visit to Myanmar, the first by a Chinese president to the country in 19 years, coincided with the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Indeed, Myanmar was the first non-Communist country to extend recognition to the People’s Republic of China.

Relations have witnessed several ups and downs over the past 70 years. They were fraught with tension for decades, with Beijing’s support for Communist and ethnic insurgencies in Myanmar evoking much animosity in the latter. It was only after 1988-1989, when the two countries came under strong criticism and were internationally isolated for their brutal suppression of pro-democracy protests at home, that they turned to each other.

A desperate Myanmar on the brink of economic insolvency turned to China for help. The latter provided it with aid, investment and weaponry. Its support to the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar military, played an important role in the junta’s survival. Sino-Myanmar defence co-operation helped transform its military from a largely counter-insurgency force into one of Southeast Asia’s largest and best equipped conventional armies.
However, Myanmar’s generals, many of whom had participated in fighting the China-backed ethnic militias in previous decades, remained suspicious of Chinese intentions and deeply resented Beijing’s iron-grip over their country. The masses opposed Chinese projects as these brought little benefit for locals.

President Xi described CMEC’s completion as a ‘priority among priorities’

Simmering anti-Chinese sentiment erupted to the fore in 2011, when mass protests against the $3.6 billion China-funded Myitsone power project forced the Myanmar government to suspend it. This was an important turning point in Sino-Myanmar relations, as it was the first time in many decades that Myanmar was defying its powerful patron.

From 2012 onwards Myanmar’s relations with the West began improving and in 2016, the United States lifted sanctions against the country. However, rapprochement with the West was short-lived.

Since 2017, the US has restored and even widened sanctions on Myanmar, whose handling of the Rohingya crisis has evoked condemnation worldwide. It has been accused of ethnic cleansing, even genocide, and is under pressure in the United Nations, the International Court of Justice and other global bodies.

The rupture in relations between the West and Myanmar has forced the latter back into China’s arms. Myanmar needs China’s support in international forums and its dependence on Beijing is therefore growing rapidly. This has opened space for China to rebuild influence over Myanmar again.

It is in this context that Xi’s visit to Naypyitaw in January must be seen.Analysts are pointing out that the Chinese president’s visit could mark the start of a new phase of Sino-Myanmar economic and security co-operation. Countries such as India are watching the renewed China-Myanmar relationship with concern. New Delhi fears that, as its dependence on Beijing deepens and its debts owed to China pile up, the Myanmar government will cave in to Chinese demands.

Myanmar has not always succumbed to Chinese pressure. It has bargained hard on some projects. Consider this: Myanmar has resisted Chinese pressure to revive the Myitsone project. It has also stood its ground on development of a deep-sea port at Kyaukphyu. The Chinese had pegged the price of the project at $7.3 billion but Myanmar brought it down to around $1.3 billion and also increased its stake in the project from 15 to 30 per cent.
But how long can it resist such pressure, especially with its dependence on China mounting?

Western promises of investment in Myanmar did not materialise, and India lacks the deep pockets that China has. Besides, its record on timely completion of projects in Myanmar has been dismal. In contrast, China has promised roads, railways and ports and has delivered. The West’s failure to measure up has left China in an even stronger position vis-à-vis Myanmar.

President Xi (l) greets Aung San Suu Kyi on Jan. 17 during Xi’s first trip to Myanmar as president
President Xi (l) greets Aung San Suu Kyi on Jan. 17 during Xi’s first trip to Myanmar as president

Beijing has other leverage too; it could step up pressure on Myanmar by fielding ethnic militias like the United Wa State Army, which have benefited from Chinese logistical and other support.China has huge strategic and economic ambitions in Myanmar and through it to the Indian Ocean and other parts of the world. It has the funds and the will to realise these ambitions.

That said, the road ahead is not without challenges. There is strong anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar, which is deepening.China’s lack of regard for environmental concerns has drawn local ire, as has its reluctance to hire labour locally. Chinese companies prefer to bring Chinese workers to execute projects and this has triggered local resentment. A more consultative, inclusive, transparent and bottom-up approach to its implementation of projects in Myanmar could reduce the resistance China faces in that country.

The success of CMEC and other projects hinges on a stable environment but Myanmar is convulsed in numerous violent conflicts. The Kachin and Shan states through which CMEC runs, and Rakhine state where Kyaukphyu is located, are strife-torn. Although China is playing the role of a peacemaker in Myanmar’s conflicts, its efforts have not proved fruitful so far. This is largely because its approach is flawed.

In the Rohingya conflict, for instance, it is not a disinterested mediator. It is taking sides in the conflict by backing the Myanmar government’s brutal crackdowns on the Rohingyas and labelling Rohingya militants as ‘terrorists’. In the circumstances, the possibility of militants and others targeting Chinese projects and nationals in Myanmar cannot be ruled out.


Dr Sudha Ramachandran is an independent analyst based in Bengaluru, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues and can be contacted at Sudha.ramachandran@live.in

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