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China - Myanmar Relations

In the past, China was a key supporter of Myanmar’s military junta - the ruling body that long opposed Aung San Suu Kyi, kept her under house arrest and long thwarted the country’s pro-democracy movement. How she may address such thorny issues with China's leaders remained unclear. Due to the prolonged embargo from the US and the West, for many years Myanmar mainly bought Chinese weapons. Therefore, it is not surprising that this country is considered to be the largest user of Chinese weapons in Southeast Asia. "Weapons made in China" appear in large numbers in the army, air force and navy.

China is Myanmar's biggest investor, but its longstanding and close relationship with the country's former military rulers has not helped its popularity. And while Myanmar's new government reached out to a growing range of countries to improve ties and not be overly reliant on any country, China stepped up its efforts as well. Companies are working more aggressively to highlight what they argue are the benefits their projects bring residents in Myanmar.

What happened in Myanmar between 2011 to 2015-16 represents a major shift in bilateral relations. It was a period when people believed that China lost Myanmar to the West because of democratic reform, and also because of the suspension of the Chinese Myitsone dam project. It was a period where China's influence in Myanmar seemed to wane. In China’s mind, it has always been a priority to regain that influence, to regain the favorability of the Burmese government, and show that China will not lose in Southeast Asia vis-à-vis the West, especially the United States.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar in January 2021, just weeks before the 01 February 2021 coup, and held a meeting with Senior General Min Hlaing while he was in the country. This led many to wonder whether Beijing was given advanced notice of the Tatmadaw’s plan to seize power. In a statement following the meeting, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that, “China will continue to back Myanmar in safeguarding its sovereignty, national dignity and legitimate rights and interests.” This could be read as a vague nod of approval for the military to pursue a coup. It is not known whether China was aware of the military’s machinations leading up to the coup, but Beijing quickly signalled it will not condemn the Tatmadaw’s actions, calling the takeover “a major cabinet reshuffle” and referring to Myanmar as a “friendly neighbor”. Indeed, the generals in Naypyidaw are likely assuming that Beijing will continue to support Myanmar regardless of who is in power and that they can count on Chinese economic and diplomatic support going forward.

The impact of the 2021 coup on China was manifested in terms of the hostile public opinion in Myanmar. Many Burmese people believe that China was behind the coup and China had been supporting the military. A souring of public opinion in Myanmar against China was the number one reaction. The international community put pressure on China to do more about the situation, to the extent that China agreed to a UN Security Council press statement [expressing “deep concern” over the military takeover and calling for the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint], and to the extent that the Chinese ambassador to Myanmar had to come out and clarify that China did not support the coup.

Beijing may not like the coup, but it cannot do anything to reverse or stop it. If China doesn't have a choice, then China will have to work with whoever is in power. If China had the choice, it would prefer for Myanmar to be a relatively normal and stable country. A Myanmar under the rule of the military is neither normal nor stable.

Myanmar is important for China because of its location, because of what Myanmar can connect China to. Myanmar sits on a critical location between South Asia and Southeast Asia. It’s also one of two countries to offer China direct access to the Indian Ocean. The other is Pakistan. By comparison, the security risks in Myanmar are relatively low. So China looks at Myanmar as primarily a connective hub, a transportation network to not only South Asia, but also Southeast Asia as well as the Indian Ocean, which is why key Chinese projects in Myanmar, either the oil and gas pipeline or the Kyaukphyu seaport, all represent ways to connect China with the rest of the world.

China has important national interests in Myanmar. So, it would be wrong for China not to try to initiate this relationship or establish contact with Aung San Suu Kyi. China needed to strengthen ties with both ruling and opposition parties in Myanmar because that was something that could easily change when elections were involved. Mutual understanding between both sides [China and Myanmar’s opposition] is lacking, and that includes the National League for Democracy’s understanding of China. That’s why boosting communication and understanding is important for both sides.

Myanmar, specifically the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), viewed China as its key bilateral partner. In addition to regarding China as a reliable provider of grants, training, and low interest loans, the regime sought to use the deepening, supportive relationship as evidence of its legitimacy and to offset political pressure by the international community, particularly the United States and the European Union (EU), for concrete movement toward national reconciliation and democracy. While the Burmese military harbored a lingering wariness about Chinese motives and influence, there was no criticism of China by regime officials, either in private or in the press. Although the GOB remains reluctant to provide concessions on issues of past import to China, such as development of the Irrawaddy River transport route to the sea, both sides focused on the positive mutual benefits of the current relationship. In addition, there was no evidence that the regime considered China either a regional "hegemon" or a potential neighborhood bully.

The Chinese government had seemingly contradictory policies of non-interference in Myanmar and intense engagement with the SPDC. China was looking for opportunities to provide the generals with support and succor in order to offset their increased isolation from the rest of the international community. China opposed US sanctions on Myanmar and views the measures as interference in Myanmar's internal affairs. Nonetheless, because the current situation in Myanmar has led to heightened international concern, China urged the regime to take "proper steps" to keep the process of national reconciliation moving forward. The key was increasing the speed of economic development. Too much pressure on Myanmar, such as that being imposed by the U.S. and others, will be counterproductive and undermine chances for the speedy release of ASSK. US sanctions had hurt Chinese businesses in Myanmar, leaving them with a "negative impression of the U.S." because the greatest impact was on foreign manufacturers and Burmese citizens, not the Burmese regime.

Bilateral military relations developed smoothly with frequent high-level exchang of visits. To Myanmar: Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission General Chi Haotian (July 1995), Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission General Zhang Wannian (April 1996), Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission General Xu Caihou (May 2011), Chief of the General Staff General Fu Quanyou (April 2001), Chief of the General Staff General Liang Guanglie (October 2008), Chief of the General Staff General Chen Bingde (March 2009).

January 2013, Deputy chief of the PLA General Staff Headquarters, Lt. General Qi Jianguo, and Deputy Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar's Defense Services and Commander-in-Chief of the Army General Soe Win, co-hosted the first Strategic Security Consultation between armed forces of China and Myanmar in NAY PYI TAW.

To China: Deputy Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services and Commander-in-Chief (Army) Lieutenant General Than Shwe (October 1989), Deputy Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services and Commander-in-Chief (Army) General Soe Win (November 2012), Deputy Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services and Commander-in-Chief (Army) General Maung Aye (October 1996), Chief of Staff (Army) Lieutenant General Tin Oo (May 2000), Chief of Staff Thura Shwe Mann (December 2002), Deputy Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services and Commander-in-Chief (Army) Vice-Senior General Maung Aye (August 2003), Chief of Air Defence Lieutenant General Soe Win (July 2004).

The PLA has a national responsibility for maintaining China's land borders, but until recently Myanmar and the DPRK had been exceptions to this practice. In January 2003, Chinese Ambassador to Myanmar Li Jinjun personally lobbied Luo Gan, who was in charge of border management, suggesting that unified management of China's borders under the PLA would be beneficial in combating illegal migration, drug trafficking, and prohibited mining and forest activities. Li said that while Beijing had made the decision at the beginning of 2003 to replace police and immigration personnel on the Burmese border with regular PLA units, central authorities implemented the order later in 2003.

Economic assistance aside, the most obvious indication of the emphasis the Burmese regime places on the relationship was the well-publicized access Chinese central government and provincial officials, especially those from Yunnan province, routinely have to Myanmar's three top leaders, SPDC Chairman Senior General Than Shwe, SPDC Vice Chairman Vice Senior General Maung Aye, and Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt. Beginning with Chinese President Jiang Zemin's trip to Myanmar in December 2001 and culminating most recently with the March visit of Vice Premier Wu Yi, there had been a steady stream of high-level visits back and forth, most of which had an economic/business focus. Besides Wu Yi's trip, highlights in 2004 include a visit by the Deputy Minister of the PRC Ministry of Economy and Commerce in January and the Vice-Chairman of the Chinese People's Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in late February (he met with Than Shwe). Vice Senior General Maung Aye went to China in August 2003.

These visits, as well as those by local Yunnanese economic officials and representatives of Chinese state-owned enterprises, and businessmen, garnered extensive coverage in Myanmar's government-controlled newspaper as well as GOB press releases/information sheets. Even the Chinese Ambassador's 21 April 2004 call on Khin Nyunt, who was identified on the occasion as General rather than Prime Minister, merited a front-page article in the government-controlled newspaper. PM Khin Nyunt was the Chairman of the Leading Committee for implementation of agreements on economic cooperation between Myanmar and China.

The Chinese-financed Myitsone Dam is a massive $3.6 billion, 6,000-megawatt hydroelectric power development project at the confluence of the Mali and N’mai rivers which form the source of the Irrawaddy River. Myanmar’s former military-backed government suspended a contentious Chinese hydropower project in 2011, citing concern about China’s growing economic influence in the country. Those opposing the dam also objected to the deal that would send 90 percent of the power generated by the dam to China. They also cited environmental impact that would change the flow of the Irrawaddy River. Then opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi opposed the deal. One article in the Communist Party-backed Global Times called the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam a “symbolic project for Sino-Myanmar cooperation” and noted growing hope in China that the two sides might soon reach a “turning point.”

The large copper mine in Salingyi township run by China’s Wanbao Mining Copper Ltd. Company and Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. (UMEHL), a Myanmar army-owned conglomerate, has come under fire by local residents and farmers who had long protested the company’s land takeovers in the area. Aung San Suu Kyi led a parliamentary inquiry commission on the Letpadaung project in the wake of a violent police raid on protesters at the mine site in 2012 and found that Wanbao had inadequately compensated farmers for their land and that the appropriation process lacked transparency. Farmers who lost crops in 2014 and 2015 during later land confiscations for the mine project demanded proper compensation from Wanbao. The company said that it had offered the farmers money, but that they refused to accept it. Wanbao also indicated that it would not compensate villagers annually for money they would have otherwise made from crops, because the company leased the land from the government, not the farmers.

Since 2011, China implemented a mix of hard and soft power tools to retain a position of leverage with both the Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi governments. The developing friendship between Burma and the United States prompted China to start searching for new ways to shore up the relationship. In 2012, academic journals in China ran several articles analyzing "who lost Myanmar" and proposing new policies to rectify the situation. Beijing began reaching out to other elements of Burmese society — including the NLD and other democrats—utilizing the CPC’s “government-to-government,” “party-to-party,” and “people-to-people” strategy that moved beyond the CPC’s previous limited circle of regime leaders and their business cronies.

The year of 2012 witnessed further development of China-Myanmar friendly relations characterized by frequent exchanges of high level visits. In February, U Shwe Mann, Speaker of Myanmar's Pyithu Hluttaw (Lower House) visited China and met with Mr. Wu Bangguo, Chairman of the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress as well as Mr. Jia Qinglin, Chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

Wang Gang, Vice Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People' s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), and Mr. Meng Jianzhu, State Councilor and Minister of Public Security visited Myanmar in May and July respectively. In September 2012, Chairman Wu Bangguo paid an official goodwill visit to Myanmar and held meetings or talks with President U Thein Sein, Speaker of Pyidaungsu Hluttaw and Amyotha Hluttaw, U Khin Aung Myint and Speaker of Pyithu Hluttaw U Shwe Mann. In the same month, Myanmar President U Thein Sein attended the 9th China-ASEAN Expo (CAEXPO) held in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region where he met with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping. Earlier the President also visited Shaanxi and Guangdong Provinces of China and had a stopover at Kunming.

U Khin Aung Myint, Speaker of Myanmar's Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (Union Parliament) and Amyotha Hluttaw (Upper House), also traveled to China in September 2012 to attend the ceremony in commemoration of the World Peace Day held in Shenzhen of Guangdong Province. The frequent exchange of high-level visits between the two countries further promoted the political trust and mutually beneficial cooperations between China and Myanmar.

China denied delivering arms to ethnic militias in Burma on 28 January 2013, rejecting allegations that Burmaa's largest trading partner was militarily supporting the country's largest militia, the United Wa State Army (UWSA). "Such allegations, however, were ill-founded and misguided," a press release by the Chinese embassy in Rangoon said on Sunday, effectively denying that China was hedging its bets and supplying military equipment not only to the Burmese armed forces, but also to ethnic militias on China's border in Shan and Kachin State. The release referred to a report by Jane's Intelligence Review from December 2012, according to which the UWSA received Chinese-made PTL02 Wheeled Tank Destroyers in the middle of last year. The Jane's report stated that the arms were acquired on the gray arms market in China, which allowed for plausible deniability.

"The Chinese Government holds a clear and consistent policy of respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity" of Burma, the embassy statement said. The reports "may cause confusion and misperception among the Myanmar public and a wider audience," the statement concluded, hinting at China's blemished image among the general public. The alleged arms transfer was first made known to a wider audience by the report of the Democratic Voice of Burma. Controversial investments by Chinese state-owned companies, such as the Myitsone Dam, the Monywa copper mine and the Sino-Burmese oil and gas pipelines, have led to protests at the Rangoon embassy compound and also caused wider friction between the two countries.

Aung San Suu Kyi's visit to the Chinese capital 18 August 2016 was her first major diplomatic mission since her National League for Democracy party won a historic landslide election in 2015 that finally brought an end to five decades of tight-fisted military rule. The Nobel Peace laureate is barred from serving as president under a military-drafted constitution, but held several key posts, including state counselor and foreign minister. Aung San Suu Kyi was expected to discuss peace talks between her government and ethnic minority rebel forces along the Myanmar-China border. Fighting in the region had sent a flood of refugees into China.

For a long time, the buffer zone of autonomous and ethnic regions along the border between Myanmar and China have benefited Chinese commercial interests. Ethnic armed organizations have helped protect the flow of illegal trade of jade and timber through a network of unaccounted stakeholders. But Beijing had higher economic stakes in Myanmar, in the form of massive hydro-power projects (the construction for many are about to start), oil/gas pipelines, road connectivity projects, and perhaps, a legal jade and timber trade.

China's position on the armed conflicts in northern was a hope that parties involved in the conflicts can exercise restraint and take effective measures to quickly restore and maintain stability in the China-Myanmar border area. China neither supported the ethnic armed groups to expand the conflicts, nor supported the military to exterminate rebels. By the end of 2016, more efforts were needed to promote peace talks. China could take stronger measures of creative involvement to intensify coordination and mediation, and urge the military, the government and ethnic armed groups to go back to the negotiating table. China's position of negotiator in the internal peace process of Myanmar automatically gives it a significant role in the country's internal dynamics, enhancing Beijing's position in future bilateral negotiations.

Activists from the Myanmar town of Letpadaung submitted a written complaint 15 December 2017 to China’s President Xi Jinping about the Chinese company operating the controversial copper mine in Salingyi township in the country’s northwestern Sagaing region, saying the firm had failed to act on recommendations outlined in a government report. The Chinese have been pushing Myanmar for permission to continue work on the Myitsone Dam project, which had hardly broken ground when it was stopped by Aung San Suu Kyi’s military-backed predecessor in 2011.

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Page last modified: 06-05-2021 17:12:25 ZULU