Guest Column

President Xi Jinping’s Myanmar Excursion: A Historical View

By David I. Steinberg 21 January 2020


                 For Friends in Burma

I live by the river’s head,                           You live by its tail.
Limitlessly, we love each other,              We drink the same river’s water.
I drink from the upper flows,                  You drink from below.
Endlessly the river flows,                        We share everlasting happiness.
We are neighbors,                                    Our friendship lasts.
Like the ageless evergreen,                     The waters flow forever.
Our lands are connected,                        At the mountain’s foot, beside the same river
Anti-imperialism begets freedom,         We are peacefully united.
We are paukphaw,                                   Our languages are connected.
We are united and help each other,      Peace is powerful
Living by the rivers, we praise their      Climbing the mountains, we sing of their
              breadth,                                                                         majesty.
The mountains face north,                        The river flows south.

                                                                                                    Chen Yi, 1956

So Marshall Chen Yi, a close associate of Chairman Mao Zedong, euphemistically characterized the China-Myanmar relationship as paukphaw (siblings) 64 years ago. In his article in the New Light of Myanmar on Jan. 16, 2020, just prior to his two-day Myanmar visit, President Xi Jinping mentioned “renewing” this relationship, and even alluded to the “shared” mountains and rivers of Chen Yi’s poem. Heads of state in friendly official visits to other countries often, with considerable hyperbole, emphasize the long friendships of the peoples and governments involved.  So it was not unusual for President Xi to stress this close relationship over a millennium.  History, however, tells a different tale.

Although present bilateral relations between China and Myanmar are certainly at a high level, and President Xi’s trip a clear success for China, history records a starkly different, bleaker picture. Almost 800 years ago, China conquered the Burmese capital of Bagan. Numerous Chinese invasions were a continuing force, and Burma was considered by the Chinese a tributary state. Both the Nationalist Chinese government and the subsequent People’s Republic of China claimed large portions of Kachin State until the border agreement of 1960. The Burmese were afraid that Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops would chase fleeing Chinese Nationalist troops into Burma and occupy that region, as the Ch’ing Dynasty forces did to the Ming Dynasty troops in 1644. And when the Chinese Cultural Revolution came to Burma, the virulent 1967 anti-Chinese riots with dozens of deaths and the occupation of the Chinese Embassy in Rangoon tarnished bilateral relations for many months.  China continuously supported the insurgent Communist Party of Burma until its demise in 1989.

The Burmese have feared China, and with good reason given Chinese traditional and modern soft and hard power. As some Burmese have remarked, “When China spits, we swim.”  The Burmese have often tried to soften the relationship.  U Nu carefully referred to the Chinese conquest of Bagan as that of the Mongols—avoiding directly blaming the Chinese. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was warmly welcomed in Burma nine times. And in more recent years, following the military coup of 1988, Myanmar relied on Chinese military and economic assistance as the West pulled away from the military regime, introduced sanctions against it, and backed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi during her house arrest.

Yet strong anti-Chinese sentiment also grew during this period as illegal immigration of Chinese into Myanmar mushroomed. The result was an obvious impact on life in Myanmar that seemed to place the local population at a distinct economic disadvantage.  It was not that China was the largest trading partner, but Chinese seemed to monopolize much of the retail, internal trade.  Chinese major infrastructure and mining projects were deemed to benefit China more than Myanmar. The result, in spite of President U Thein Sein’s first trip abroad to Beijing and the signing of a bilateral Comprehensive Strategic Economic Partnership in May 2011, was the president’s suspension of Chinese construction of the US$3.6-billion (5.3-trillion-kyat) Myitsone Dam in Kachin State. At the confluence of the Irrawaddy River, the project created great national anxiety. China blamed this rupture on US influence. During this hiatus with Western powers, Myanmar relied extensively on Chinese supply of military hardware and the overseas training of its officer corps.

In much the same way that Myanmar relies heavily on China today, it did so sporadically during the Ne Win era (1962-1988) and the beginning decade of the junta period (1988-1998). Significantly, these two periods saw a waning of Western (including US) influence. If the first was after the house arrest of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the military rigidity and repression that the Tatmadaw imposed, the present period is the result of severe international criticism of the Myanmar military and government over the violence and ethnic cleansing (some accuse the country of genocide) of the Rohingya community on the Bangladesh frontier. In both cases, Burmese ethno-nationalism was a strong component: the charge of foreign (Western) interference into Burmese internal affairs is a familiar trope.

For China, Myanmar is a most useful link to the Indian Ocean, a market for poor Yunnan province, a means of access to energy and raw materials, and overall a strategic asset in mainland Southeast Asia. It is for just these reasons that Japan and India have increased their economic activities in Myanmar, and India is concerned about unrest in its northeast on the Myanmar border.

President Xi noted that China-Myanmar relations have been marked by “mutual trust, mutual respect, mutual support,” and have been guided by the “five principles of peaceful coexistence.” He called for the implementation of the major China-Myanmar Economic Corridor projects of the Belt and Road Initiative. China has also been supporting the ethnic peace process in northern Myanmar (while quietly arming some of the insurgents), where much of its infrastructure projects are located, and strongly backing the Myanmar government on Rohingya issues.

In spite of President Xi’s successful trip in Chinese terms and all these good words, there are dangers for China. China has not shown sensitivity toward other peoples in policy or action, and perhaps it can do little to halt the Chinese economic penetration at local levels. This could expand Burmese popular concerns. When it comes to Chinese relations, there is some evidence of differences in either policy or emphasis between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, and the military. One dilemma for the United States and the West is how far their deep concerns over human rights and the Rohingya dilemma, which shows no sign of being resolved, will continue to influence Chinese prominence and position in Myanmar.

Myanmar’s traditional neutralism and foreign policy balance may yet return, but the impact of present policies could materially affect the 2020 Myanmar elections and the future of representative government in the country. And Burmese ethno-nationalism is likely to be an important consideration in all internal and foreign relations in Myanmar. So all foreign states—China, Japan, India and the West, including the US—must tread with great caution.

David I. Steinberg is distinguished professor of Asian studies emeritus, Georgetown University

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