GP Insights # 216, 18 January 2020
Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, is currently on two days (17-18 November) visit to Myanmar. The streets of Naypyidaw have been decorated to welcome him for the first time. He is the first Chinese President visiting Myanmar in 19 years. Hence it is historic.
Xi will meet state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and army chief Min Aung Hlaing, along with leaders of different political parties. He is expected to sign infrastructure deals to strengthen the Sino-Myanmar relationship.
What is the background?
The bilateral relationship has been often described as 'fraternal' due to ethnic and geographic linkages. It became stronger under the Junta, with China as the only country to support when the rest of the world had shunned the regime. The steady flow of investments and infrastructural projects in Myanmar are testimony to the equation.
In 2011, the stalling of the Myitsone dam project due to public protest was a setback to the above relationship. Since then, there was also a rise of anti-Chinese sentiments within Myanmar, dampening the relationship. However, this did not hamper the Chinese investments.
In 2015, before the national elections, Aung San Suu Kyi was invited to China. This assured Beijing's support for the NLD government. Further, Beijing refused to condemn Myanmar, when the rest of the international community criticised the latter for their treatment to the Rohingyas.
The Chinese support is also important for Suu Kyi, who has been condemned and eschewed for her inaction and support for the army. Since coming to power, Suu Kyi's Beijing inclination has been evident. Since her visit to China in 2017, her pragmatic approaches towards the stalled Chinese projects and also China's active role as a mediator in the national reconciliation process helped the two countries to come closer.
China, on the other hand, is marred in the trade war with the US. Its flagship BRI project is being questioned and scrutinised by several Southeast Asian partners like Malaysia, Indonesia, and others. Several South and Southeast Asian countries who have received Chinese investment with open arms in early 2000 have later realised the carrot and stick approach of China in the name of investment. Hence there is a growing apprehension to the China economic 'neo-colonial' policies in the region.
In this background, Xi's visit to Myanmar becomes essential.
What does it mean?
First, Chinese interest in Myanmar is evident. The strategic location of Myanmar plays a crucial role in China's Belt and Road Initiative.
Second, perhaps China wants to pressurise the government to restart the Mytisone dam project and other infrastructural projects stuck but which will play a pivotal role in the BRI. It is understood that these issues will be the core of the discussion and are crucial enough for Xi himself to visit this small country.
Third, Myanmar will have its general election by the end of 2020. Given the failure of the ethnic reconciliation processes, it is evident that Suu Kyi will not be enjoying the support of the ethnic minorities, unlike the previous election. Xi's visit will further hamper this as most of the stalled projects are based in the ethnic majority peripheries. In case these projects are restarted, it will worsen the conflicts in these regions and deteriorate their relationships with the centre. This would also end up increasing the anti-Chinese sentiment within Myanmar.
Lastly, this visit will also impact Myanmar's relationship with India and its other investors like Japan and South Korea. Given the ongoing trade war between the US and China, Xi's visit to Southeast Asia will speak a volume of its impact on the region.