January 2020 started with special focus on China-Myanmar ties with the visit of Chinese President Xi
Jinping to Myanmar. Traditionally Myanmar-China relations have always been described as `pauk-phaw’,
a reference which indicates that the nature of the relationship is like “siblings born of the same mother”.
Interestingly this visit by a Chinese President comes after a gap of almost two decades, a period during
which Myanmar has witnessed critical shifts in terms of its political reforms process and transition to
democracy. It also comes in the background of critical issues Myanmar was facing a month ago with the
International Court of Justice (IJC) holding it accountable for `genocide of the Rohingya population’,
with international censure at an all time high against Myanmar for its human rights abuses. However, as
the term pauk-phaw suggests, it is during hard times that siblings stick together.
The content of the visit in terms of Chinese expectations and Myanmar’s response remains far more critical than mere symbolism between the two. During the visit which took place on 17-18 January 2020, thirty three agreements were inked between the two countries - comprising of both Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) and declarations which highlight the nature of the special ties. Two core aspects that clearly stand out during this visit are important – first, Myanmar over the course of the next three years is expected to receive four billion yuan as development assistance which is critically aimed at improvement of infrastructure that will link Myanmar to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Second, the two nations focused on promotion of mutual visits and cultural links by declaring this year as the Myanmar-China Year of Culture and Tourism.
Much of the agreements during this visit were focused on broadening the infrastructure projects related to the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), core keg in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While the CMEC has a diverse set of infrastructure projects in pipeline, two of the transport links are gaining credible attention. A high speed railway link between the Shan state and Shanghai is in the offing but has been delayed by issues of political instability in the regions through which it is expected to pass. The projected use of the Irrawaddy river as an alternative and complementary route, will be vital. Chinese ambitions to develop the region around the town of Bhamo as a crucial trading post, is closely linked to developing the river route. China’s efforts to link these regions as part of the BRI, is reminiscent of the British colonial period which used Myanmar (then Burma) as the overland route to access the inland areas of China. By tracing the British footprint in reverse, China is connecting it’s hinterland through the land and river routes to access the seas, especially for its landlocked areas such as Yunnan.
It is in this context, that the development of the deep sea port at Kyuakphu in the Rakhine region becomes very significant. China’s increasing dependence on its neighbouring regions to access the seas, rests upon its need to reduce dependence on the narrow Malacca straits. With almost eighty percent of its energy needs moving through the seas, this calculation will need to be met with close partnerships in the region, Myanmar being one.
However, it must be noted that the event was not complete smooth sailing from Myanmar’s side. Myanmar from almost 2010 onwards has been tilting closer to the west with the shift in its internal political dynamics. This has been a cause of concern for China which considered Myanmar to be a core ally. Evidence of this was also visible in 2011, with widespread resistance to the Chinese funded project for building Myitsone dam. Lying at the confluence of two rivers, Mali Hka and N’mai Kha, this US $ 3.6 billion project was proposed as one of the largest hydro-electric projects linking Myanmar to China, which was under the auspices of the Beijing’s State Power Investment Corporation (SPIC). The dam is also critical as it is in areas inhabited by the Kachin ethnic groups who have been at odds with the Myanmar government almost since independence. Even a week before President Xi Jinping’s visit, the Myanmar army attacked training camps of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) leading to stresses on both sides. Environmental degradation and the inundation of the Kachin area is a serious factor that continues to evoke resistance against the dam.
There is no doubt that Myanmar will have to walk a tight rope as it looks to revitalize its relations with China. Efforts by China to steer the relations in the direction of its choice will see some resistance from Myanmar, which has been trying to balance both the west and its traditional ally. For Myanmar the renewal of the `pauk-phaw’ could not have come at a better time – international pressure to correct its record on human rights necessarily pushes it closer to its non-judgmental traditional ally. But to meet Chinese expectations, how much, will be too much?
Professor Shankari Sundararaman is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.