New China Ambassador Has His Work Cut Out for Him

By Patrick Boehler 22 March 2013

HONG KONG — China’s new ambassador to Burma has arrived in the country, taking on one of the most challenging diplomatic postings the foreign service of the world’s second-largest economy has to offer.

Yang Houlan arrived on Wednesday in Rangoon. He took over from Li Junhua, who over the last two years has become his country’s public face in moments of strong anti-China sentiment amid concerns about the environmental and social impact of Chinese investment projects in Burma.

“Yang has two choices,” a Chinese journalist frequently reporting on Burma told The Irrawaddy on condition of anonymity. “He can either, like Li Junhua, waste a couple of years and return home or engage with the change that is happening in the country.”

During his predecessor’s tenure, Chinese diplomats were confronted with protests that suspended the construction of Burma’s largest dam in Kachin State by a Chinese state-owned company and the expansion of a copper mine near Monywa in Sagaing Division. The construction of oil and gas pipelines that link the Bay of Bengal to China’s southwestern region is bound to be completed in May.

“The new ambassador will have to monitor Chinese companies in Burma and make sure they operate according to international standards and not only rely on corruption to reach their objectives,” the journalist said.

A major challenge will be to try make the Burma’s biggest investor with the historic baggage of years of co-operation with the former military junta look like a just any other investor, he said.

“Many Burmese think that Chinese investors and the Burmese military have joined forces to exploit the country’s resources and trick its people. It will be impossible not to support Burma’s reforms.”

Yang will also have to keep in mind Indian interests in Burma, the Kathmandu Post’s editor-in-chief, Akhilesh Upadhyay, wrote in an opinion piece in December, when Yang was still ambassador to Nepal. “The Chinese side knows that if it asserts itself forcefully in South Asia and in the post-political reforms of Burma, the Indian side might take it as an affront,” he wrote.

Yang, 56, started his diplomatic career in Tanzania, then served in Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea and Afghanistan. Between 2008 and 2011, he was China’s special envoy for the Korean peninsula,
dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program, followed by a stint as ambassador to Nepal.

While he has been a frequent host to Nepalese journalists and often gave interviews, Yang has also come to be known as a loyal enforcer of national policy. In one episode in 2011, then Home Minister Bijay Kumar Gachhedar was confronted by Yang on Tibetan activists in Nepal and “exchanges were not very pleasant,” the Kathmandu Post reported.

What infuriated Yang was the minister’s refusal to repatriate 21 Tibetan refugees to China in violation of a prior agreement. The minister had them released to the United Nations’ High Commissioner
for Human Rights, ultimately allowing them transit to the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India.

One issue that will be high on the agenda of those in charge of bilateral relations “will be a new round of border inspections as soon as possible,” a Chinese official familiar with the matter told The

There is a need to “inspect the boundary line and repair the damaged boundary pillar, making it easier to identify the boundary,” the official said.

Unusually, there were no working-level talks on problems on the 2,200-km-long border last year.

“We didn’t have any talks last year, because they were too busy with so many visits to Burma and other arrangements,” the official said.

Smuggling and human trafficking have been booming at the sparsely controlled border and 90 percent of all border trade is smuggled, according to an estimate by a Chamber of Commerce official in Muse, the Burmese town bordering Ruili.

The current agreement on border management dates back to 1997 and is based on a treaty signed in 1960. There are three border posts that allow third-country citizens cross the border, five that are limited to Chinese and Burmese citizens along the border, but there are many unofficial crossing points.

The announcement of Yang’s appointment in February came just days before his ministry announced the appointment of senior diplomat Wang Yingfan as China’s roving special envoy for Asia tasked with solving the longstanding problems of ethnic conflict and crime along the Sino-Burmese border.

Wang has since chaired peace talks between the Burmese armed forces and the Kachin Independence Army in Ruili last week. The two sides have held three rounds of talks since the Burmese army’s Christmas offensive, which saw the Kachin Independence Army almost lose its headquarters in Laiza. The next round of talks in Ruili could coincide with President Thein Sein’s visit to China in early April.