My view on China-Myanmar relations (Part 1)

Moe Kyaw
Chinese President Xi Jinping greets Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services Senior General Min Aung Hlaing at People's Hall in Beijing on November 1, 2016. (Photo-Senior General Min Aung Hlaing's Facebook page)

Among the neighbours, China shares the longest border with Myanmar. The border is over 2,200 kilometers long. Historically speaking, there has been deep relationship between the two countries. We can assume that in the times of successive governments, Myanmar's relations with China have been better than those with other neighbouring countries. Such relationship is even dubbed 'Paukphaw' (fraternal) relations. Before and after 2010, there were amicable relations between the two governments and between the two militaries. However, the bilateral relationship has been on the wane after 2015. Particularly, government-to-government relations have been cool to a significant degree.

In June this year Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe paid a visit to Myanmar. He is member of Chinese Military Commission as well as member of State Council of the People's Republic of China. During the visit, he called on State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

The military chief accorded a guard-of-honour welcome to the Chinese defence minister in front of Zeyathiri villa in Nay Pyi Taw. Regarding their meeting, the military issued a press release saying that the two cordially discussed measures to strengthen the relationship, security affairs, border peace and stability, bilateral cooperation, China's support for the Rakhine issue, strategic cooperation between the two militaries, training cooperation, exchange of military medical science, cooperation in sports sector, international security matters and internal peace efforts in Myanmar.

 At this juncture, the Myanmar military's grand welcome of the Chinese defence minister is questionable. Is it like in the international community? I wonder why such a grand welcome was accorded to the Chinese minister. But, the government itself didn't seem to pay a serious attention to the visit. President U Win Myint didn't receive the Chinese minister. Only Daw Aung San Suu Kyi met him. Since U Htin Kyaw's presidency, there have been cases in which the President was only allowed to meet dignitaries from the international community with the consent of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. In the latest foreign visit also, I have no idea whether the President was not free or he was not allowed to meet. They themselves will know.

During U Thein Sein's presidency before 2015, the President wearing in Myanmar traditional costume was seen welcoming international leaders during their visits. Unlike the previous government, the incumbent government's reluctance to accord a red-carpet welcome might be considered as a way of showing modesty. But if such a tradition exits in the international community, we should also do it at a national level.

After the visit to Myanmar, Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe proceeded to Cambodia. He met with his Cambodian counterpart and agreed to provide not less than US$130 million in military aid to Cambodia, according to news sources. A general and spokesperson of the Cambodian Ministry of Defence said on June 19 that China also promised to provide military training and military equipment. During the five-day visit, the Chinese defence minister made discussion of military affairs, attended a Cambodian military show and met Prime Minister Hun Sen. China is the main economic aid provider of Cambodia. More than a decade ago, China was able to influence Cambodia with investment and millions of dollars in aid.

Although the Chinese defence minister's visit to Cambodia made a headline in international media, his visit to Myanmar was mentioned in few local newspapers. State-run newspapers just featured normal news stories about the State Cousellor's separate meetings with the Chinese defence minister, the president of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste and senior director for Asian affairs from the White House on the same day.

Previously, Chinese leaders used to provide assistance for both Myanmar and its military whenever they made their visits. In the Chinese minister's visit to Myanmar, we didn't hear of any assistance or agreement. Instead, some local sources reported that the Chinese minister met with the military chief and warned him against clashes that occurred along the border. Despite China's promise to continue military assistance, there have been no reports of aid at present.

It is strange that a top leader from our powerful 'Paukphaw' country did not provide anything during his visit though there had been decades of economic, military and financial aid. According to other sources, China has issued warnings and shown military power in the border problems. Myanmar is supposed to be under pressure.

Looking at China's economic interest, Myanmar plays an important role in the One Belt One Road initiative worth US$1 trillion. Moreover, China is still involved in oil pipelines and Kyaukphyu deep seaport project. Meanwhile, the US$3.9-billion Myitsone project is still controversial.

China priced the port of the US$10-billion Kyaukphyu project at US$7.5 billion only, sparking a controversy. But after negotiations, the investment was started with US$1.3 billion. Despite the completion of some parts of the project, China's hope for the emergence of a deep seaport has just been on the paper for over a decade.  

Currently, Myanmar has to be settling the debt of US$200 million loaned from China in 2013 to purchase agricultural machinery and equipment. In the meantime, China has reportedly demanded back US$800 million already spent on the Myitsone dam project. In reality, China cannot tolerate any harm to its interest. China seems to be applying the carrot and stick approach to Myanmar. I don't think Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will be neglecting things as they are. There must be some give and take.

With regard to military relations between Myanmar and China, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has visited China four times since he became military chief. In his every visit, he was treated well and met by President Xi Jinping himself. According to newspaper sources, the Chinese President has met the Myanmar military chief more than any other foreign military leader. This is food for thought.

What I happen to think is that China may hope the military chief will become head of state beyond the age of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. In his latest visit to China, the military chief visited the Three Gorges Dam, the largest of all in the country, like prospective Myitsone dam in Myanmar. He also studied transport infrastructure by travelling on a bullet train. The visit seemed to be related to the Myitsone project and One Belt One Road project.

On the contrary, Myanmar people have raised concern about Chinese influence over their country. This means what Myanmar has to pay in return for Chinese assistance. Western countries are trying to prevent this. It is very interesting to see how a person who takes over state duties after Daw Aung Suu Kyi's reins will face such challenges in the relations between China and Myanmar. Even if our future leader is not Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, we will have to wonder how the successor will address the challenges.

(To be continued)