President Xi Jinping of China visited Myanmar at the weekend, marking 70 years of close relations between the two countries. Indeed, Myanmar (then known as Burma) was one of the first countries with which the communist People’s Republic developed close formal ties.
Myanmar is a hugely important spoke in the Belt and Road wheel of Chinese Eurasian expansion. The infrastructure China is building in the country, mainly rail and deep water ports, will provide the shortest route between the Chinese productive heartlands and the trade routes to the West of the Indian Ocean, while also avoiding the contended waters of the South China Sea and, crucially, the choke point of the Malacca Strait.
Moreover, this infrastructure will grant the landlocked Yunnan province its most direct access to the oceans. And, to top it all off, this route only crosses one foreign state — one that is already firmly within the Chinese sphere of influence and whose political establishment is eagerly compliant in its entirety.
The only other comparable country in the Belt and Road Initiative with similar characteristics is Pakistan, but that trade route goes through thousands of miles of rough terrain in China’s “Wild West,” plus it has to cross the Himalayas, before it gets to a country with a much more fractured and precarious domestic security situation.
This is not to say that rolling out the Belt and Road in Myanmar has been all smooth sailing. And this is where Xi’s visit comes in.
Myanmar is a fractious country with a history of ethnic strife and secessionism as old as the country itself. To make matters even more delicate for Beijing, at least some of the armed secessionist groups in the northeast of the country identify ethnically as closer to China than to the Bamar of the Irrawaddy basin, and therefore have historically looked to Beijing for support. For their part, the Chinese authorities have largely tried to play impartial peacemakers between the parties, especially when they are trying to ingratiate themselves to the central government in Myanmar, but that affinity between the secessionist rebels and China has always remained an issue of contention in bilateral relations.
Affinity between secessionist rebels and China has always remained an issue of contention in bilateral relations.”
-Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Moreover, the Belt and Road infrastructure builds toward the port city of Sittwe, in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state. This province, including the city of Sittwe, has been the battleground of the recent Rohingya genocide, for which the Myanmar government is currently standing trial before the International Court of Justice. Admittedly, the insurgency and risk to Chinese projects in Rakhine are much more limited and controlled than in Pakistani Balochistan, for comparison, but the building projects are still going through land subject to adjudication before international courts.
Yet the biggest obstacle so far has turned out to be, surprisingly, the traditionally independent mindset of the governing elite in Nay Pyi Taw. This is perhaps best illustrated by the fate of the controversial $3.5 billion Myitsone dam project. This would have been the largest hydropower project in Myanmar, and was funded by the Chinese. Yet what should have been a win-win for the two governments was stopped by Nay Pyi Taw in 2011, when the Myanmar government yielded to popular protest from the local Bamar population that would have been displaced by the project.
This is to say, a government that has waged war mercilessly against border tribes for decades, sooner yielded to some fairly localized protests in its Bamar heartlands than to protest from China. This was even though the support of Beijing, and armaments supplied by Beijing, are the pillars upon which any notion of Myanmar’s independence and autonomy is built.
However, that case is merely an illustrative symptom of the actual politics at play in the Belt and Road Initiative in Myanmar. In short, the federal government in Myanmar is broadly on board with the project and instinctively sympathetic to Beijing. But, more than sympathetic to Beijing, they are Bamar ethnic nationalists. The Bamar ethnic majority of the country is largely skeptical or even hostile toward China. Whenever there emerges some kind of resistance among the Bamar to Chinese building projects along nationalist xenophobic lines, Nay Pyi Taw is overwhelmingly likely to yield to its domestic political base than even to China.
Xi was in Myanmar to try to impress upon Nay Pyi Taw where their bread is buttered and where their priorities should lie. Yet, in this case, China’s most natural ally is likely to be the most firm in rebuking Beijing in its increasing regional assertiveness.
This article originally appeared in Arab News on January 19th 2020.