President Xi Jinping will begin the first state visit by a Chinese leader to Myanmar in 19 years on Friday, a trip expected to offer political and economic support for the Southeast Asian nation which has become estranged from leading Western states over accusations of genocide for its alleged expulsion of Rohingya Muslims.
The two-day visit, marking the 70 anniversary of bilateral relations between the two Asian neighbors, underscores China’s importance to Myanmar and Myanmar’s significance for China, which is investing billions of dollars in several key infrastructure projects under Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Beijing has also been trying to broker cease-fires between the Myanmar military and rebel ethnic armies engaged in armed conflict along the countries’ shared border, viewing the clashes and displacement of tens of thousands of civilians as threats to the stability needed to ensure the smooth completion of the BRI projects.
Xi’s visit comes amid heavy international criticism over Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority — more than 740,000 of whom fled from Rakhine state during a military-led crackdown in 2017 — ongoing internal hostilities threatening the government's teetering peace process, and a growing need for foreign investment from non-Western countries to shore up Myanmar's economic development.
Xi will meet with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and leaders from political parties in a quest to jump-start some of the stalled BRI projects in Myanmar, according to Myanmar sources.
Analysts said they view Xi’s visit and China’s approach to Myanmar as a huge economic opportunity, but warn of potential risks for human rights, the environment, and the fledgling democracy’s values.
Some of China’s big projects and other investments have been met with protests over loss of land or environmental concerns.
“There are many opportunities to stimulate economic growth in Myanmar by allowing the BRI projects,” said Thein Tun Oo, director of the Thayninga Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank formed by military veterans.
“It will offer massive opportunities for Myanmar entrepreneurs to export local products to countries around the world,” he said.
Thein Tun Oo also said that Xi will focus on getting firm answers to BRI projects and other Chinese-backed schemes that have not yet been implemented in Myanmar, such as the U.S. $3.6-billion Myitsone Dam in Kachin state.
Myanmar’s government put the controversial hydropower project on hold in 2011 amid protests over its social and environmental impacts, much to Beijing’s dismay.
The Chinese meanwhile have pushed the current civilian-led administration and local ethnic leaders to let the project proceed.
“The authorities signed agreements for some BRI projects, but they still have not been implemented yet,” Thein Tun Oo said. “The Chinese president will try to get unambiguous answers [on them] during his visit.”
‘Charm offensive strategy’
Political analyst Aung Thu Nyein noted that “frantic and unorganized” Chinese investments in Myanmar under the previous military regime have raised concern among the public about the new spate of projects under the BRI.
“Currently, China is using a charm offensive strategy to win the hearts of the public in Myanmar, but it’s still not enough,” he said. “We have to work to make our investment procedures and mechanisms more systematic and organized. It will take a long time before Chinese investments become desirable.”
Another political analyst, Than Soe Naing, pointed out that Myanmar must keep in mind the impact of BRI projects on the communities that surround them.
“We are in a situation in which we need China’s support for our development,” he said. “We have to allow mega-projects like Myitsone Dam or the Kyaukphyu seaport, but we should be aware of their impact on the local people.”
Yin Yin Nwe, a geologist who has held important positions with UNICEF since the early 1990s and served in China, said Myanmar must beef up rules for investment if it wants the BRI projects to win acceptance among the populace.
“Our country has such an enormous amount of assets, making it is very valuable for the Chinese,” she said. “It is our own fault we haven’t made use of them. The lack of rule of law and organized procedures for investments in our country are partly to blame for the unpopularity of Chinese projects.”
Support for ruling party seen
Hla Kyaw Zawl, an expert on China-Myanmar relations, said China wants to ensure that the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party will win the next elections in late 2020, so that the BRI projects will continue as planned.
“President Xi Jinping will give his blessing to the NLD for a victory in the elections,” he said.
“The Chinese have calculated that when a country has a consecutive government administration, it is easier to deal with it for their projects,” he said.
Than Soe Naing noted that the country has grown to depend on China.
“Myanmar has been on a path of dependency on China and a one-sided international relationship,” he said.
During the NLD government’s tenure, Western countries have condemned Myanmar over the Rohingya issue and imposed targeted sanctions on those deemed responsible for the violence, he noted.
Myanmar is facing legal action in three international courts, including the U.N.’s International Court of Justice (ICJ), on genocide-related charges related to the 2017 crackdown.
“It is impractical to distance ourselves from China and develop closer relationships with Western countries,” Than Soe Naing said. “Subsequently, the ICJ lawsuit has pushed Myanmar further away from Western countries and brought it closer to China.”
Shielding Myanmar’s generals
Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s regional director for Asia, said that while any help Xi might offer to resolve the Rakhine conflict is “welcome in principle, the reality is that China’s engagement has failed to yield positive results for the people of Myanmar.”
“China must stop using its position in the U.N. Security Council to shield Myanmar’s senior generals from accountability,” he said in a statement on Xi’s visit. “This has only emboldened the military’s relentless campaign of human rights violations and war crimes against ethnic minorities across the country.”
Hla Kyaw Zawl, who is based in China, said Myanmar needs to be opportunistic and take advantage of rivalry among world and regional powers.
“It is important to grab the opportunity while we are struggling among the tactics of the superpower countries,” he said. “In my opinion, this is the best time for us to exploit their power struggle.”
“China is paying more attention to our country,” Hla Kyaw Zawl added. “At the same time, countries like India are also trying to expand their power to the East. Japan is also trying to consolidate its vital role in Asia. At a time like this, if we work smart, we will make the best out of their power struggles.”
Not everyone is happy about Myanmar’s growing reliance on China, though.
An online survey of 1,308 Southeast Asian nationals in research, business, the public sector, civil society, and media released Thursday by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singapore think tank, found that 26.1 percent of Myanmar respondents “welcome” China’s growing regional economic influence, while 73.9 percent said they were “worried” about it. The ASEAN average was 28.1 percent welcome and 71.9 percent worried.
The survey, titled “State Of South-east Asia: 2020,” found that only 16.1 percent of Myanmar respondents welcomed China's growing regional and strategic influence, while 83.9 percent were worried about it.
Asked whether China's BRI would provide a fair deal for Myanmar, 23.4 percent had no confidence that would happen, 38.5 percent had little confidence, 36.1 percent had some confidence, and 2 percent had full confidence.
Heavy impact of Chinese projects
Back in Myanmar, residents of areas slated for BRI and other Chinese-backed projects complain about the impact that different infrastructure developments will have on their communities.
Though Xi will not visit places where Chinese-funded mines, ports, railways, and roadways are being built either as part of the BRI or as separate ventures, local residents in those areas said they want him to know about their grievances concerning the projects.
Among the most controversial projects is the suspended Myitsone hydropower project that could displace more than 10,000 people in Kachin state and the Letpadaung copper mine that residents say has polluted their water resources in Sagaing region’s Salingyi township.
Mining activities have also contaminated underground water sources in some villages in Sagaing region, creating water shortages since 2013, residents said.
The Chinese-backed company operating the the Letpadaung mine and local officials have ignored their requests to install a to deliver a supply of clean water to nearbycommunities, they said.
Ethnic Kachin civil society groups have asked President Win Myint to permanently cancel the Myitsone hydropower project and have complained about the detrimental social and environmental effects of Chinese-funded enterprises that operate border trade zones, jade and rare earth mines, and tissue banana and sugarcane plantations in the state.
“They should avoid implementing any projects that could affect the local community,” said Sar Gyi, secretary of the Kachin Development Networking Group, a network of Kachin civil society groups and development organizations inside the state and abroad.
“As they implement the economic zone and industrial zones, they should see things from a humanitarian perspective, instead of looking at them only out of self-interest.”
Aung Htoo, Myanmar’s deputy minister of commerce, said on Jan. 9 that the government will sign two agreements on implementing the Kyaukphyu deep-water seaport in Rakhine state and other agreements on border trade during Xi’s visit.
In addition, more agreements will be signed on exporting rice, broken rice, live cattle and tissue banana from Myanmar to China.
China is Myanmar’s largest investor, with Chinese investment accounting for nearly U.S. $4.7 billion in 2018 and roughly U.S. $4.8 billion in 2019.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei, Kyaw Thu, Waiyan Moe Myint, and Wai Mar Tun. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.