Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi shake hands after signing a memorandum of understanding at the presidential palace in Naypyidaw on January 18 2020. (Nyein CHAN NAING / POOL / AFP)

China’s Emphasis on Ties with Southeast Asia

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Beyond strengthening bilateral ties between China and Myanmar, Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit is a signal that China is likely to place more emphasis on developing and strengthening ties with Southeast Asia in 2020.

Chinese President Xi Jinping embarked on a state visit to Myanmar in January 2020. Chinese media has highlighted the significance of the visit in strengthening the “Pauk-Phaw” (fraternal) friendship between the two countries as exemplified by the more than 30 agreements signed, and China’s support for Myanmar’s development path and its efforts to address the situation in Rakhine state. Yet, Xi’s visit has significance beyond the bilateral level.

From the regional perspective, Xi’s visit signals that China is likely to place more emphasis on developing and strengthening ties with Southeast Asia in 2020. Some indications of this include:

a. Xi’s choice of Myanmar as the first country to visit in his first overseas trip in 2020. This is the first time that he has visited a Southeast Asian country in his first overseas trip of the year as president. In past years, Xi’s first foreign trips were to Moscow, Russia (2013); Sochi, Russia (2014); Pakistan (2015); Saudi Arabia (2016); Davos, Switzerland (2017); United Arab Emirates (2018); and Italy (2019).

b. It is extremely rare for a Chinese president to visit only one country on a foreign visit. Usually, a few countries are included in Xi’s itinerary such as in 2019 when he visited Italy, Monaco and France or in 2018 when his first foreign visit included the United Arab Emirates, Senegal, Rwanda and South Africa. In this regard, Xi’s single country visit to Myanmar at the start of 2020 signals the importance China attaches not only to Myanmar-China relations but also to China’s ties with Southeast Asia of which Myanmar is a part.

c. China and the Southeast Asian countries will celebrate a number of important anniversaries in 2020. For one, China and Myanmar are marking the 70th anniversary of their relations. China will also commemorate the 70th anniversary of its ties with Indonesia and Vietnam. These three countries are important in terms of China’s positioning of its relations with Southeast Asia as Myanmar is a country that shares a common border with China, while Indonesia is the largest and most important country in ASEAN, while Vietnam is the Chair of ASEAN in 2020. Furthermore, China and Singapore will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of their relations this year. Thus, in a way, 2020 can be regarded as an important year of “China-ASEAN anniversary relations”.

d. Myanmar is the first Southeast Asian country Xi has visited since the second Belt and Road Summit in Beijing in April 2019. The second Belt and Road Summit is seen as a milestone of sorts in that China officially acknowledged the need to make adjustments to the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative by taking into account other considerations such as the benefits that would accrue to the host country and local communities, as well as better protection of the environment.

From China’s perspective, the countries in Southeast Asia are important for China to show that the Belt and Road Initiative is making progress. With Myanmar in particular, there are projects like the Myitsone Dam that remain mired in difficulties. For other projects, China is keen to either renew the momentum or see progress on the ground. This is evident from the joint communique issued at the end of Xi’s visit in which both sides agreed to move away from “concept sketching” into “concrete development” of the three pillars of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, namely the Kyauk Phyu Special Economic Zone, the Myanmar-China Border Economic Cooperation, and the new urban development of Yangon City, as well as key infrastructure projects related to roads, electric power and energy. There seems to be an urgency to get projects going so that they can demonstrate mutual benefits arising from mutual cooperation.

In a way, 2020 can be regarded as an important year of “China-ASEAN anniversary relations”.

Apart from its bilateral significance, Xi’s visit to Myanmar has implications for the Southeast Asian region. It could lead to another round of China’s “charm offensive” to woo Southeast Asia at a time of heightened US-China competition. However, to what extent such an effort would work depends on a host of factors including whether China can pay more attention to the implementation details of its Belt and Road Initiative and be seen to do so. It would also depend on the extent of individual Southeast Asian countries’ role in the design and implementation of such projects to protect their interests. A related factor is whether China, the ASEAN claimant states and ASEAN can find a way forward in dealing with the South China Sea issue.