The State Counsellor of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, ended her visit to Beijing with the signing of five bilateral agreements with her Chinese counterpart, Premier Li Keqiang. One of these is a MoU on
co-operation within the framework of the OBOR initiative.
While increased co-operation particularly in the economic and security spheres, will prove mutually beneficial, it may be constrained by the long running and problematic conflict in areas adjoining the Chinese border and increasing unease among many in Myanmar about China’s growing influence in the country.
Encapsulated by the phrase “Pauk-Phaw” – referring to a fraternal kinship – relations between Myanmar and China have been, until recently, very warm.
Myanmar was the first non-Communist country to recognise the People’s Republic of China in 1949. On its part, China supported the long rule of the junta, and provided it with much-needed economic support in the face of Western sanctions.
Still recovering from twenty years of military rule and isolation from the international community, Myanmar will require extensive foreign support to address a number of lingering economic and security concerns. China would appear well-positioned to provide the required aid, but a cooling of relations since 2011 has undermined Chinese efforts to invest in its strategically vital neighbour.
Concerns in Myanmar about the country’s heavy dependence on Chinese economic support reached a tipping point when, in 2011, then-President Thein Sein suspended work on the controversial China-backed Myitsone hydroelectric dam. Prompted by mounting public resentment at China’s rising influence in Myanmar, the decision reflects the concern that China’s regional aspirations may weaken Myanmar’s independence. Myanmar factors into Chinese foreign policy for several reasons.
The geographic location of Myanmar serves as a bridge between China and the Indian Ocean, allowing China direct access to the region. The recent Chinese push for an 85 per cent stake in a strategically-important sea port in Myanmar is telling, and has provoked a recent resurgence in public resentment towards the Middle Kingdom among many in Myanmar.
With the Myitsone dam having lost its strategic and economic value due to an oversupply of electricity in Yunnan province, China may be hoping that its apparent willingness to cancel the Myitsone project may be seen as a show of strength that will earn it concessions as it looks to secure preferential access to the Kyaukpyu port as part of its ambitious “One Belt, One Road” initiative.
The reliance of China on the Strait of Malacca for its energy and resource imports poses a strategic liability, particularly if regional tensions were to rise. Among other initiatives, China is pursuing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in an attempt to remedy this vulnerability – the so-called “Malacca Dilemma” – by forging a shorter and more easily securable land trade route in line with the broader One Belt, One Road strategy. As a direct regional conduit, Myanmar possesses immense strategic value for China.
Problematically, however, China’s vision for the country has driven a surge in ethno-nationalism within Myanmar, giving rise to potent anti-Chinese sentiment.
Compounding this issue is a decades-long conflict between the Myanmar Government and a number of ethnic militias in the northern regions of the country, which often spills into China.
The cross-border smuggling of jade and heroin has flourished in the wake of a violent conflict that the Myanmar authorities have been unable to resolve or suppress.
Aware of the suspicion directed towards it, China is limited in its ability to become militarily involved in what is also a domestic issue for Beijing. Instead, in a tacit shift in its handling of the conflict, China has increasingly called for a peaceful resolution, and has received some 20,000 Myanmar residents fleeing the conflict.
The future tone of Sino-Myanmarese relations will be determined by the success of Chinese efforts to improve the country’s weakened image with the people of Myanmar, while also pursuing its geostrategic interests in the region.
Myanmar President Htin Kyaw’s visit to Beijing in April was finalised by an agreement to initiate construction on a 771-kilometre-long oil pipeline running from the coast of western Myanmar to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. Both countries stand to profit economically from the project and Myanmar will benefit greatly from the infrastructure improvements that the project will bring.
It is likely that relations between the two states will become increasingly transactional in that regard.
For the government of Myanmar, the value of pursuing a deeper economic relationship with China will more than likely outweigh any new outbursts of nationalism that it might provoke. Whether Myanmar’s domestic political situation is stable enough to cope with any potential widespread public discontent, however, is another question entirely.
By Michael Wieteska, Research Assistant
Indian Ocean Research Programme