United States President Barack Obama visited Myanmar late last month, one of many milestones over the last year-plus of reforms for the once pariah state.
These reforms and the consequent improvement of US-Myanmar relations appear to be an unalloyed good.
In the past year, the government of Myanmar president Thein Sein has released many political prisoners, allowed progressively greater political participation by the democratic opposition, and made significant progress toward ending ethnic insurgencies that have troubled the country for decades.
As Myanmar has reformed, the US, which once enforced a harsh sanctions regime against the country, has sought to encourage and support the process.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar in December last year. The US has now lifted or suspended most of its economic sanctions.
This, in turn, paves the way for aid, investment and advice from the US, its allies, and multilateral financial institutions.
For US and Western firms, Myanmar holds the promise of rapid-growth investment opportunities in an underserved market of 60 million people.
But behind these positive developments lurks a danger: The sensitivity and potential reaction of China, Myanmar's neighbour to the north, to increased US involvement.
For China, the relationship with Myanmar has economic and strategic value.
Myanmar is a market for Chinese goods, and also supplies China with primary products ranging from agricultural goods and fish to minerals and natural gas. China is also deeply involved in infrastructure development in Myanmar. This includes several hydropower projects, and a special economic zone in Kyaukpyu in the west of the country.
China is building a dual gas and oil pipeline and transportation corridor across Myanmar from Kyaukpyu to Ruili, on the Chinese border.
The natural gas will come from fields off Myanmar's west coast, but the oil will be brought from Africa and the Middle East.
The pipeline allows China to bypass the straits of Malacca _ a potential choke-point subject to control by the US Navy.
Chinese descriptions of China-Myanmar relations invariably stress harmony between the two peoples from time immemorial. They use the Myanmar word "Pauk Paw" to define the special fraternal nature of the relationship.
This narrative glosses over historical conflicts, the last of which ended as recently as the mid-1980s as China shifted from supporting revolution to encouraging trade.
China's vision of "Pauk Paw" harmony also papers over anti-Chinese sentiment prevalent in Myanmar today.
Myanmar public opinion sees Chinese companies as using bribes and the Chinese government's support for Myanmar at the UN to obtain preferential concessions for resource and infrastructure projects. This popular view holds that the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw, has been selling out the nation to the Chinese.
As long as the Tatmadaw was exercising dictatorial authority, the model Chinese companies brought to Myanmar worked, as it does in China.
In China, the key to any project is having good government connections. There is no need to develop relations with affected locals, civil society, or other stakeholders. When the political situation in Myanmar changed and the new civilian government began to make reforms that reflected popular will, Chinese projects, not having developed support among non-government stakeholders, were vulnerable.
In fact, despite precursors, the reform period in Myanmar can be dated from the September 2011 presidential decision to suspend work on the main dam (of seven) in the Chinese-backed Myitsone Hydropower Project.
Despite public outcry against the Myitsone project, which was labelled as environmentally hazardous and harmful to cultural heritage, less than a month prior to the suspension, Myanmar's minister for electric power, Zaw Min, said: "We will not back down just because environmental groups are against it."
He may have been correct, as the suspension appears to have had more to do with the perception of the project as Chinese exploitation. In a country suffering from chronic power shortages, 90% of the electricity produced by the project was to be sold directly to China.
More recently, protests against the Chinese-operated copper mine at Letpadaung in central Myanmar have drawn national and international attention.
The Chinese oil and gas pipeline project has also been criticised heavily by NGOs over land use, compensation and environmental problems. International NGOs have criticised it for building in conflict zones, and members of the democratic opposition have privately called the project a violation of Myanmar's national sovereignty.
Many Chinese policy intellectuals see the improvement of US-Myanmar relations, the reform process in Myanmar, and problems for Chinese projects there as part of a US-directed plot to contain China.
Yuan Peng of the American Research Centre at the China Institute of Contemporary International Affairs wrote in the overseas edition of the People's Daily newspaper: "The US will avail itself of various non-military means to delay or hinder China's progressive rise."
These include "strengthening alliances and enhancing partnerships while undermining China's relationships with North Korea, Pakistan and Myanmar". The Obama administration's "pivot to Asia" has only fed this dominant and paranoid strain in Chinese thought.
Why should Chinese anxiety about improvement in US-Myanmar relations matter? It might be tempting to see problems that China's projects have as just desserts for not taking account of a broad range of stakeholder interests. However, Myanmar and China share a long border, and despite a slowdown in its growth, China is still an economic powerhouse. Its influence in Myanmar will continue to be large. Support from China and Chinese companies for Myanmar's reforms and development will help quicken and deepen their implementation. Opposition could contribute to their stagnation.
What should Mr Obama do to assuage Chinese anxiety? First, he should make clear that China-US-Myanmar relations are not a zero-sum game in which any gain for the US is a loss for China. Myanmar needs support from the US, China, Asean, and its other neighbours to successfully implement sustainable and equitable reforms.
Second, Mr Obama should frame US support for reform in terms that the Chinese use: Stability and "win-win" outcomes. Reform in Myanmar will make the country more stable, and a more stable Myanmar will better protect China's long term interests by pushing Chinese investors to reach out to stakeholders.
Chinese support for reform in Myanmar will result in a "win-win-win" situation which benefits Myanmar, the US, and China.
Josh Gordon is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Yale University, where his dissertation research is on Chinese identity in the China-Myanmar borderlands. He has also worked as a project consultant for Chinese companies researching investments in Myanmar's energy sector.
About the author
Writer: Josh Gordon