Turning the page in Myanmar-China Relations

10 May 2017
Turning the page in Myanmar-China Relations
Photo: Mizzima

Myanmar and Chinese delegates are currently meeting for the 1st Myanmar-China Think Tank Dialogue in Dehong, China. The following is the presentation given by Mizzima Editor-in-Chief Soe Myint on Myanmar-China relations.
I would like to thank the organizers for the opportunity to join you all here today. As we gather, I believe we are already glimpsing the onset of a new era in the relationship between Myanmar and China. And while exciting, careful attention must be paid by both sides to ensure that the relationship develops in a win-win manner for both Myanmar and China. From the perspective of Myanmar, this requires moving away from an historic defensive approach and determining how to make the best possible use of the relationship.
After decades in which the bilateral relationship between Myanmar and China was in large part dictated by the relative isolation of Myanmar, the relationship has over the past six years taken on a distinctly different feel. In the decades preceding the 2010 general election in Myanmar, Myanmar was obliged to deal heavily with China, as one of the few – if not only – major economic power willing to invest in and deal with Myanmar’s government. This type of forced relationship allowed Chinese interests to proceed without having to factor in the desires of the greater Myanmar population. And while Myanmar’s leaders grew wary of overreliance on China, they also knew that their options were few and far between. 
Unsurprisingly, as Myanmar moved to aggressively diversify its diplomatic portfolio following 2010, the relationship with China suddenly became much more nuanced. The growing uncertainty and tension that came with Myanmar’s nominally civilian-led government in 2011 distinctly manifested itself in Chinese investment figures, with annual approved foreign direct investment from China dropping from $8.2 billion in the peak year of 2010/11 to merely $56 million in 2013/14. 
Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that just as it was rational for Myanmar’s generals to bow to China in the face of a crippling sanctions regime, the new environment is testament to the need for a logical and beneficial relationship between Nay Pyi Taw and Beijing – albeit in an altered context. 
In short, despite the at times estranged relations between the two countries, it behooves both governments to continue to reorient their foreign policies in the wake of ongoing changes in Myanmar. In so doing, focus should be on working together in jointly meeting the needs of the Burmese people and the strategic interests of China.
The current government of Myanmar has two fundamental priorities: developing the economy and ending civil war, and China has a big role to play on both fronts.Regarding mutual economic interests, from the perspective of Myanmar, Chinese investment is indispensible in the pursuit of large infrastructure projects, along with rapid economic growth.From the perspective of China, Beijing wishes to press development of its infrastructure, connectivity and resource projects throughout Myanmar. 
Examples of major Chinese development projects in or projected for Myanmar include the One Belt One Road initiative, Letpadaung copper mine, KyaukPhyu port and oil and gas pipelines and and transformation of the Irrawaddy into a viable waterway for freight – to say nothing of the much plagued Myitsone Dam.
And while a final decision is still pending regarding the Myitsone Dam, we can possibly look to the Letpadaung copper mine as an example of how a new era in the conduct of the economic relationship between Myanmar and China could unfold. A 2014 investigation commission under the charge of Aung San Suu Kyi concluded that the mine should continue, albeit with greater profit for the Myanmar government and greater compensation to farmers. We can see here an attempt to meet the strategic interests of China with the responsible social and economic needs of Myanmar and its citizens. In fact, the mining company Wanbao regarded the recommendation as so significant, and positive, that it made it the subject of 20-minute film.
Now I would like to turn to the issue of peace, which is very much intertwined with the development of Myanmar and the meeting of Chinese strategic interests. The truth is, China holds many of the keys to ending armed conflict in Myanmar, while for Myanmar it is a question of what the price of increasing dependence on China will be.
For Myanmar, development cannot proceed at the expense of peace. The controversy surrounding the Myitsone Dam, for example, is not simply a debate about economics, it is intimately linked to finding lasting solutions to the conflict in Kachin State. The government of Myanmar needs to consider development in ethnic areas together with sensitive political issues, such as business interests tied to ethnic militias or the army’s confiscation of land.
Turning to China, it has for years played both sides, allegedly maintaining cordial relations with ethnic opposition groups such as the Wa and Kachin and providing them with financial support as well as arms and equipment. At the same time, it is in the interests of China to keep ethnic tensions at a low level in order to maintain security and stability across the border, which is crucial for several Chinese-supported infrastructure projects.This being said, I believe a peaceful and unified Myanmar would best serve China’s broader interests since the conflicts in northern Myanmar are the most immediate obstacle blocking or threatening China’s economic and strategic programs.
And China’s show of support in peace talks between the Myanmar government and ethnic groups is an encouraging sign of possible greater investment on the part of Beijing in helping to facilitate an end to the decades-long civil war(s) – this includes a July 2016 speech by China’s Special Envoy on Asian Affairs at a summit of ethnic armed organizations in Kachin State.
However, the subject of peace is not simply confined to the broader policy agendas of Nay Pyi Taw and Beijing, we need to understand that there are also local interests that support and cooperate with the armed groups. For example, smuggling complicates matters along the porous border. Proceeds from the trade enrich ethnic rebel groups, the Myanmar army and corrupt officials on both sides.
Business and political interests in Yunnan, for example, profit from the porous border and extract lucrative rents from trade with and investment in regions dominated by ethnic militias. On the other hand, Beijing has incentives to contain the militias since a number of them have been implicated in large-scale narcotics production and trafficking. Not to mention the recently completed oil and gas pipelines and hydropower projects in Myanmar that are essential to satisfying the energy needs of Yunnan and China’s wider southwest.The crucial point here is the need to match local interests with the national and even the international interests of both Myanmar and China.
Improved transparency would also be a positive factor for better coordination among stakeholders with interest in stability in the border regions, including the military, government and local ethnic groups on the Myanmar side and Beijing officials, Yunnan authorities and state-owned enterprises on the Chinese side.
Having mentioned the international interests of both Myanmar and China, I would now like to place the character of Myanmar-China bilateral relations and cooperation in the context of the greater foreign policy agendas of both Nay Pyi Taw and Beijing.
A critical foreign policy challenge for the Myanmar government is identifying how to balance China and the US at a time when their rivalry is intensifying in the region, as witnessed by Washington looking to pull the Tatmadaw away from China’s orbit as it looks for new partners in the Indo-Pacific region to bolster its pivot strategy.
It is paramount that the government of Myanmar make clear that upgrading relations with the United States does not come at the expense of relations with China. While it is true that the West plays a bigger role in facilitating democratization in China, it is also true that China is key when it comes to economic benefits.
Beijing should not be overly suspicious regarding the democratic convictions of Aung San Suu Kyi and her strong relationship with the West, just as Nay Pyi Taw should not be overly wary of its proximity to its giant neighbor to the north and the potential for economic and development assistance from across the border. We, in Myanmar, should keep in mind that Myanmar should have the best possible relations with all countries, but in ways that benefit the Myanmar people. And sound Sino-Myanmar ties are in the best interests of everyone, even the United States.
There is even potential for Myanmar-US-China coordination and active cooperation in such areas as information sharing and activities related to combating piracy, terrorism and narcotics.
And we can even link the peace process in Myanmar with the potential for stronger relations between Myanmar and China as well as the broader international community. Such undertakings as landmine clearance and ceasefire monitoring could possibly be led by broader international consortiums, in order to also incorporate a broader participation on the part of China.
As I conclude, I want to summarize what a win-win situation in Myanmar-China relations would look like from a Myanmar perspective. First, the preservation of national sovereignty and interests; second, gaining economic benefits from Chinese projects and investments; and third, having the option of playing the China Card with regional and international actors.
China should understand that an NLD government will be more responsive to the people’s will and accept the new political reality in Myanmar – as can be seen in the establishment by President U Htin Kyaw of a commission to assess proposed hydropower projects on the Irrawaddy River and their potential environmental and social effects.
However, this does not mean that Myanmar should not be expected to make difficult decisions on issues critical to China. And here, too, we can find evidence of a new relationship forming between Nay Pyi Taw and Beijing – as the April signing of the Kyauk Phyu-Kunming oil pipeline agreement by Myanmar and Chinese leaders was quickly followed by a meeting between Aung San Suu Kyi and the China International Trust and Investment Company to discuss the Kyauk Phyu SEZ and transportation and infrastructure development in Myanmar.
Ultimately, the bilateral relationship between China and Myanmar may, in some sense, no longer be as close as before, but at least our new partnership can be more sustainable and benefit more people on both sides of the border.
Thank you and I look forward to furthering our discussions on this topic and to a strong and mutually beneficial relationship between our countries for years to come.