China seeks to shore up its influence in Myanmar
text size

China seeks to shore up its influence in Myanmar

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is scheduled to arrive in Myanmar on Monday on a critical two-day visit. It is intended to further strengthen Chinese influence in the country, in light of the changing international dynamics in the region, amid fears that China's sway is beginning to wane.

Beijing is increasingly concerned with a plethora of issues, including recent Indian and Japanese initiatives with Myanmar, which Beijing fears may prove to be to their detriment, but also to take stock of the continued economic cooperation, strengthen its support for the peace process and to boost China's support for Myanmar's battle to control the Covid pandemic.

Mr Wang's primary purpose on this visit is to show China's unswerving support for the country and its civilian leader, the State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi -- and to congratulate the National League for Democracy (NLD) on its landslide electoral victory. He will be the first international diplomat to visit Nay Pyi Taw in person since the elections last November.

The visit seems to have been arranged at short notice -- and tagged onto Mr Wang's current trip to Africa. It is low-key and being handled discreetly, according to Myanmar government sources. Foreign diplomats believe this may reflect some discomfort on the part of Nay Pyi Taw at the visit, and what is seen as "vaccine diplomacy".

Most diplomats and political observers expected an early visit from the Chinese envoy. "It's routine practice in China's bilateral relations with Myanmar," according to Moe Thuza, a former Myanmar diplomat, now a regional specialist and Myanmar programme coordinator at the Singapore-based think-tank, the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

"Chinese dignitaries and senior officials are usually the first visitors to Myanmar when a new administration takes office. Wang Yi was the first foreign dignitary to visit Myanmar when the NLD government took office in 2016. So, it is not really surprising that this visit is taking place in view of the NLD's second landslide win in 2020," she told the Bangkok Post.

While the finer details of Mr Wang's itinerary are still being worked out, according to Myanmar diplomatic sources. He will certainly meet President Win Myint, the State Counsellor and the Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and key ministers in charge of the economy, according to Chinese sources. Most commentators believe the agenda is likely to prioritise economic issues and Covid assistance. "China has plenty of things that it wants to nudge Myanmar on," according to the China specialist Yun Sun, senior fellow at the US-based Stimson Centre.

"The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) is moving slowly, but that is to be expected given the Covid impact in 2020. I'd think Covid cooperation and the general consolidation of a positive momentum in relations between the two countries in light of the NLD's upcoming second term will be on the top of the list," she told the Bangkok Post.

In fact the concrete idea of the CMEC was put forward by Mr Wang in November 2017 on a visit to the Myanmar capital. He suggested it as a means of fostering national reconciliation and development. Though of course parts of this concept were central to the Chinese leaders thinking when the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was mooted several years previously.

The Chinese foreign minister's trip also marks the anniversary of the historic China-Myanmar Summit in Nay Pyi Taw last January, when China's president Xi Jinping visited Myanmar -- the first official visit by a top Chinese leader in 20 years. For the Chinese it was a significant step in their bilateral relations in which they redefined as the "Sino-Myanmar Community of Common Destiny" -- the highest possible level of bilateral relations for Mr Xi's administration.

"It includes political, economic and security cooperation and commands genuine mutual support of each other, especially on the most difficult issues, such as China's support of Myanmar on the Rohingya issue and Myanmar's acceptance of Taiwan as 'a part of the People's Republic of China'," according to Ms Yun.

But despite the fanfare a year ago at the beginning of this era of stronger and deeper relations, things have not gone as smoothly as Beijing expected. In fact in the course of the last 12 months Myanmar has concertedly tried to wean itself off its over-reliance on Beijing, for political support, economic assistance and investment. The impact of Covid has necessitated some nuanced changes in foreign policy -- as for a long period the border with China was effectively closed and cross-border trade ground to a halt. It is still only barely being resuscitated. But also in broadening Myanmar's security umbrella and diversifying its sources of aid, bilateral trade and its partners in economic cooperation.

During the Chinese president's visit more than three dozen agreements -- including various MOUs and protocols -- were signed. At the same time Mr Xi urged both nations to deepen their "result-oriented Belt and Road cooperation" and move from "the conceptual stage to concrete planning and implementation." The Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in western Rakhine State, the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone in Shan and Kachin states, and the New Yangon City project in Myanmar's commercial capital were designated as the three pillars of the CMEC.

China has taken every opportunity to push for Myanmar's cooperation in implementing these projects. The visit of head of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party, Yang Jiechi, in September was both to show support for Ms Suu Kyi prior to the election and to check on the progress being made on the various CMEC projects.

Beijing fears Myanmar is dragging its feet and is anxious to kick start many of the projects. For its part, Myanmar has taken a consistently cautious approach. And none of the new CMEC projects has actually reached the implementation stage, according to government officials.

Obviously the bilateral talks during Mr Wang's visit will include an update and discussion on the CMEC, according to diplomats and observers. "Nay Pyi Taw may be concerned about project implementation, especially so that it does not adversely affect local communities where the project are sited, nor exacerbate conflict," said Ms Thuza. "The Myanmar government is increasingly aware of the need for transparency and community consultation for such large infrastructure projects." This not only slows the implementation process but is likely to be an added irritant to the Chinese side.

But there will be significant political discussions too. Japan has been aggressively supporting Ms Suu Kyi's government by offering substantial technical assistance behind the scenes. Of recent they have become heavily involved in the country's troubled western province of Rakhine. In November the Japanese special envoy managed to broker talks between the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) and the armed rebel Buddhist group, the Arakan Army (AA). This has resulted in an informal truce. It has also led to the release of NLD MPs who the AA were holding captive -- and may even allow elections to be held in these areas, where voting was not allowed during the polls in November.

As Beijing has close relations with the AA -- including allowing a liaison office in the southern Chinese capital of Kunming -- Mr Wang will definitely be making Beijing's view known, with Ms Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw commander. It is possible that Beijing is miffed by Japan's new prominent role as peace-maker in Rakhine.

But China's other major concern is what they see as Delhi's renewed and vigorous courting of Ms Suu Kyi and her government. While the recent acquisition by the military of two Indian Russian-made submarines may not pose too many problems in itself, it is likely to be seen as a significant reflection of Myanmar's pronounced tilt towards the West generally.

And in particular is seen as a reflection of the army's leaders preference for Indian and Russian equipment rather than Chinese. To add insult to injury Beijing will be upset that Myanmar has turned to India for a vaccine to combat Covid, though government insiders insist Myanmar will get vaccine supplies from several sources including India, Russia, the UK and China.

The most likely concrete outcome of the visit is an announcement about a deal for the Chinese vaccine. But the reality is that the discussions on the economic projects, the peace process, Rakhine and general security issues are expected to be quite fraught.

Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.

Larry Jagan

A specialist on Myanmar

Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.

Do you like the content of this article?