What's next for Myan­mar-China re­la­tions?

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - NAING KO KO news­room@mm­times.com Naing Ko Ko is a PhD scholar at the Reg­u­la­tory In­sti­tu­tions Net­work, Col­lege of Asia and the Pa­cific, Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity.

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.

Photo: AFP

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.

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