What's next for Myanmar-China relations?
CHINA and Myanmar have shared a geopolitically strategic 2185-kilometre (1358-mile) border since the end of World War II. During the great power politics of the post-war era, the leaderships of the two nations fine-tuned postures of neutrality and non-alignment throughout the Cold War. U Nu and Zhou Enlai, the premiers of the two nations, stood together at the forefront of the non-aligned movement.
But the relationship was hardly a model of shared-border brotherhood. While the Chinese Communist Party supported the Communist Party of Burma until 1989, General Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Programme Party stoked xenophobic anti-Chinese sentiment in then-Burma, despite the fact that he himself was half-Chinese by birth. While countless analysts of ChinaMyanmar dynamics have concentrated on the nonetheless enduring pauk phaw relationship between these two nations, early indications are that Myanmar’s state counsellor and foreign minister, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, will change the diplomatic equation once more.
Since assuming her dual roles, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has practiced pragmatism, sending signals that her country will be neither a satellite state nor a peripheral player in China’s regional rise.
After the Cold War in 1989, Beijing and Yangon both adopted a “development first, democracy later” approach. But even as China became the Myanmar junta’s biggest supporter over the 1988-2011 period, the two countries embarked on markedly divergent economic paths.
According to UN data, the per capita GDP of Myanmar and China was US$171 and $311, respectively, in the 1980s. Three decades later, China’s had skyrocketed to $6626, while Myanmar’s per capita GDP was just $1183, in 2013. Growing China’s status as Myanmar’s number-one foreign investor and trading partner was not enough to overcome Western economic sanctions and mismanagement to allow the two nations to rise in tandem.
Then in September 2011, the game changed. President U Thein Sein’s suspension of the Chinabacked Myitsone dam angered Beijing, while also forcing it to launch a charm offensive. To this day, the suspension reminds transnational businesses – in particular Chinese investors – to be more cautious about Myanmar’s changing economic regulatory framework and policies. Since 2011, Myitsone has put the brakes on major Chinese investment in Myanmar.
Enter Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. China’s acquaintance with the former opposition leader dates back to her rise to political prominence in 1988, when the then-Chinese ambassador, Cheng Ruisheng, paid the first of several visits to her, including one to the National League for Democracy headquarters just after the party’s 1990 election victory.
In December 2014, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi made an official visit to China as opposition leader and sitting parliamentarian. Analysts viewed the invite by Beijing as a move to counter-balance Myanmar’s military-backed ruling government, which had in recent years cooled on the pauk phaw relationship.
With this history in mind, the geopolitical significance of this month’s visit by Myanmar’s now de facto leader was rightly played up, not only for bilateral relations but also for ASEAN and its member states.
From the Chinese leadership’s perspective, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is considered neither a threat to China nor a supporter of the Chinese democracy and human rights movements, despite her international standing as a democracy icon. Rather, they take her at her word as a self-proclaimed pragmatic politician who now leads a country in China’s backyard. Little wonder Beijing rolled out the red carpet for her just a few months after her government took power.
It’s clear that both sides have much to gain from a healthy bilateral relationship. In the years ahead, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would do well to remember these five points.
1) Myanmar needs to take advantage of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the brainchild of Chinese President Xi Jinping, as a means of enhancing the bilateral relationship while profiting from the gains of infrastructure investment in Myanmar. Moreover, Myanmar needs to express its enthusiasm at being involved in the development of the “New Silk Road”, which has the potential to be an engine for future growth in the region, better linking consumers from the world’s two biggest nations, China and India, with fast-growing Southeast Asia and beyond.
2) Myanmar needs to encourage the leadership of China to enforce principles of corporate social responsibility and ethical investment in its Myanmar dealings. Many Chinese investment projects in Myanmar need to be re-examined, as most were inked with the previous military junta.
3) The state counsellor must make clear that military drills along the shared border – like the one that took place in the aftermath of the Tatmadaw’s errant, fatal bombing of five Chinese villagers last year – are not acceptable. The military manoeuvres came despite an official apology from Nay Pyi Taw. The military exercise was counterproductive, fuelling anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar and doubts about China’s stated commitment to a “peaceful rise”.
4) Myanmar can be an alleviant to the rising tension between some ASEAN member states and China over territorial claims in the South China Sea. As an ASEAN country with no competing claim in the dispute, Myanmar is well-positioned to contribute to a basic code of conduct in the South China Sea for all concerned stakeholders.
Finally, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can give her assurance that stability in mainland China and continuity of its communist regime is in Myanmar’s best interests. That the country will not be a Chinese vassal, à la Cambodia, nor a democracy-advocating thorn in the side, à la Taiwan or Hong Kong.
In order to maximise the benefits for Myanmar and its people, the state counsellor needs to balance her diplomatic stance toward China, the United States, Japan and other regional players. There is little doubt that under her leadership, Myanmar will be a strategic player in ASEAN geopolitics and other contemporary political affairs.
State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, left, greets Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on August 19. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was on an official visit meeting Chinese officials to boost diplomatic and economic ties.