Analysis: China’s Shadow Over Myanmar

By The Irrawaddy 25 April 2018

Only weeks after lawmakers elected Myanmar’s new president last month, China has promptly dispatched a high-level delegation to meet him.

Song Tao, minister of the International Department of the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China, met with State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw today and became the first high-ranking foreign official to meet the new president, U Win Myint.

On Sunday in Beijing, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with former President U Thein Sein, vowing to promote the development of the China-Myanmar economic corridor, Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported.

Wang Yi said the comprehensive strategic cooperation between the two countries had seen substantial progress, adding that China was willing to work with Myanmar to push forward construction of the China-Myanmar economic corridor and help stimulate Myanmar’s economic development. During U Thein Sein’s time in power, he suspended China’s work on the controversial Myitsone project in Myanmar. U Thein Sein’s decision received both domestic support and rare praise from the West.

The decision angered China and relations between the two nations soured. But Beijing is now back on track, having rekindled warm relations with Myanmar after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide election in the 2015 general elections. China sent several high-level delegations, including a previous visit by Song Tao to restore friendly relations.

China backed Myanmar at the UN after hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled Rakhine State late last year and its military was accused of ethnic cleansing. When Myanmar recently agreed to let UN Security Council members visit the country later this month, including Rakhine, China was believed to have influenced its decision.

China’s influence in Myanmar is enormous. It has invested in a deep-sea port at Kyaukpyu in southern Rakhine from which it has run oil and gas pipelines across the country to southern Yunnan Province. It had planned to build a high-speed rail line as well, but the project has stalled. Chinese companies are also behind several mining projects in central Myanmar.

In November, Minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar and proposed an economic corridor linking the neighbors as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The economic corridor will run from Yunnan to the city of Mandalay in central Myanmar. From there it will stretch south to Yangon and west to the Kyaukpyu special economic zone in Rakhine. Myanmar is in fact central to China’s geopolitical strategic game plan in terms of trade links, energy security and its ambitious Silk Road project, and stability in Rakhine is critical to its success. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi welcomed the corridor proposal, though few details have been shared.

Beijing also promised to persuade ethnic armed groups in northern Myanmar to talk with the central government. As a peace broker, Sun Guoxiang, Beijing’s special envoy for Asian affairs, made several visits to Yunnan and Naypyitaw to bring armed groups to the negotiating table at the last national peace conference in 2017. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has asked China to assist in the peace process.