TODAY -

China's search for a legitimate foothold in Myanmar

Dr. Puyam Rakesh Singh *



If China is searching for a legitimate foothold in Myanmar, Beijing cannot do it without attachment to norms and values of Myanmar under the leadership of the National League for Democracy (NLD). Therefore, it has been termed the 'new starting point' in China-Myanmar relationship. At present, the new realities in Myanmar call for adjustment and adaptation to make progress in the bilateral ties. As a result, Beijing made policy adjustments to suit the new context and changing environment.

Its beginning is traced to the meeting between the then Chinese Ambassador to Myanmar Li Junhua and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (henceforth, Suu Kyi) on 8 December 2011. The meeting came few days after the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton's visit to observe political reform initiated in Myanmar under the leadership of the then President Thein Sein.

Meanwhile, China conveyed its readiness to engage every party committed to the friendly bilateral relations on the basis of mutual respect and non-interference. The crucial move was made after examining the new changes under which the reign of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)'s was to be replaced with multi-party system. In the past, following the general elections held in Myanmar on 27 May 1990, China abstained from engaging the NLD to please the military junta.

Interestingly, Chinese Ambassador to Myanmar was the first foreign envoy to congratulate the success of the NLD in the 1990 elections. After the military take over, Beijing provided every possible support to the military junta that kept the pro-democracy camp repressed. By December 2011, Beijing realised that the wind of change has reached Myanmar after a long period.

Truly speaking, it also marked the beginning of Suu Kyi's political blooming. Suu Kyi is a popular figure in Myanmar and the world has accepted her as the voice representing the people of Myanmar. She has seen the enormous sufferings and sacrifices of the people. Again, she is aware of the fact that the impoverished people of Myanmar expect her to cut the fetters as well as improve their living conditions. That remains her dream and source of legitimacy. It must be related to the question why Suu Kyi and the NLD did not close the door to China.

However, the party has made it clear to Beijing that they will examine carefully their partnership and its implications for Myanmar. As a result, China expressed its willingness to cement the foundation of the partnership. And to avoid unnecessary misgivings and distrust, Beijing appointed the first special envoy for Asian Affairs with Myanmar on top of the priority list so far.

Moreover, China initiated an outreach programme by engaging the NLD, ethnic minority groups and civil society groups of Myanmar for fostering long-term relationship and to deepen people-to-people relations. In January 2014, Chinese envoy to Myanmar Yang Houlan underscored the importance of Myanmar as a strategic neighbour. He stated: 'China's neighbourhood is crucial to its security, development and prosperity'.

Recently, after the episode of failed power transfer in 1990, the Communist Party of China (CPC) made efforts to strengthen ties with the NLD. The party's first visit in December 2013 marked a new beginning in this direction. The short period of inter-party exchanges was, however, compensated to some extent by Suu Kyi's high-profile visit to China in June 2015. In fact, the new political atmosphere in Myanmar necessitated Beijing to engage 'every major stakeholder'.

In place of the military junta, a multi-party democracy took birth in Myanmar thereby pushing ahead the NLD as an important political player. Next to the USDP, the NLD captured the Chinese attention. A 12-member delegation of the party left for China in November 2014 announcing Suu Kyi's plan to visit the neighbouring communist country in December. After the first visit in December 2013, the inter-party relationship was further improved. Despite the improvement, Suu Kyi's visit in December 2014 was cancelled but the two sides were engaged in negotiation. The delay reflected sensitivities involved for both the sides. Nevertheless, the NLD finally was on the CPC's diplomatic radar.

For the first time, the news about Suu Kyi's China trip was mentioned during an interview with the Sunday Morning Post in January expressing China's intention to invite Suu Kyi for an official visit. Again, it was revealed by the CPC leader and Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Ai Ping during his visit in February 2014. Her China trip did not take place even after four NLD delegations successfully visited China. After some failed attempts, the awaited visit took place in June 2015.

In a straightforward manner, Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed hope that 'the NLD can play a constructive role in guiding the Myanmar people's view on China-Myanmar cooperation in an unbiased and rational way'. During Xi's meeting with the pro-democracy leader, China asserted the bilateral relations to be a 'community of common interests and common destiny sharing weal and woe'.

Showering policy priority on Myanmar, Beijing claimed to see the relationship to be of a 'strategic and long-term perspective' and called for consistence and commitment on the part of Naypyitaw to strengthen the ties by nullifying the changes. Suu Kyi stated that the NLD is committed to the China-Myanmar friendship. A Chinese analyst attributed the policy to enhancing 'inter-party and civilian exchanges' to control the rising anti-Chinese sentiments.

Much to the pleasure of China, the high-profile trip did not stir much political dust regarding the human rights record of China and the imprisoned Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Will the NLD adopt a policy of opposing Beijing's human rights violations and political repression? China is a major power sharing a long border with Myanmar.

An act of balancing does not mean erasing the disagreements and differences in their policies and principles. However, bilateral cooperation and the shared interests in regional and international forums can only be overlooked at the cost of Myanmar's interests. Pragmatism guided the NLD's China policy. On the other hand, Beijing's actions were reflection of its concerns regarding domestic changes in Myanmar and some external factors especially the US engagement with Myanmar. In view of Myanmar's internal dynamics and changing external environment, China invited Suu Kyi. However, the preparation for the pro-democracy leader was not a smooth affair.

The international media was noisy all about it. Despite all these, she chose the path of friendship with China but asked Beijing to pay a price for it. Interestingly, she did it not by attacking Beijing's ideological position and human rights records. The price was to promote the welfare of Myanmar nationals and improve their living conditions through investment and other business dealings. At this stage, Beijing could not afford to act like a neighbouring country overlooking the interests of Myanmar. After giving serious thoughts, she took the maiden visit in June 2015.

By so doing, Suu Kyi strengthened Myanmar's democratic reform and acknowledged the possibility of co-existence between two nations following different political systems. As Myanmar has to take care of its national interests, China was not deleted from its friends' list. If there are hundred reasons to delete China from Myanmar's list, there are hundred reasons to like China to promote Myanmar's interests on the global stage. She acted as a stateswoman.

Whether she would end up as Myanmar's stateswoman or a worthy figure fighting for the cause of democracy and human rights of the oppressed peoples anywhere in the world is yet to be seen. By any measure, she has proven her commitment to work for humanity at large. Presently, consolidation of the NLD in Myanmar's political rough water seems to be her priority. Moreover, the role of the military in Myanmar's nation-building continues to be a major hurdle in political reform. Internal dynamics and national interests of the country will guide NLD to walk on the path of pragmatism in its foreign policy.

The by-election of 2012 set the tone of the political climate and the transition came to completion under the new government led by NLD. The party won the Myanmar general election held on 8 November 2015. Thereafter, China further strengthened exchanges with the NLD and other political parties. Soon after the declaration of election result, Suu Kyi remarked that the country will follow a friendly policy towards China.

Nevertheless, Suu Kyi expressed the importance of 'special attention' to the relationship. Under the new arrangement, public approval of foreign investment projects will become a primary issue for improving ties. The new government led by President Htin Kyaw was sworn in on 30 March 2016. To cement partnership with Myanmar, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar in early April this year.

The relationship was stated to be 'standing at a new starting point' as the democratically elected government led by the NLD will work towards peace and development in Myanmar after decades of conflicts and political violence. The stalled and controversial projects such as the Myitsone hydro power project, China-Myanmar railroad, Dawei oil refinery and Monywa copper mining are to be resolved peacefully.

With the NLD and the people of Myanmar opposing many such Chinese-funded projects on various grounds, China has to re-define the mutually beneficial projects to make it acceptable to the south-western neighbour. Both the countries are working together to bring settlements without much displeasure to the parties involved. With the coming of the new government, China will do its own homework to calm the anti-Chinese feelings in Myanmar and widespread opposition to Chinese-funded projects.

Nevertheless, it is also in Naypyitaw's interest to provide a legitimate foothold to China to gain what Beijing can offer to Myanmar's modernisation and development. The need of the hour is mutual trust and understanding between the governments and the peoples of the two countries. As the Chinese saying goes, 'A good neighbour is better than a distant relative'. The reality on the ground demands the two countries to work sincerely to prove that they are good neighbours as well as pauk-phaw (fraternal or kinsfolk) relatives.


* Dr. Puyam Rakesh Singh wrote this article for e-pao.net
The writer can be reached at khuman_mei(AT)yahoo(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on July 04, 2016.



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