Where Does Burma Stand on China’s ‘One Belt, One Road?’

By The Irrawaddy 12 May 2017

China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative is new to many of the Burmese public, though the magnitude of the massively ambitious project would need a specialized task force to understand.

Burma’s Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will soon visit China to attend a two-day summit on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), referring to the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road

China is building a network of highways, railroads, and maritime routes, known as the modern Silk Road, which will link it to Central Asia, South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.

Burma’s official position on the initiative is unclear, but the developing nation is likely to play a role in the grand scheme. How Burmese leadership will handle the impact of the far-reaching project is also unclear. Are they well equipped enough to understand BRI and enter into negotiations with the Chinese, who have major business and strategic interests in Burma?

There has been no public debate on China’s deep sea port in Kyaukphyu, Arakan State, but Reuters reported last week that China is looking to take a stake of up to 85 percent in the strategically important port, which is part of two projects: an industrial park and a special economic zone.

Kyaukphyu is key to the BRI as it sits on the Bay of Bengal and will provide strategic geo-economic access to the Indian Ocean, where China wants to develop maritime infrastructure.

Burma won’t reject the BRI; the interesting element is how the country’s leadership deals with the initiative. It is time to negotiate from a position of strength.

A few weeks ago, news emerged that China was willing to abandon the suspended and controversial US$3.6 billion Myitsone Dam project, but would be looking for concessions in return on other strategic opportunities in Burma, including Kyaukphyu.

Reports citing leaked documents from the negotiations said that a consortium led by China’s CITIC Group had proposed to take a 70-85 percent stake in the $7.3 billion deep sea port, as there had been talks between Chinese state-owned conglomerate and the Burmese government.

Alarmingly, there has been no discussion on this project in parliament. We need to hear voices from the local communities that will be affected by the deep sea port.

More focus should be put on the opposition to the Kyaukphyu port and economic zone. Activists and local communities say the project lacks transparency and would have a negative impact on local people. It is believed that more than 20,000 people are at risk of losing their livelihoods due to land acquisition for the zone.

Since Daw Aung San Suu Kyi came into power, Beijing has swiftly moved in to build stronger relations with the first new majority civilian government in decades. When China was re-asserting its role and forming friendships with the new administration in Naypyidaw, the West has faced its own issues: Brexit and the business tycoon-cum-45th US President Donald Trump.

Under the de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the relationship with the West seems to be stable but strained on the issues of the Muslim Rohingya in Arakan State and peace in the Union. She encountered protests during stops on her recent European tour and her rejection of the international fact finding mission to look into human rights abuses by the Burma Army against the Muslim population in Arakan State has only put more distance between Burma and European leaders.

Amid the unpredictable challenges of this democratic transition, Western influence on Burma is waning, while Beijing is becoming more assertive, reassuring the status quo in the country.

Beijing has offered to play peace broker between ethnic armed groups and the government, expanding its influence among Burmese stakeholders in the peace process and holding confidential meetings with powerful leaders from the government, parliament, and the armed forces. China even extended its clout to the Burma-Bangladesh border with Chinese special envoy Sun Guoxiang recently visiting the area.

Sun Guoxiang offered to mediate a diplomatic row between Bangladesh and Burma over the flight of the minority Rohingya Muslims, who have faced persecution from Arakanese Buddhists and the military. Like in the past, China is undoubtedly exercising its political and economic power over Burma.

How the Burmese leadership counters China’s ever-prominent role in its affairs is opaque, and further hindered by Burma’s need for Chinese help in seeking peace with armed groups along the countries’ shared border. These groups remain an important bargaining chip to China.

The Burmese are understandably wary of their huge and important neighbor—and they should be. Many question China’s intentions in Burma, as well as its geo-political interests and economic sway.

Unlike the West, China is next door; it’s resourceful and prepared to play the long game. With this in mind, we will soon see how Burma’s negotiation skills rate with China and be prepared to hold the Burmese leadership accountable if there are huge consequences to the deals. This is in the country’s national interest because, ultimately, it’s sovereignty that matters.