At SEA Games Stage, China Casts a Long Shadow

By Aung Zaw 12 December 2013

Burma wants to prove it has moved on from isolation and is ready to join the rest of the world, and through the Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) it has found an opportunity.

At the opening ceremony of the regional sporting event Wednesday in Naypyidaw, organizers staged a lavish spectacle of lights and performance, boasting the country’s impressive culture and history through song and dance.

With the ceremony, Burmese leaders sought to show off just how far the former pariah state has come over the past two years. They couldn’t pull off a grand performance on their own, but they saw no reason to worry: China would come to the rescue.

Beijing reportedly offered Burma nearly US$33 million in technical assistance for the Games, including for the opening and closing ceremonies, while accepting Burmese athletes for training on Chinese soil.

“Assisting Myanmar [Burma] in organizing the 27th SEA Games is a very important project for the Chinese government,” Wang Shengwen, director general of the department of foreign aid at China’s Ministry of Commerce, told reporters in Naypyidaw, according to Xinhua news agency.

“It shows the ‘paukphaw’ friendship between the two countries,” he said, referring to a concept of fraternal relations.

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

China also sent top government officials to the Games, with Burma President Thein Sein receiving Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Liu Yandong for the opening ceremony. Liu Yandong reportedly called on Burma to stay on the right track with bilateral relations and ensure steady long-term development.

Since coming to power in 2011, Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government has moved closer to the West while testing relations with China. In September 2011 the Burmese president ordered the suspension of a controversial hydroelectric project financed by a state-owned Chinese company. Over the past two years Burma has also seen several anti-Chinese protests at several projects, including a major mining site in central Burma.

China is Burma’s largest investor, channeling between $14 billion and $20 billion into the country since 1988, but economic interest from other countries is growing. Last year the European Union lifted economic sanctions against Burma, while the United States suspended sanctions, citing political reforms. President Barack Obama also visited Rangoon last year and later met with Thein Sein in Washington. At the time, analysts suggested that Beijing, once considered Burma’s traditional ally, was caught off guard.

Under the previous military regime, energy-hungry China rapidly expanded its business and political influences in Burma, pouring money into hydropower projects in ethnic regions. Three major Chinese oil corporations also established a strong foothold.

But most ordinary Burmese people were repulsed by Beijing’s support for the ruling generals, and today many continue to protest against China’s extraction of natural resources with little regard for the environment and local populations. As a result, over the past decade Burma has seen growing anti-China sentiment.

Seeking to continue exploiting natural resources while gaining strategic access to the Indian Ocean, and perhaps fearful of losing influence, Beijing has adopted a new tactic: making friends with everybody in Burma, including opposition leaders who once fought the former military regime. Through a “soft power” strategy, it has sought to win back the hearts of the Burmese people, and to put an end to hostile anti-China media reports.

Chinese diplomats have publicly met with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and other opposition leaders, including members of the 88 Generation Students group and ethnic leaders. Several senior members of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party are also currently visiting China.

Suu Kyi chaired the investigation committee that recommended continuation of the Chinese-backed Letpadaung mine in central Burma, despite protests from local Burmese people. “We have to get along with the neighboring country, whether we like it or not,” she reportedly said, according to the Guardian newspaper.

But China’s “soft power” strategy will not stop the United States from warming relations with Burma as Washington continues to pivot toward Asia.

“They talk about a power struggle in Myanmar, especially between China and the US,” the Chinese ambassador to Burma, Yang Houlan, told The Irrawaddy in July. “I think it would be unfortunate if such a thing happens. If there is a power struggle between China and the US, it will also not be good for Myanmar. We hope it doesn’t happen.”

He said China did not support the idea of a zero-sum game. “We should have a policy of win-win cooperation,” he said. “Some Myanmar politicians have also made it very clear that Myanmar should not become a battlefield of bigger powers. That is not the desire of the Burmese people. We welcome the US to play a constructive role in Myanmar.”

Burma is now a darling of the East and the West. For China, investing in the SEA Games is a must to renew the “paukphaw” friendship.

“China has helped a lot,” Burmese presidential spokesman Ye Htut told AFP, referring to assistance for the opening ceremony. After hosting the 2008 Olympics, China has no shortage of experience.

The Burmese ambassador to China, Tin Oo, reportedly described the East Asian powerhouse as “one of the important countries in the region that is providing necessary assistance to Myanmar in its democratic and economic reform,” according to a report by China Daily newspaper.

It remains to be seen how successful this SEA Games diplomacy will be in the long run. But China is not putting all its eggs in one basket. It will continue to woo both Naypyidaw and the NLD, perhaps hoping to adopt the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s pragmatic approach: “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.