While Western democracies are contemplating sanctions on Myanmar, China has been pursuing closer ties with the country through a series of bilateral visits. With the international pressure over the situation in Rakhine State, Myanmar may find itself increasingly dependent on China.
While the United States and other Western democracies are discussing the feasibility of imposing targeted sanctions on Myanmar over the Rohingya issue, China is quietly working on further broadening and deepening its cooperation with Myanmar. A flurry of recent bilateral visits back and forth illustrate China’s moves to shape the trajectory of its relations with Myanmar.
Myanmar’s de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was invited to Beijing to deliver an opening address at a high-level World Political Parties Dialogue organized by the Communist Party of China (CPC) in December 2017. While in Beijing, she met with President Xi Jinping and discussed accelerating the momentum of the current strategic partnership between Myanmar and China. President Xi’s affirmation of “close coordination and cooperation on issues involving each other’s core interests and major concerns” points to the longer-term strategic view that China takes with regard to relations with Myanmar.
All these activities point to a new level of cooperation between China and Myanmar.
Earlier on November 21, 2017, Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces (Tatmadaw) Senior General Min Aung Hlaing had also visited Beijing. He, too, met with President Xi and discussed the Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership between the two countries’ armed forces. During his visit, Chinese officials had informed him of China’s support for Myanmar’s – including the Tatmadaw’s handling of the conflict in Rakhine.
Chinese senior officials are also regular visitors to Myanmar. On the security front, China’s Special Envoy on Asian Affairs Mr. Sun Guoxiang met Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw in December 2017, and discussed bilateral relations related to the peace negotiations with ethnic armed groups, and the situation in Rakhine State. Mr Sun also donated USD500,000 to the 21st Century Panglong Conference’s Joint Monitoring Committee, which monitors the implementation of the nationwide ceasefire agreement between Army and the ethnic armed signatories. Additionally, the Deputy Commander of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command, Lt.-General Chen Zhaohai met with the Tatmadaw’s Deputy Commander-in-Chief Vice Senior General Soe Win to discuss strategic cooperation between the two armed forces. Similarly, the President of the China Institute for International Strategic Studies (CIISS) Admiral Sun Jianguo discussed regional and bilateral issues with Myanmar’s military leaders and key politicians from the ruling and main opposition parties.
On the political front, a CPC delegation led by the President of the Chinese Academy of Social Science Wang Weiguang met with several key Myanmar politicians, think-tanks and scholars, civil society organistions and the media to share the outcomes of the CPC’s recent 19th National Congress. The CPC delegation met with leaders from both the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) and the main opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to discuss inter-party relations.
In the people-to-people sector, the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar and the China Foundation for Peace and Development funded the renovation of the former Bahan Women’s Hospital (originally the Tower Lane Women’s Hospital) which was renamed and inaugurated as Daw Khin Kyi Women’s Hospital, honoring the wife of Myanmar’s national leader General Aung San (and also Aung San Suu Kyi’s mother). Daw Suu presided over the inauguration of the USD2 million hospital in August 2017.
All these activities point to a new level of cooperation between China and Myanmar. China’s multi-faceted diplomacy with Myanmar now covers interactions with government, people, and political parties under its broad rubric.
China’s moves are not entirely new or unexpected. The military regime in Myanmar from 1988 to 2011 relied on China’s diplomatic and economic support to withstand economic sanctions by the West and diplomatic pressure at the United Nations. When the political reforms by the USDP government led to rapprochement with the West, Myanmar seemed to depend less on China. But the collapse of the ceasefire agreement with the Kachin Independence Army and new fighting in the Kachin and Northern Shan States, Myanmar found that it needed to involve China in the ceasefire negotiations with ethnic armed groups operating along the Myanmar-China border.
The current international pressure over the situation in Rakhine State and the new threat of economic sanctions have once again highlighted a need for China’s involvement on the diplomatic and economic front. The recent initiative by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to facilitate discussions between Myanmar and Bangladesh on the Rakhine issue has given China a stronger role to play in the region. China is now in a better bargaining position than in the past with Myanmar. This may make it more difficult for Myanmar not to be more sympathetic to China’s position on the South China Sea. We can also expect more transactional economic relations. Chinese mega projects may yet sprout up in the troubled Rakhine State under the Belt and Road Initiative.
Even though the zodiac predicts a clash between the dog and dragon signs, the year of the dog in 2018 will still see the Chinese dragon’s strong presence in Myanmar.
Ye Htut was Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and a former Information Minister of Myanmar.