Editorial

China Experts Wanted

By The Irrawaddy 11 August 2020

Please don’t let the headline give you the wrong impression: This is not a job advertisement. It is merely intended to point out something Myanmar urgently needs: independent institutions and think tanks specializing in China issues and studies.

Why?

China has always been Myanmar’s big neighbor to the north. But today it is a rising regional power with ambitions to compete with the US. Some media pundits are even calling the 21st century the “Chinese century”.

China’s emergence as a player in global affairs should be of concern to all of us, but Myanmar in particular has a special place in China’s grand plan.

Myanmar’s previously ruling military junta gave away major economic projects to China. The NLD government, too, has allowed China to advance its economic interests here, reflecting in part the fact that in the aftermath of the 2017 Rakhine conflict, Myanmar needed China’s help on the UN Security Council. In addition to the Yangon New City project, China has signed agreements to open three cross-border cooperation zones in Shan and Kachin states.

The Myitsone Dam hydropower project remains suspended by the Myanmar side, though Beijing does not appear to have given up on it. The fact remains, however, that local people in Myanmar will simply never accept this project.

The Kyaukphyu deep-sea port and Special Economic Zone project was initially expected to cost more than US$9 billion (12.29 trillion kyats), but was renegotiated under the current government and the cost estimate brought down to a bit above $1 billion. This was a positive step by the NLD government.

But we can’t speak of China without discussing the armed groups in ethnic areas along the Sino-Myanmar border. Almost all these organizations have come under Chinese influence. China is the main source of political aid to ethnic armed groups in northern Myanmar. It cannot be a coincidence that armed conflict has escalated in the north since the abrupt suspension of the Myitsone project.

In recent years we have seen the Arakan Army (AA) come to the fore—a development that could not have occurred without China’s backing. When a portion of the Indian-backed Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project was attacked by Rakhine militants, questions immediately arose as to who was behind it.

During a recent visit to Russia, Myanmar military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said the violence in Myanmar was fueled by the strong support being provided to various players by big powers. The consensus among observers was that the commander-in-chief’s comments were aimed at China.

Experience shows that relations between China and Myanmar are never straightforward. The Chinese government’s commitment to help bring peace to Myanmar has disappeared amid the sounds of gunfire and the battles that continue to rage in northern Rakhine and northeastern Shan State. It only goes to show that China cannot be viewed as an honest peace broker.

No experts believe China will allow Myanmar to drift out of its orbit. China has made clear its intention to secure a foothold in the Indian Ocean through the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port project. Looking at China’s game plan, some experts even worry that Myanmar will disappear off the map in the next 20 years.

China has been exerting its influence in Myanmar in various ways for decades. In the parliamentary democracy era under U Nu, and later during U Ne Win’s Socialist regime, it did so through the Burmese Communist Party. Today, Chinese weapons and economic influence are both spreading in Myanmar; the day is not far off when China’s shadow will become so big that it will completely engulf Myanmar.

But how much has Myanmar really learned about China, about its interests in Myanmar, its geopolitical game plan, its economic goals, etc.?

Myanmar needs independent research institutes and centers to study China’s geopolitical strategy and aims. They must be financially and politically independent institutions. Research papers on the Chinese economy should be written at universities.

We need to educate ourselves about China, a country that has always reserved the right to interfere in Myanmar’s sovereignty and internal peace and stability.

Experts and think tanks on China studies tend to emerge slowly over time. But it’s time for the state to raise the bar and promote their development.

This editorial was first published in Burmese by The Irrawaddy Burmese edition.

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