Myanmar and China – Is Daw Suu Kyi The Pivot?
Paper No. 6165 Dated 29-Aug-2016
By Bhaskar Roy
Myanmar’s State Counsellor and head of the National League for Democracy (NLD) Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has just concluded a five- day (Aug 17-21) official visit to China at the invitation of Chinese premier Li Keqiang. She was accorded the protocol of a visiting prime minister of a country that the Chinese leaders see not only as being of economic importance but also of great strategic interest.
Is the Chinese leadership viewing her as more acceptable than Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw? Some have questioned whether Su Kyi is a rising star or a fading beacon. The Chinese seem to regard her as a rising star, for at least the near future. Suu Kyi remains debarred from the post of president of Myanmar by the 2008 constitution. Despite the huge victory of the NLD in the last election, the army retained by law 25 per cent of the seats in parliament to block any amendments to the constitution. Nevertheless, Suu Kyi was confident enough to say, even before the president was elected, that she would control the presidency. President U Htin Kyaw, a long time aide of Su Kyi, was handpicked by her without opposition. Her power and acceptance by the people is palpable. She chose her official position as State Counsellor, a post that did not exist before. After deliberations she also chose to become foreign minister. These two posts give Suu Kyi a very wide range of powers both internally and internationally. Even if much is mentioned in the international media about her one must remember that she is a Nobel Laureate for peace, and has an international status above just politics.
The army is still a force to reckon with. It controls the defence, home and border affairs ministries. It holds a veto over constitutional amendments. But the army is not what it was. The Chinese had very close relations with the Myanmar military for decades. They had no qualms about their links with a military dictatorship or over issues of human rights. Myanmar became their own backyard.
The situation began to change slowly and Beijing did not pay attention to the backlash of nationalism. Under Senior General Than Shwe, Chinese pressure and exploitation became overbearing. The people, not the pro-democracy activists, began to strongly resent the Chinese. By 1999, Than Shwe quietly began to explore improving relations with other countries. In 2011, President Thein Sein, a former general, who headed a quasi-military government, stopped work on the mostly Chinese funded US$3.6 billion Myitsone dam in Kachin state. The local people saw the dam as an environmental disaster. Almost 90 per cent of the electricity produced would go to China. This was a shock for the Chinese.
Simultaneously, the Myanmar military, which was the recipient of obsolete and substandard weapons from China, good enough to quell demonstrators and armed ethnic groups, started looking for military supplies elsewhere. Very recently, army Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing visited some countries in Europe looking for weapons for the army. He is looking for submarines for coastal defence, but not from China. Trust between the two countries has eroded somewhat.
For China, Suu Kyi is the best bet. Yet, while Beijing cannot overrun Myanmar in the current geopolitical ambience, it has instruments to keep Naypyidaw disturbed through the ethnic minorities located along the 2,200 km long China-Myanmar border, who receive Chinese arms clandestinely.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s agenda was to seek Chinese assistance to bring all the warring ethnic groups ranged against the tatmadaw to a peace conference scheduled for August 31.China’s agenda was to get the stalled Myitsone dam restarted. Both sides are aware that neither of the two objectives would be resolved by this one visit. Suu Kyi had declared recently that development was paramount but development depended on peace. In a manner she put part of the responsibility on China. Seven ethnic groups are based along the border. These include the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Wa, both supported by China.
During the visit, President Xi Jinping assured her of support to Myanmar’s development and bilateral cooperation over a wide range of areas. Implicit in this was help to bring the armed ethnic groups especially the militarily powerful ones who are close to China, to the “21st Century Panglong Conference” in Naypidaw on August 31.Suu Kyi underlined the importance of the Xi initiative, saying, “ We do believe that as a good neighbour China will do everything possible to promote our peace process (with the ethnic groups)”.Xi briefly made two important points (a) importance of smooth operations of on-going large –scale projects (read Myitsone dam) and (b) promote connective projects (read gas and oil pipelines from Myanmar’s Arakan coast, deep sea port and special economic zone at Kyaukphu).
Following the visit, China’s special Envoy on Asian Affairs Sun Guoxiang met important ethnic groups – the United Wa State Army (UWSA), heavily armed by China, and the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) also known as the Mongla group, equally close to China. A third armed group, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), another China supported group was apparently contacted by the Chinese. All three groups who had earlier declined, have agreed to join the peace conference.
The above exposes China’s interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.
China still holds the ethnic group cards and can play them. Suu Kyi knows that. The Chinese official news agency The Xinhua (August 18) projected that during the Suu Kyi –Li Keqiang meeting on Aug 18, Suu Kyi agreed to solve the problem of the Myitsone dam. But talking to the media in Beijing she avoided any mention of the dam.
To buy time, however, and stall the baying Chinese on the dam, the NLD government set up a committee to go into all such projects in the country, especially on their environmental and economic impact. The committee is expected to submit its report on November 11.
China exploited Myanmar with impunity when the military junta was in total power in Yangon. The people had no voice and opposition leaders were incarcerated. The situation began to change when Senior Gen. Than Shwe realized that Beijing was beginning to convert Myanmar into a minority region of China.
China got the message through two landmark developments. First, the road –cum -waterway project from China’s Yunnan province to the Arakan coast was cancelled because China demanded unacceptable conditions impinging on Myanmar’s sovereignty. Next was the suspension of the Myitsone dam due to local opposition. The Chinese call this their iconic project and have invested substantial “face” in it.
People’s resentment against the Chinese is finding articulation. Two dozen Shan community groups have called on Aung San Suu Kyi to stop construction of all hydroelectric projects on the Salween River. Of major concern is the 1200 megawatt Naung Pha dam in northern Shan state which will be built by the Chinese and most of the electricity will go China. Jade and timber merchants have demanded suspension of production as most of the products go to China legally or illegally. In the Arakan state a movement is growing demanding that natural resources including land and water must be transferred to the state. This may negatively impact China’s projects in the state.
The people simply do not want China and the NLD government will be risking high stakes if they succumb to China’s demand.
For Beijing Myanmar is a strategic gateway to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Its near to mid-term strategy is to turn Myanmar into a Pakistan. Naypidaw must study China’s activities in detail. China is pushing State Counsellor Suu Kyi to accede to its Belt and Road strategy. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which it is constructing in Pakistan is part of China’s 21st Century Silk Road. It emerges onto the Arabian Sea at Gwadar, where it has constructed a deep sea port, controlled and run by China. It has been designated as a defence establishment by the Pakistani government but is only nominally owned by Pakistan. The port is set to be a Chinese naval base in not too distant a future. Oil and gas imports from the Gulf, Iran and East Africa will be transferred overland to China from Gwadar port. The CPEC is being given security cover in Balochistan by a newly raised Pak army division. Most of the workers are from China. The Belt and Road project has a hidden strategy for China to provide security. Very soon the Chinese security forces, that is the PLA, will be positioned along the CPEC. They will first come as advisors. Pak army have sold themselves and the country to China. With Pakistan being referred to as a state sponsor of terrorism it will have nowhere else to go but to China
Take this evolving scenario and place it on the map of Myanmar. The Chinese plan in Myanmar is a replica of what they have gained in Pakistan.
Unlike Pakistan, Myanmar has options other than China. It is not involved in terrorism of any kind. It has much improved relations with the USA and the west, and has friendly neighbours. The Myanmar military has distanced itself from China. Democracy is growing.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon‘s decision to attend the ethnic minority peace conference is another welcome development. The issue is going to the international arena and hopefully things would be more transparent.
At the same time, Myanmar would have to live with China peacefully as a friendly neighbour. But Beijing would not sit back idly. It will mount pressure. However it may not have the same options it had earlier. It is the people of Myanmar who can deliver Myanmar.
(The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at email firstname.lastname@example.org)