By Aung Zaw, editor of the Irrawaddy
Amid the general excitement at the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jinping, individual Myanmar citizens will have a range of responses, both positive and negative, to the high-level visit. But no one in Myanmar can doubt its significance.
Our giant neighbor to the north is simply too prosperous and too powerful to ignore.
Xi’s visit poses both opportunities and risks. Myanmar will have to mitigate the risks and challenges while making sure to take advantage of every opportunity—in other words, we must be pragmatic, and we must be careful.
In a signed opinion piece published in state-run newspapers in Myanmar on Thursday, Xi said China wants to “write a new chapter” in the two countries’ long friendship.
China’s geopolitical, economic and strategic interests in Myanmar are currently the subject of much debate, with critics saying that Myanmar is moving back into China’s orbit—or even that Myanmar is struggling to maintain its neutrality and independence.
One thing is certain: many Myanmar citizens, including even military generals, have developed a deep-seated fear of China. In fact it wouldn’t be overstating the case to describe it as a kind of sinophobia.
In the past, many oppressed people in Myanmar were repulsed by China’s support for the brutal military regime that ruled their country with an iron fist. But today, Myanmar’s business community would be only too glad to see even more Chinese investment.
Myanmar’s activist community, on the other hand, has called on China to terminate a number of controversial projects in the country once and for all. Which voices will China listen to as it writes this “new chapter”?
Either way, the simple fact is that the fates of China and Myanmar are inseparable.
Chinese officials jokingly say that Myanmar and China can’t afford to divorce, or indeed are more like two siblings, or “paukphaw”.
Given Myanmar’s strategically important position in Southeast Asia, Beijing can’t afford to ignore Myanmar and will continue to cement and strengthen its friendship with the country. As the neighbors celebrate the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations this year, Beijing is eager to promote closer ties.
Xi’s short visit will be more symbolic than substantive, the officials say, and they are adamant that the China-Myanmar relationship will not be held hostage to any issue, including the controversial Myitsone Dam project.
China invited Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, now Myanmar’s State Counselor, to visit in 2015 when she was opposition leader. Xi received her in Beijing months before the election in Myanmar, in which Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party was elected in a landslide.
This was seen as a calculated move by Beijing to assert itself in the rapidly changing political landscape in Myanmar. Today, China firmly backs the Suu Kyi government and wants to see it win in November’s election. Beijing believes she keeps her promises, and that Myanmar will be better off if she wins a second term.
Xi is no stranger to Myanmar; he visited as vice president in 2009, when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest.
Since coming to power, she has visited China several times in her capacity as State Counselor and received a red carpet welcome. The view from Beijing is that she remains popular in Myanmar, can be trusted and has the authority to make deals.
But China has its work cut out for it. It needs to repair its image in Myanmar. Unlike Japan, it can’t rely on soft power to win the hearts and minds of the Myanmar people.
Indeed, in Myanmar the conversation about our giant neighbor most often revolves around the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects —which are often perceived as the greedy moves of an ambitious, up-and-coming superpower — as well as resource exploitation, Beijing’s support for ethnic armed groups based on the China-Myanmar border, and the proxy insurgent war that was fought along the border in the past.
In his op-ed, Xi makes a point of putting a positive spin on several key projects, including the China Myanmar Economic Corridor, the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone, the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone and the New Yangon City projects.
China is eager to see the New Yangon City project go ahead, but it is rumored that the Myanmar side is still reluctant. Nonetheless, the two sides have formally agreed to conduct a survey, and an advance team from Beijing pushed through some mega-projects when they met with Myanmar officials in Naypyitaw. So far, these mega-projects have lacked transparency and public information, and they face resistance on the ground.
On the military front, Myanmar’s generals are wary of China’s influence over the ethnic rebels and recently expressed concern over Beijing’s support for groups based along the northern border, in the form of arms sales. These ethnic rebel groups are in China’s pocket; proof could be seen in the numerous statements they issued on Thursday welcoming Xi’s visit.
Moreover, China’s warmth toward the civilian government is also a sore spot for Myanmar military leaders, and has certainly created a new dynamic in domestic politics. As we all know, Myanmar today is jointly administered by two forces: a civilian government and the military.
Beijing should know that the strong resentment toward China over its infrastructure projects in Myanmar will continue to grow, and that ill feeling toward ethnic rebels who receive support from China can’t be suppressed.
But Myanmar has also acknowledged China’s much-needed backing and support in the face of international condemnation and sanctions from the West; Naypyitaw has thanked China for this support, with many in this country recognizing that at a critical time, China backed Myanmar rather than bark at it.
But what values do we share with the Chinese? This is also a lingering question among Myanmar people.
A tough, perhaps related, question follows: Is China a reliable and trustworthy neighbor? Myanmar people continue to ask this question as the two countries prepare to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations.
Will China be content to coexist with the newfound friends Myanmar has made in the past decade?
Myanmar is no longer the isolated country China used to know—it is undergoing a democratic transition and has opened up. China is no longer Myanmar’s only friend; close ties have been established with such Asian economic powerhouses as Japan, South Korea, India and even Taiwan, which has expressed interest in investing in many sectors in Myanmar. With the exception of Taiwan, the leaders of all those countries have visited Myanmar. Singapore is also one of the largest investors in Myanmar.
Not least, the same applies to ties with the US. US President Barack Obama visited Myanmar twice and President Donald Trump has invited Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to attend the Asean-US summit in the US in March.
In October 2019, a meeting between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and David Stilwell, US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, produced a positive outcome. The US reaffirmed its long-term commitment to Myanmar’s democratic transition and economic transformation, referring to Myanmar as “a partner and friend” during a four-day visit to the country by Stilwell.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent a message to mark Myanmar’s Independence Day on Jan. 4, saying, “The United States remains committed to partnering with the people of Myanmar in support of the country’s continued democratic transition, national reconciliation, and economic transformation—as we have done for decades.”
It added, “We will continue to work with your government, civil society, and youth to help achieve a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous Myanmar that respects the dignity and rights of all people.”
Pundits have grown fond of pointing out that Myanmar is a battleground in the geopolitical contest. This geopolitical competition could serve Myanmar’s national interest, but the country will have to tread carefully and play it safe with the various players involved.
In recent years, as many are aware, Myanmar’s dramatic shift to embrace the West produced more conflict along the Chinese border and elicited wrath from Beijing. The Chinese are suspected of discouraging ethnic rebels along the border from signing a ceasefire with the Myanmar government.
We can only expect more powerful ethnic armies along the border and more conflict on the horizon, despite China’s promise to bring peace to Myanmar. These developments don’t convince us that China is a reliable and trustworthy friend.
A weak and unstable Myanmar can’t stand tall and will only experience chaos, conflict and turmoil. The cynical view is that China wants to see a weak and unstable Myanmar in order to maintain control and influence over the country.
However, a strong and stable—and independent—Myanmar would be able to contribute to the region, a situation that would be mutually beneficially for all.
So the question is, what sort of country does China want Myanmar to become? The importance of Xi’s visit lies in his answer to that question.
About the author
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of the Yangon-based Irrawaddy media group. A recipient of CPJ International Press Freedom Award in 2014, he is the author of “The Face of Resistance – Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Fight for Freedom.”
Note: This article was originally published on The Irrawaddy