Whenever Burma faces a crisis, the international spotlight focuses on China. But to Myanmar’s leadership, timing is everything.
On Wednesday, the United States for the first time referred to the Myanmar military’s operation against the Rohingya as “ethnic cleansing” and threatened targeted sanctions against those responsible for “horrendous atrocities.”
The US made its position known to the world two days after Myanmar’s powerful military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing hopped on a plane to China.
Li Zuocheng, a member of China’s Central Military Commission, said during a meeting with Min Aung Hlaing that China’s increasing development and prosperity represented an important development opportunity for Myanmar.
“In the face of a complex and changeable regional security situation, China is willing to maintain strategic communication between the two countries’ militaries,” Li was quoted as saying in a statement issued late Wednesday.
Min Aung Hlaing and other top military leaders may well be on Washington’s list of sanctions targets, but the general has been made to feel welcome in China.
Once again, Beijing has made a calculated strategic move toward its southern neighbor.
Wang Yi in Naypyitaw
Soon after the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Congress, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi flew to two countries in Asia – Bangladesh and Myanmar – to mediate the situation in northern Rakhine State. The trip was significant; China has shown foresight by investing in both countries as a long-time friend and strategic partner.
While in Myanmar, Wang met with President U Htin Kyaw, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and military Commander-in-Chief Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing.
Adopting the role of mediator, the Chinese foreign minister voiced support for bilateral negotiations between Bangladesh and Myanmar to resolve the crisis in Rakhine, instead of an international initiative. In a meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, he stressed that the international community should create the necessary conditions and a sound environment to facilitate this.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing thanked China for its understanding of the Rakhine State issue and agreed with a three-phase plan proposed by Beijing. The situation serves as a reminder of Myanmar’s recent past; when the country was under the military regime, China unconditionally backed Myanmar at the United Nations and defended it from criticism over a number of issues, as it has done in Rakhine State.
When the West, including the US and the EU, condemned Myanmar’s former military regime and imposed sanctions on it, China was the pariah government’s main backer and largest investor.
While Min Aung Hlaing’s visit was not entirely unexpected (he was invited to China several months ago but the visit was put on hold for unknown reasons), the timing of the trip, coming so soon after his meeting with Wang, surprised some observers.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has welcomed China’s proposal to build an economic corridor as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The economic corridor will run from China’s Yunnan Province to the central Myanmar city of Mandalay. From there it will go east to Yangon and west to the Kyaukpyu special economic zone in Rakhine State; therefore, the stability of Rakhine State is vital to China, which will use the corridor to gain access to the Indian Ocean. In fact, Myanmar is central to China’s geopolitical strategic game plan in terms of trade links, energy security and its gigantic Silk Road plan. China will not allow this plan to be checked by Western influence or – more importantly – foreign military bases in Myanmar.
Beijing wants to see stability restored in the Rakhine region, as both Bangladesh and Myanmar are important to its ambitious BRI.
China has also promised to be a key player in Myanmar’s ongoing peace process. All ethnic armed groups in northern Myanmar are under China’s influence and enjoy China’s support. Myanmar needs China’s help in persuading ethnic insurgents to come to the negotiating table.
As it has in the past, China has asked ethnic leaders to attend the next round of peace talks in Myanmar. The date of the next conference has not been announced yet.
Playing ‘Big Brother’
China has played a ‘Big Brother’ role in Myanmar for decades. It will be interesting to see how, amid pressure from the West on the Rohingya issue, China and Myanmar develop and deepen their relationship from here.
The late Prime Minister U Nu once famously said, “Our tiny nation cannot have the effrontery to quarrel with any power…. And least among these, could Burma afford to quarrel with the new China?”
But China is not alone in lending a helping hand to Myanmar. Whenever Beijing makes a move in Myanmar, New Delhi raises an eyebrow.
Myanmar received backing from India when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the country weeks after the violence erupted in northern Rakhine State and fully supported the government and military.
Myanmar and India also initiated joint military exercises and agreed to cooperate on training, exchanges and intelligence sharing. New Delhi is keen to expand its support on counterterrorism and increase cooperation with the government and military. New Delhi objects to the multi-billion-dollar BRI project, boycotting a high-profile Belt and Road Forum organized by China in May.
To counter China, Japan has also increased its investment in and assistance to Myanmar. Tokyo recently announced US$1.1 billion in loans and other assistance for a railway linking Yangon and Mandalay, efforts to boost farmers’ incomes, and support for small and medium enterprises, residential financing and ethnic minorities.
Moscow, too has weighed in on the crisis in Rakhine. Yangon-based Russian Ambassador Nikolay Listopadov said recently, “We are against excessive external intervention, because it won’t lead to any constructive results.”
“Just pressure and blaming and accusing — it simply won’t work.”
In candid remarks on US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s independent investigation, the ambassador said, “It’s absolutely not acceptable for the Myanmar side; it will never accept it … it won’t work. It’s counterproductive.”
In 2009-10, Russia invested in the oil and gas sector in Myanmar, but more importantly Myanmar procured weapons and jet fighters such as the MiG 29 from Russia. The Myanmar military sends hundreds of officers to Russia for training on an annual basis.
But Beijing is several steps ahead of all of them.
Myanmar’s powerful neighbor to the north supports the country through aid and investment, and assistance in building strategic infrastructure projects such as oil and gas pipelines, ports, and dams. But as mentioned above, closer military cooperation is also now on the agenda. The details of any substantive agreements reached between China and Myanmar during Min Aung Hlaing’s recent trip will be worth keeping an eye on.
Since taking office in April in 2016, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has surprised her Western friends by developing a warm relationship with the Chinese. In return, Beijing has quickly increased the frequency of high-level visits, while ratcheting up aid, assistance and diplomatic coverage for Myanmar.
In fact, it seems that while China and India have assisted her government since she came to power, the West, which invested in the country’s democracy movement for decades, is losing its influence under her administration. Despite this, we have seen mounting criticism and condemnation from the West of her administration and Myanmar. As a result, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will find more comfort working with regional governments and traditional allies. But she is not ignoring the West; rather, she is trying to effect a rebalancing. Can she pull it off? If so, for how long?
Myanmar is undoubtedly becoming a battleground for the superpowers as the country moves to open up and rapidly forges alliances in the region and beyond. China no doubt is feeling the heat.
Like it or not, the reality is that China has regained its old position and will remain a dominant and influential player in Myanmar, a country in which Western powers and powerful neighbors once vied for influence.
It is too early to say whether people in Myanmar are ready to rethink their anti-China sentiment. Beijing is widely seen as having been the main backer of the repressive previous regimes and as a major exploiter of the country’s natural resources. People in Myanmar have reservations about China and its motives.
To win over the people of the country, Beijing will have to repair its tarnished image.
However, the West’s attempt to seize the moral high ground by taking an unyielding approach to the complex issue in Rakhine State has also elicited a strong emotional reaction among the general population. This could lead to doubts about the West’s engagement, if not to outright anti-Western feeling.
Looking at the fallout from the crisis in Rakhine, Beijing seems to have emerged the winner. Is the US no longer in the game, as some seasoned observers have suggested? While it is hard to predict exactly how Beijing will gain from this crisis, there can be no doubt that the West is losing its influence in Myanmar.
With the decline of Western power elsewhere, the rise of China will have implications and consequences for the region and Myanmar. China today is a major player in the global economy and it will continue to gain in importance. Myanmar must prepare to counter China’s dominance before it is too late.