As West Ponders Sanctions, Will Myanmar Seek Beijing’s Embrace?

By Aung Zaw 22 September 2017

As some Western governments seriously consider sanctions on Myanmar’s military and government in light of security operations in Rakhine State dogged by allegations of human rights abuses and dubbed ethnic cleansing by the UN, Beijing is ready to step in to assist its southern neighbor.

There is a sense of irony to see that the West’s abrupt lifting of sanctions and full support for political reform in Myanmar since 2011 is on the verge of reversing. The West didn’t listen when activists and observers warned them not to drop sanctions and welcome Myanmar with open arms too quickly.

Now, as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi openly warned in her diplomatic address this week, Myanmar’s fragile democracy faces an uphill battle and huge challenges. Some Western governments and media take the moral high ground to bark at Daw Aung San Suu Kyi over human rights issues, but many in Myanmar say they are barking up the wrong tree.

With mounting pressure in the West to re-impose sanctions and restrictions, the government under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will seek some selected allies in the West but will be forced to rely more and more on China.

The Chinese government invited Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to visit even before she became de facto leader of the government and is likely extend its political support and investment.

Rumors of Beijing’s hesitance over Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s manoeuver to reach out to India, Japan and the West have persisted since last year; he has now visited Brussels twice, but is unlikely to return if Europe imposes sanctions.

Informed sources have indicated that China invited Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing to visit the country’s capital in the near future. He visited before to meet President Xi Jinping.

This week, Min Aung Hlaing visited strife-torn Rakhine State. Next week, he will likely hold regular security meetings with top brass in Naypyitaw. He will then visit Beijing, sources told The Irrawaddy.

As a sign of more restrictions and sanctions designed to punish the military’s behavior, the British government suspended an educational course provided to Myanmar’s military on democracy, leadership and English language—which cost around £305,000 (US$411,000) last year—until there is an acceptable resolution to the current situation.

In return, the military in Myanmar issued a statement saying they will never again send officers to Britain for training.

Every year, Myanmar sends its officers to Russia and China. Soon, India will also train Myanmar Army officers and allow them to study in military academies in India—the agreement was reached during Min Aung Hlaing’s visit to India in July.

Due to conflict in Rakhine, the United States’ plan to expand military-to-military engagement with Myanmar has been halted. The EU is also considering imposing sanctions and other restrictions on the Myanmar Army.

China Backs Myanmar at the UN

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told UN Secretary-General António Guterres that China supports efforts by the Myanmar government to protect its national security and opposes recent violent attacks in the country’s Rakhine State.

“China is willing to continue promoting peace talks in its own way, and hopes the international community can play a constructive role to ease the situation and promote dialogue,” Wang Yi said.

As a key ally to former repressive regimes, China continues to provide diplomatic protection to Myanmar as some Western nations press the government and military on the brutal crackdown on self-identifying Rohingya that has sent 420,000 refugees fleeing to Bangladesh.

Rakhine State is an important region for China.

As a major investor in Myanmar, China is looking for a seaport in Kyaukphyu, Rakhine State, on the Bay of Bengal—the country clearly has strategic interest in the Indian Ocean. To Beijing, Rakhine State without western influence is better.

In April, during his official visit to Beijing, Myanmar President U Htin Kyaw signed an agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping on a partially completed crude oil pipeline between western Myanmar’s Kyaukphyu and southern China’s Kunming.

In May, Reuters reported China was looking to take a stake of up to 85 percent in the strategically important seaport in Myanmar as part of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative.

As China expands its geo-political influence and opens up an economic corridor to its southern neighbors, it needs stability in Rakhine State.

China’s motives in backing Myanmar are said to include a desire to expand its foothold in Myanmar and acting to limit Western influence spreading among its neighbors.

Beijing has been pushing for preferential access to the deep seaport of Kyaukphyu—part of its ambitious infrastructure investment plan to deepen its links with economies throughout Asia and beyond, Reuters reported.

The pipeline is part of the US$10 billion Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone and there are also plans for a railway linking Yunnan Province and Myanmar, though it is thought to be suspended or under review.

In April, Chinese Special Envoy for Asian Affairs Sun Guoxiang visited Bangladesh and offered to tackle a diplomatic row between Bangladesh and Myanmar over the flight of the persecuted Rohingya.

Beijing’s “Belt and Road” initiative is massive and is intended to stimulate trade by investment in infrastructure throughout Asia and beyond. The Daw Aung San Suu Kyi government is seen close to China.

Asian neighbors such as Thailand, Singapore, Japan and India will not impose sanctions and never had imposed sanctions on Myanmar when under repressive regimes. Asian investors will not leave the country because of the situation in Rakhine State.

The dilemma some Western nations face is whether to impose sanctions knowing it will only increase China’s foothold and expands its influence.