ON Thursday, Burma’s President U Htin Kyaw embarked on a trip to China. The two governments will discuss politics and economics throughout the six-day trip, but the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Burma (Myanmar) is unlikely to be prioritised.
China has made clear its foreign policy is limited to protecting national interest. For this reason, Burma must realise that China will not solve its underlying problems. Aung Sung Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD), is choosing the wrong partner if she wants to make ending the ongoing conflict her utmost priority.
In typical fashion, the details of the trip will be released at its conclusion, despite both governments knowing what will be discussed and what will be avoided. Unsurprisingly, it’s likely that dams and borders will be prioritised over the ongoing conflict in Burma.
Firstly, there is the US$3.6 billion Myitsone Dam in Kachin State. The former government of Myanmar under President U Thein Sein suspended the construction of the dam in Sept 2011, after an onslaught of public backlash. A committee was tasked with exploring the environmental impact of building future projects on the Irrawaddy River. China has been lobbying to reignite the deal ever since its suspension.
However, recent sources have claimed that China is willing to consider different economic opportunities in the country, such as smaller hydropower projects and preferential access to the Kyauk Pyu port on the Bay of Bengal.
There is no denying that Burma needs to develop its economy, but the benefits of the projects being pushed by China are controversial in nature. In most cases, they will favour the elite minority of the country. Burma needs foreign investment that leads to higher employment rates, as opposed to foreign investment that provides employment for Chinese citizens.
Secondly, there is the porous border. Fighting in the Kokang region, on the border between China and Burma, continues to worry Beijing. Chinese arms have indirectly ended up in the hands of those taking part in the Kokang rebellion.
Refugees flowing into China pose a threat to border security as the region has historically lacked any sense of law and order. China supports the stabilisation the region as evident through its call for a ceasefire by all parties to the conflict. 20,000 people from the Burma side of the border have also fled into China.
But there are scarce reasons for China to become more proactive in supporting the stabilisation of the country as a whole. Once the asylum seekers stop flowing across the border, China will take a step back.
The NLD is pursuing a stronger relationship with China, which it sees as an important ally in the region.
There is no surprise that Burma favours a shift towards China to decrease its dependence on the United States and the European Union.
China offers a foreign policy based on non-interference into the domestic affairs of its trade partners. But at a time like this, Burma needs the support of the international community to end the ongoing conflict. The interests of both governments in Burma and China stand miles apart.