China’s Charm Offensive Regains its Foothold in Myanmar

By Aung Zaw 9 August 2017

Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi hosted an important Chinese guest for dinner at her Naypyitaw residence on August 4, with the visit covered on the front page of the state-run newspaper the following day.

The guest in question, Song Tao, head of the International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China, was on his second official trip to Myanmar. During his first visit, in August, he met the reclusive ex-junta head Snr-Gen Than Shwe at his residence, a testimony to China’s reach and influence in the country.

The minister for the State Counselor’s Office, U Kyaw Tint Swe, and National Security Adviser U Thaung Tun also attended the dinner on August 4.

Although details of the meeting were not released, sources said the discussion touched on a wide range of issues, including the peace process, indicating a warming of relations between China and Myanmar.

Some unconfirmed reports from sources familiar with China-Myanmar relations suggested that Song Tao was laying the groundwork for a high-level visit by China to Myanmar. Whatever the case, China’s aggressive engagement with Myanmar is paying off.

On the same day as the dinner, Reuters reported that the two countries were holding initial talks about buying electricity from China. It added that the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan had been left with a surplus of power after a switch toward less energy-intensive industries amid an economic slowdown.

Three days later, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi told villagers in central Myanmar that peace and power supply are priorities.

As part of its ambitious “Belt and Road” initiative, a development strategy that links China with the rest of Asia, Beijing will likely fund infrastructure projects, trade and investment that will stimulate the economy in Myanmar.

With that, Beijing is likely to push for stability along the China-Myanmar border, where powerful ethnic armed groups are based. Chinese officials have told the groups to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA). Regardless of whether they follow the directive, the groups will remain under China’s influence, a part of Beijing’s strength over Naypyitaw.

Much importance lies in Song Tao’s recent trip, coupled with his briefing and assessment delivered to Beijing’s top leaders. It could potentially shape Beijing’s future policy toward its southern neighbor.

During his visit, Song Tao also met top army leaders, with the exception of army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, who was visiting Japan at the invitation of Nippon Foundation Chairman Yohei Sasakawa.

Japan’s Sasakawa Foundation is also involved in the peace process, but it is known to have more contact with ethnic armed groups in southern Myanmar.

China also promised to assist in the peace process, and last May, a Chinese special envoy—Sun Guoxiang—helped to negotiate a trip involving members of several ethnic armed groups based in northern Myanmar to Naypyitaw so that they could attend a government-sponsored peace conference.

Despite its involvement in Myanmar and its promise to assist in the peace process, China has little influence on ethnic armed groups in the south.

China as Big Brother

When Western nations, including the United States and those in the European Union, imposed sanctions and condemned Myanmar’s former military regime, China was the pariah government’s main backer and largest investor.

As a powerful neighbor, Beijing supported Myanmar through aid and investment, helping build strategic infrastructure projects such as oil and gas pipelines, ports, and dams.

China has poured money into hydropower projects in the country’s ethnic regions, and its three major oil corporations have a strong foothold. However, China did not win the hearts and minds of the Myanmar people—it was Beijing’s disadvantage.

Many in Myanmar worry that Chinese investments and aid programs are like a Trojan horse. They view the activities of its resource-hungry neighbor in Myanmar as exploitation. Song Tao’s recent visit—or soft diplomacy—may not help to lessen the public’s anti-China sentiment, either.

But the government in Myanmar needs China. For decades, Myanmar’s leadership has seen China’s rising power differently.

The late Prime Minister U Nu, who held numerous meetings with Chinese leaders to settle several disputes, once publicly expressed this fear in a statement after the Chinese Communist Party assumed power in 1949. “Our tiny nation cannot have the effrontery to quarrel with any power,” he said. “And least among these, could Burma afford to quarrel with new China?”

Former President U Thein Sein, who suspended the controversial China-funded Myitsone Dam project in Kachin State in September 2011, in what was seen as a cue to the West and US to ease sanctions on his country, expressed his closeness to China.

During his official visit to Beijing in 2014, he confessed a fondness for Chinese television dramas. “Since childhood, I’ve been watching Chinese television,” the then President told China Radio International.

Song Tao has been enforcing the closeness between the two countries on his recent visit by meeting key figures in the political landscape of Myanmar, including leaders of the Union Solidarity and Development Party.

Interestingly, he also visited former commander-in-chief Gen Tin Oo, 90, who has been hospitalized since May. Tin Oo went on to become a founder and patron of the National League for Democracy (NLD).

Paying respects to Tin Oo, some China analysts in Yangon concluded, was Beijing showing its long lasting gratitude to Myanmar generals who fought against the Kuomintang (KMT) troops on Myanmar soil in the 1960s.

Gen Tin Oo was one of the army officers who fought against KMT forces, and as a result he won the title of ‘Thura’ for his courage in the mid-1950s. (Aside from Tin Oo, China also provided sanctuary for Brig-Gen Kyaw Zaw, one of the legendary “Thirty Comrades,” when he joined the Communist Party of Burma on the China border. Brig-Gen Kyaw Zaw led Myanmar troops and defeated KMT forces in the 1950s. He lived and died in Yunnan.)

Like an elephant, Beijing has a long memory when it comes to its southern neighbor: both on political players and the military.

The West is Losing on Myanmar

Since taking office in April in 2016, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has surprised her Western friends and former supporters by developing a warm relationship with the Chinese. Equally, Beijing was ready to repair the strained relationship with Myanmar.

China was trying to bring back Myanmar into its fold even before Daw Aung San Suu Kyi came to power. Months before the historic election in 2015, she was invited to visit China where President Xi Jinping received her.

The political gambit was well calculated. The NLD won a landslide election, and soon after, China sent its foreign minister Wang Yi to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—the first foreign official to do so.

While Beijing has shown support to the new government in Myanmar, the West has lost its interest and position in the country, putting its focus on the human rights issues concerning the Rohingya people in Rakhine State and, partly through its media coverage, applying pressure on the government and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. This has not gone unnoticed by the new leadership in Naypyitaw.

Under the Trump administration, the US policy on Myanmar is unclear—that is, if there is any policy at all. Or does it plan to just follow Obama’s policy? The US State Department is disoriented, to put it mildly.

Myanmar’s past connections with North Korea have resurfaced under the Trump administration, with US Special Envoy for North Korea Joseph Yun visiting Myanmar in June. He met with leaders including State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing to discuss regional security, and to reportedly ensure that Myanmar does not pursue any links with North Korea.

However, Myanmar, and its desire to achieve a federal Union and push ahead with the ongoing peace process, remains on the US radar, with American agencies based in Yangon assisting on these issues.

Under the Obama administration, Air Force One landed twice in Myanmar to praise the political reform in the country. During that time, China seemed to lose its edge and influence over its southern neighbor. Obama left a vacuum, but China has quickly returned and reset its influence.

It remains to be seen how Song Tao’s visit will yield any major change in Beijing’s engagement policy with its troubled neighbor. But one thing is certain: China has revealed its imposing strategy of regaining its foothold in Myanmar.

Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.