BEIJING – As Burma opens its doors to the rest of the world, a chilly wind rages on Sino-Burmese relations. The first sign that things between the two long-time allies were about to change came on September 30, 2011, when the construction of the Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy river was suddenly halted by authorities Naypyidaw. On that occasion, president Thein Sein stated: “we have to respect the will of the people as our government is elected by the people.” He added that the construction would not resume at least until 2015, when his term will be over.
China Power Investment Corp project was worth US$3.6 billion and was supposed to produce 29,400 million kilowatt-hours a year. Almost all of them would have been sent back to the People’s Republic.
Interestingly enough, just the day before, Wunna Maung Lin, Burma’s Foreign Minister, had met Derek Mitchell, the newly appointed US coordinator on Burma (Myanmar), which sparked suspicions of a connection between the meeting and the suspension of the dam project. Regardless of whether the connection existed or not, the decision was interpreted by analysts as a clear message that trouble was brewing for Beijing.
After more than two decades of isolation and sanctions, Burmese leaders have grown worried because of their country’s over-dependence on the giant neighbor to the north. According to Bertil Lintner, a journalist and expert in Burmese affairs, this problem was acknowledged by the Burmese government already seven years ago in a top secret document written by Lieutenant Colonel Aung Kyaw Hla, a researcher at Burma’s Defense Services Academy. In an article on Asia Times Online, Mr Lintner writes that the document – titled ‘A Study of Myanmar [Burma]-U.S. Relations’ – indicates that dependence on China has created a national emergency that threatens the country’s independence. The paper calls for Naypyidaw to establish a more acceptable regime in order to avoid criticism from the international community. Mr Lintner writes that “although the author does not specify those interests, it is clear from the thesis that he is thinking of common ground with the US vis-à-vis China.”
The opening up of Burma began right after the Obama administration hailed the idea of a new American pivot to Asia, which has understandably concerned the Chinese leadership. Zhu Feng, professor of international relations at Peking University in Beijing, a well known expert on Chinese foreign policy, states on Project-Syndicate that China’s “good neighbor” policy is under unprecedented pressure and argues that the Myitsone dam episode came as a shock for the Chinese government.
In an effort to fight off suspicions, Burmese authorities have tried to reassure their Chinese counterparts. In September 2011, Thein Sein reassured the Chinese audience that ties between the two countries are still strong. Aung San Suu Kyi herself has said in July 2012 that she hoped for improvements in bilateral relations.
Recent reports, however, point out that tensions between the Chinese and the Burmese side are rising rather than dissipating. Reuters, for one, has published an analysis whose authors claim that “in some cases, long-festering resentment is flaring into the open.”
China’s economic penetration – whose signs are everywhere in today’s Burma – is partly to blame for this. Just have a ride on a local bus and keep your ears open for the songs that are playing: plenty have been adapted from Chinese ones. Or have a look around in Mandalay and notice how many restaurants advertise their food in Mandarin. China’s presence is evident also in infrastructure and resources, sectors where Chinese companies have enjoyed a relatively free hand for a long time. Chinese companies, however, have not always been welcome.
Protests at the Monywa copper mine are a case in point. Located in the Letpadaung mountain range, the mine is a joint venture between the Burmese military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd and China’s Wanbao Mining Company. Locals claim they were forced to give up their land in exchange for housing and some financial compensation. In June 2012, tensions culminated in protests which lasted until November, when government forces intervened and violently clamped down on protesters.
While traveling in Burma this month, I spoke to a young Kachin who had worked in China’s Yunnan province for a while before moving back to Yangon. Asked about how things were going between China and Burma, he said that relations are “bu hao,” not good. Despite difficulties in communicating in Chinese, he made it clear that the copper mine and the dam were not appreciated.
Chinese media so far have played down the repercussions of Burma’s foreign policy change. On November 20, 2012, The Global Times – a state-owned newspaper – published an article titled ‘Don’t read too much into Myanmar visit’, which argues that “Myanmar’s democratic reforms and opening up to the West not only satisfy Washington but are also in China’s long-term interests. Sino-Myanmese relations must undergo some changes to adapt to this. But the changes will be limited.”
Whether changes will be limited or not is indeed a crucial matter for all players involved. Stakes are high because of the strategic position of Burma, located literally at the crossroads between Southeast Asia, China and India. In an extract from ‘Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia’ published on Foreign Policy, Burmese scholar Thant Myint-U writes that “if Burma indeed takes a turn for the better and we see an end to decades of armed conflict, a lifting of Western sanctions, democratic government, and broad-based economic growth, the impact could be dramatic. [..] What happens next in Burma could be a game-changer for all Asia.” If it does not, however, it may become a flashpoint between the US and the People’s Republic: not an encouraging thought for any country.