Analysis

During High-Level Visit, China Takes Note of Myanmar’s ‘High Standards’ on BRI Projects

By The Irrawaddy 9 September 2020

Last week, Myanmar’s top leaders welcomed a high-ranking Chinese official to Naypyitaw.

Yang Jiechi, a Politburo member and director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission under the Communist Party of China (CPC)’s Central Committee, made a stop in Myanmar’s capital en route to Europe.

Considered China’s highest-ranking diplomat, Yang met separately with Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint. He also called on Myanmar military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

Yang’s high status as a Politburo member gave the meetings a greater significance than Myanmar leaders’ discussions with previous visitors such as State Councilor Wang Yi and Song Tao, the head of the International Department of the CPC’s Central Committee. It also gave Naypyitaw a rare chance to convey important messages to the highest levels in Beijing.

Informed sources familiar with Yang’s visit disclosed that he sought reassurances on the implementation of China’s ambitious backbone infrastructure projects in Myanmar, while at the same time announcing a 200-million-yuan (39.33-billion-kyat) grant for Rakhine State.

Beijing is eager to see implementation of its delayed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects kick off before Myanmar’s election on Nov. 8, the sources said, adding that the Chinese are also concerned with the growing influence of other partners in Myanmar, namely the US and Japan.

Of particular concern to Beijing is the US’ growing influence in Myanmar; the Chinese were alarmed by recent opinion piece published by a senior Yangon-based US diplomat, George N. Sibley.

In a guest column titled “How the Erosion of Sovereignty Elsewhere Impacts Myanmar at Home” first published in this publication in July, Sibley—who was then chargé d’affaires at the US Embassy—accused China of taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to continue its crackdown on democracy, and of failing to respect other nations’ sovereignty.

China’s embassy in Myanmar fired back, accusing the United States of “outrageously smearing” China and trying to drive a wedge between it and its Southeast Asian neighbors over such issues as the contested South China Sea and Hong Kong. The spat was just the latest of many signs of mounting tensions between the superpowers.

Responding to the US claims that Beijing was undermining the sovereignty of its neighbors, the Chinese Embassy said US agencies abroad were doing “disgusting things” to contain China and had shown a “selfish, hypocritical, contemptible and ugly face.”

Beijing is well aware that both Myanmar officials and the public are wary of the BRI projects and has taken note of the steady rise of anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar.

A recent increase in the military capabilities of armed ethnic groups in northern Myanmar is causing serious concern among Myanmar’s military leadership. Since last year, the military has seized several caches of Chinese made weapons near the northern border. Even as it promises to assist Myanmar’s ongoing peace process, China continues to back ethnic insurgents based in northern Myanmar.

The government is proceeding cautiously with the BRI projects, and the pace of implementation remains slow. According to the sources, Yang and his delegation acknowledged that Myanmar has set a high standard when it comes to green-lighting BRI projects.

During the working meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar side emphasized the need for quality investment from China.

According to a Myanmar government statement, on the issue of Rakhine, China vowed to continue its support for Myanmar’s initiatives to address the many challenges facing the region, to facilitate the repatriation process, and to forge closer cooperation and coordination in the international arena. China announced the provision of a 200-million-yuan grant to the Myanmar government to improve the livelihoods of people in Rakhine State. Myanmar expressed its deep appreciation to China for its consistent support at multilateral meetings and reiterated its long-standing support for the One China Policy and the One Country, Two Systems Policy.

During the visit, China and Myanmar also stressed the need for stability along their common border. Interestingly, they also agreed to jointly combat illegal activities, including gambling, in the border regions.

Recently, the Chinese Embassy issued a statement saying China expressed support for Myanmar’s move to investigate irregularities surrounding a controversial city development project near the Thai border in Karen State run by Chinese investors accused of illegal casino activities in Cambodia and the Philippines. The statement was issued just before Yang’s high-level visit.

Known locally as “China Town”, the planned new city project is a collaboration between the Karen State Border Guard Force—a Myanmar military-backed armed group led by Colonel Chit Thu and formerly known as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA)—and a Hong Kong-registered company, Yatai International Holding Group (IHG). China has been at pains to distance itself from the project, with senior Foreign Ministry officials in Beijing inviting the Myanmar ambassador to a meeting to explain China’s stance on the casino and China Town projects.

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