Will a Chinese Charm Offensive Bring Rapprochement with Burma?

By Sai Wansai 18 August 2016

The Chinese charm offensive in the new era of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Decmocracy (NLD) government has visibly been in full swing lately.

From a Chinese envoy’s fact-finding and lobbying tour to Kachin State in June, to the recent Minister of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Song Tao paying a courtesy call to former military strongman Snr-Gen Than Shwe—while presumably preparing for State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to China—the offensive is underway.

A series of lobbying and opinion-shaping measures has already been undertaken, as outlined by Voice Of America in a recent analysis.

• On June 4, Chinese Ambassador Hong Liang visited Kachin State to lobby for the resumption of the stalled Myitsone Dam project.
• On June 8, the China-Burma Swe Myo Pauk Phaw Friendship Foundation was formed.
• On June 11, a China-Burma caravan trip was announced—to promote friendship between the two nations—for October.
• On June 18, Union Minister U Ohn Win, who was on his way to attend an energy workshop in China, was briefed by a Chinese diplomat that China would assist with human resource development, as reported in China’s Xinhua news on June 25.

Although speculation was rife that China was keen to continue the Myitsone Dam project that had stalled in 2011 under former President Thein Sein’s government, the country’s true intentions might be tied to far more than just this particular project.

While the Chinese undoubtedly have a host of other business and political interests in mind besides the pending dam project, the NLD administration’s main and immediate concern is how to make use of Chinese influence on the ethnic armed organizations along the Sino-Burma border, so that peace can be achieved.

Suu Kyi’s unmistakable and explicit message on Monday at the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) meeting was that although peace is her priority for the country, economic development will not be neglected.

“One reason we haven’t achieved peace is that the physical and mental needs of the people still cannot be fulfilled,” said Suu Kyi, who also serves as chairwoman of the UPDJC.

She added, “In the long run, without peace, we can’t maintain any kind of economic development. No matter how much economic progress [we make], once peace is eroded, the progress made will also be shattered.”

Ye Htut, former information minister and spokesperson of former President Thein Sein, said the heightened armed conflict that occurred in Burma after the halt of the Myitsone Dam project could have been a coincidence, or not.

In an interview with Radio Free Asia, aired on Saturday, Ye Htut said, “Because nearly all ethnic armed organizations that have not yet signed the ceasefire—with the exception of two groups in the south—are based along the Chinese border, we appreciate that China’s role is of the utmost importance to us all.”

He stressed the importance of reaching a decision that would both foster peace and support the country’s relationship with China.

“I’m of the opinion that this should be done in a speedy manner,” he added.

Daw Dwer Bu, a leader of the Unity and Democracy Party of Kachin State and former lawmaker, said that although she welcomed the formation of a commission and investigation of the dam, people were still opposed to the project.

When asked by Radio Free Asia on Saturday what she thought about a possible referendum on the issue she replied, “There is no need to do that because it is clear that the people—not only the Kachin people but also the rest of the country—are against the project.”

On Friday, a 20-member commission was formed to review proposed hydropower projects on the Irrawaddy River, assessing the potential benefits to Burmese citizens and making recommendations on whether they should proceed. Their first report is due by November 11.

Meanwhile, Suu Kyi is paying an official visit to China between August 17-21 at the invitation of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

Given such a backdrop, with Chinese lobbyists in high gear advocating for the resumption of the Myitsone Dam, coupled with the head of state reception being prepared for Suu Kyi, the controversial issue has reached a critical stage.

A lot of questions remain: whether the suspension of the Myitsone Dam has a direct effect on widespread armed conflict in Kachin and northern Shan states; what the consequences will be if the NLD permanently discards the agreement; if the NLD will be able to withstand public pressure if it is pressured to comply with its contractual obligation; and if China is ready to accept a likely adjustment to the terms of the agreement—perhaps the complete stoppage of the project in exchange for support for the One-China policy, South China Sea dispute or its One Belt, One Road undertaking?

These concerns might be clarified after Suu Kyi has wrapped up her visit to China and discussed the outstanding issues that she inherited from the previous government. For the time being, we just have to cross our fingers and hope for the best, for the people of Burma.

Sai Wansai is a lifelong Shan political activist and political commentator on Burma, specifically ethnic issues.