What Will Xi Jinping’s Visit Mean for Myanmar’s Future?

By The Irrawaddy 19 January 2020

Kyaw Kha: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar. I’m The Irrawaddy chief reporter Kyaw Kha and I’m joined by the head of the Chinese desk at ISP Myanmar [Institute for Strategy and Policy Myanmar] Ma Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee and political analyst and writer U Than Soe Naing.

There are mixed opinions about the Chinese president’s visit to Myanmar. Ma Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee, what do you think of the Chinese president’s interest in Myanmar, and what is the intention behind his visit?

Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee: Roughly speaking, his visit is a goodwill visit to mark the 70th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Myanmar and China. His visit is intended to cement the friendship between Myanmar and China. Whenever he visits [to foreign countries], he always pushes his One Belt One Road Initiative [OBOR]. There have been working group-level and ministerial-level discussions on the establishment of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor [CMEC]. Agreements will be signed during his visit to Myanmar. His visit is also intended to push the CMEC.

KK: So, are those agreements predetermined or not?

KKKK: The two sides agreed to establish the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor in 2017 and there have since been further discussions at different levels. Some MoUs [memoranda of understanding] on the economic corridor were signed in 2018 and there have been working-group level and ministerial-level discussions. The president has come to put the final touches on those discussions.

KK: Do you think the Chinese president will discuss the issue of the ethnic armed groups [EAOs] in northern Myanmar that have not signed truces with the government? The peace process is a major problem in the country.

Than Soe Naing: Yes, it is. But in my opinion, the two sides will discuss the issue but not reveal their discussions to the media. However, due to the importance of this issue, Mr. Sun Guoxiang [the Chinese Special Envoy for Asian Affairs] met all the members of the FPNCC [Federal Political Negotiation Consultative Committee] before the Chinese president’s visit. He asked them to ensure the security of the Chinese president during his visit. I heard that no members of the FPNCC have opposed the OBOR. The KIA [Kachin Independence Army] said that it would not disturb OBOR implementation in Kachin State, but it wants to levy tax on it. However, these issues are to be negotiated between them and the Myanmar government, but not with the Chinese government. I would guess that military tensions in northern Myanmar will ease to a certain extent after the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping. But I hope that if Sun Guoxiang can push the ethnic armed groups in northern Myanmar to sign bilateral ceasefire agreements, peace can be achieved in 2020, except probably not in Rakhine State.

KK: China has planned strategically regarding its projects in Myanmar. Does the Myanmar side think strategically in response? What is your assessment?

KKKK: We know well what China wants. For example, the purpose of the CMEC is for southwestern parts of China to gain access to the Indian Ocean via Myanmar. That’s why it has proposed establishing the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port and the Mandalay-Muse railroad. On the Myanmar side, studying the discussions [of Myanmar authorities], they say those projects will create jobs and improve infrastructure.

But we need to think about what types of job opportunities we want to create and if we have any vision about how to make use of the infrastructure. China views our country as a transit country. It has plans to export its products via Myanmar to the Indian Ocean. So, let’s see if Myanmar has any strategic thinking beyond that. According to our [ISP Myanmar’s] study, Myanmar barely ever thinks strategically. Usually, Myanmar makes decisions ad hoc, only aiming to solve immediate problems.

KK: Do you think departments in the Myanmar government have capacity to effectively minimize environmental and social impacts of projects for the BRI [Belt and Road Initiative, the current name for OBOR]?

KKKK: Our country has regularly experienced difficulties and challenges, including land disputes and environmental impacts from handling mega projects. It is very likely that land disputes will arise in the confiscation of land for mega projects. Looking at the past, it wasn’t possible to handle those issues effectively. [The government] may have had the will to handle them, but they lacked experience and there are many challenges and difficulties in practice. I think the government has to take extra caution in handling possible land disputes in BRI projects.  Mistakes are inevitable in handling such mega projects, so rather than implementing all the projects at once, we should start one-by-one and improve each one based on the lessons and experiences from the previous one. It is the best option for us to go step-by-step, and conduct a review before doing each subsequent step. On the other hand, China wants to start the projects rapidly. Striking a balance between these two will be a major challenge for Myanmar.

KK: Some EAOs in northern Myanmar recently held talks with Sun Guoxiang. I saw reports that the Chinese envoy put pressure on them to establish ceasefires.

TSN: Sun Guoxiang will push for it. Ground surveys have basically been conducted for the Muse-Mandalay railroad project. If construction is to begin, it is important that there is stability in northern areas. Some EAOs like the KIA have said they will tax the parts in their area. However, I think those are not topics to be discussed with the Chinese government. They should discuss those with the Myanmar government. Those have nothing to do with the Chinese president’s visit. China is eager to implement the project, so the Chinese president will come and tangible work is set to start.

EAOs in northern Myanmar have to make peace and Sun Guoxiang will definitely push them. Previously, those groups operated on the border and impacted China. As a result, China drove them further into Myanmar. They rely on Sun Guoxiang to represent their interests. But personally, I don’t like such thinking. Of course, we do need China’s help but I want [the EAOs] to build mutual trust and understanding with the Myanmar government and military and work for peace rather than relying on China.

KK: Some suggest that the Chinese envoy met some EAOs based in northern Myanmar at Laiza, the headquarters of the KIO [Kachin Independence Organization, the political arm of the KIA] to ensure the security of the Chinese president during his visit. Wasn’t this also because of BRI projects? What is your view?

KKKK: I noticed three things regarding his meeting with them. The first is, as you two have said, he might have asked them to behave themselves during the Chinese president’s visit. Also, Jan. 23 is Chinese New Year. China does want to see fighting at the border during its New Year, so he might have asked them for that. The third thing is about the BRI. China has a vested interest in Myanmar’s peace process partly due to its border stability and partly due to BRI projects. For China to successfully implement its BRI projects, there must be stability in ethnic areas on the border. Some projects are set to be signed off for implementation during the Chinese president’s visit. The Chinese envoy came and held discussions with the EAOs to make sure the conflicts in northern Myanmar do not affect China’s fundamental interests.

KK: Do you think China has strategic considerations regarding EAOs in Myanmar? Some critics suggest that China is using the EAOs to push for a give-and-take with the Myanmar government: Chinese projects in Myanmar in exchange for peace. What is your view on this?

TSN: I don’t assume China is using them strategically but they will be included in its plans. China doesn’t usually take EAOs into consideration. For example, when we held talks with SPIC [State Power Investment Corporation of China], we asked whether the company could implement the hydropower project upstream from Myitsone because people in Myanmar have negative feelings about the construction of a dam at Myitsone. The company officials said they could, but the Myanmar government and military told them that they could not take responsibility for that because that area is under the control of the KIA. We asked them if the KIA would disturb their work and they said they don’t know and that they don’t traditionally hold direct talks with them [EAOs] on national-level projects. So, in the case of taxation proposed by EAOs, China would just raise the issue with the Myanmar government and not negotiate with the EAOs.

But tactically, China listens to their voices. Sun Guoxiang has met and talked with them before Xi’s visit. To us, peace is a big issue. But for China, it just negotiates with EAOs to protect its OBOR. It is just a tactic, but not a strategic step like you suggested. But then, things can slide into chaos around major political turning points. Chinese troops of various kinds entered Myanmar in 1968 under the influence of the Cultural Revolution. In that case, it will become a strategic issue. But for the time being, China has no strategic plans regarding the EAOs.

KK: The Myanmar government said it will assess the projects against the yardstick of the MSDP [Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan]. But the question is whether the MSDP is comprehensive enough. What is your view?

KKKK: The MSDP focuses on various sectors from peace and environment to welfare at the grass-roots. It is good to have a basic guideline for implementing projects. The MSDP will serve as a guideline for Myanmar to avoid repeating its past mistakes in implementing projects. The question is how much we will be able to put the guideline into practice. We will wait and see, but for the time being, there are weaknesses in applying this guideline. The MSDP is good, but I doubt we have the capacity to fully implement it.

Many point out the lack of transparency of projects. People are not well-informed about the projects. The MSDP requires public consultations [for implementing projects]. But there are still many restrictions that prevent meaningful consultations and meaningful public participation. There will be a lot of things that we have to learn as we go. I think we need to greatly enhance the capacity to be able to implement the MSDP.

KK: Some say that China attaches importance to Myanmar because of its outlet to the Indian Ocean. How important is it for China to gain access to the Indian Ocean in terms of establishing its regional influence?

TSN: I don’t think China focuses on regional influence. It wants Myanmar for the transit, I think. It said it will establish industrial zones [on the Myanmar-China border]. But we don’t know exactly what types of industrial zones will be built. Secondary industries from China or Myanmar that will try to produce value-added products for export from resources and raw materials? As Daw Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee said, I think the Myanmar side doesn’t have specific plans. Again, as to the question of China’s regional influence, Myanmar is just for transit, but transit is important strategically. It is transit that will link two oceans and it is very important for underdeveloped southwestern areas of China. Again, China will no longer use the Strait of Malacca, which it currently uses to import 80 percent of its oil from the Arabian Sea—it will only import oil through Myanmar. It is building a safe trade route. So, as to the question of its regional influence, we will have to wait and see later depending on its actions. But for the time being, it is trying to gain access to the Indian Ocean, export its products to West Asia and safely import oil from there. This is its major objective for now, I assume.

KKKK: We need to view this in connection with regional and global perspectives on China. Until the early 2000s, China focused mainly on resources in Myanmar. But around 2003, then-Chinese President Hu Jintao spoke of the Malacca Dilemma: China views the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Singapore as a vulnerable route and wants to reduce the country’s dependence on it, so it sought other possible routes and found that access to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar could be of help. Since then, access to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar has been a part of China’s strategic thinking. It is intended for defensive purpose, to protect its interests.

But again, there has been increased rivalry between China and the US in the region, so it has become important for China to be able to effectively access the Indian Ocean and Myanmar has become important in its strategic thinking. My view is that Myanmar has become an important spot in the region due to its strategic importance to China. So Myanmar needs to manage the rivalry well. If not, there is a high possibility that we may suffer from the rivalry. In weighing Kyaukphyu [and its deep-sea port], Myanmar should not just think from an economic perspective, but also take the regional landscape into consideration. Only then will we be able to promote our national interests amid the rivalry between these big countries. If we can’t manage it well, we will suffer.

KK: Do you think peace talks with EAOs in northern Myanmar will speed up if there are further agreements on BRI following the Chinese president’s visit?

TSN: I hope so. The Chinese president will sign agreements during his visit and projects will then start to be implemented. Because of this, it is important for China that all the EAOs in the area are engaged in the peace process. Again, except for the AA [Arakan Army], China can control the activities of all the members of the FPNCC. I hope that bilateral ceasefire agreements will be signed with the EAOs after the Chinese president’s visit. Then the peace process landscape in 2020 will be more pleasant and military tensions will deescalate in northern Myanmar.

KK: There are a lot of EAOs along the gas pipeline [that goes from Rakhine State to China’s Yunnan Province], but not a single bullet has ever been shot at the pipeline itself. China has such tremendous influence. My last question, what strategies should Myanmar adopt in considering Chinese projects?

KKKK: The BRI is a global project and Myanmar can’t walk away from this globalization process. But on the other hand, Myanmar should have a clearer vision of how it wants to participate in this project. Myanmar wants to see development, but the questions are which sector will it prioritize for development, which sector will we use as a base for improving our economy? If we are to boost our economy based on tourism, then we will need a specific type of infrastructure. Similarly, if we are to boost our economy based on manufacturing, then we will need a different type of infrastructure. So, first of all, we must have a clear vision about how we want to develop our country. Based on this, then we have to take the necessary actions, step-by-step.

KK: Thank you for your contributions!

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