Obama Visit Shows U.S.-China Rivalry Over Myanmar

Little more than a year ago, there was talk of Myanmar (also known as Burma) as a “Chinese California”, offering China a west coast onto the Indian Ocean. Now, Coke and Pepsi billboards glare at each other across Yangon intersections. Aung San Suu Kyi, finally free from house arrest, collected her 21-year-old Nobel Peace Prize in June, while president Thein Sein may one day receive his own for “spearheading a gradually evolving peace process in the country“. As the country shifts out of its long-established Chinese orbit, U.S. president Barack Obama visited Myanmar on Monday together with secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the first time an American president had ever been there.

Beijing has met these developments with a muted but clear lack of enthusiasm. From Evan Osnos at The New Yorker, citing a CDT Ministry of Truth Directive on Obama’s visit:

The clearest measure of the symbolic significance of President Obama’s visit to Burma on Monday came not in his surprising speech, or in the sight of him towering over the Nobel laureate and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi. It came from a less likely source: the Chinese Propaganda Department.

In the past year, as Burmese leaders released wave after wave of political prisoners, ended its censorship of the press, and welcomed former dissidents into government, China and its fellow-autocrats, have looked on with bewilderment and no small degree of concern that the infection of openness could spread beyond Burma’s borders. So in an internal notice to national media last week, China’s Orwellian agency, which oversees the world’s largest censorship apparatus, made clear just how it feels about witnessing an American President welcomed by once-hostile generals in Burma, a nation that was, just two years ago, one of China’s most avid partners in authoritarianism: “Downplay Obama’s visit,” the Chinese Propaganda Department ordered.

The propaganda officials are not the only ones with reservations about the occasion. At Foreign Policy, Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations argued at length that the presidential presence in Myanmar was “too much, too soon”. In short:

Myanmar’s political and economic changes, though substantial, are not as secure as many Burmese reformers and outside observers think. The economic reforms that have been put in place are tenuous, and if they do not lead to broad-based growth, they could only fuel greater unrest. Civil wars still rage in parts of the country, and the end of the authoritarian era seems to have unleashed dormant ethnic tensions in places like Arakan State in the west. Meanwhile, though the former senior generals really do seem to have retired, that does not mean the army has simply vanished from power.

Obama acknowledged such concerns in a speech to the University of Yangon on Monday but, as The Economist explained last week, they were ultimately outweighed by the need to press an unexpected strategic advantage:

Trumping the concerns […] is America’s “pivot” towards Asia and the geopolitical contest for friends and influence in the face of a rising China. Myanmar, which shares a 2,000-kilometre (1,250-mile) border with China, is viewed as a crucial prize in this contest. Mr Obama hotfooting it to Myanmar throws out an unequivocal message of American intent.

[…] Meanwhile, foreign-policy experts in China refuse to be taken in by all the American rhetoric about democracy and human rights. America, complains Zhu Feng, an international-relations specialist at Peking University, always had a strategic concern with China in the region, assuming that it wants to use “Myanmar as a springboard to the Indian Ocean”. (That is a not unreasonable assumption.)

And so the Obama visit is likely only to deepen the Chinese feeling of creeping encirclement. Chinese experts also point to last month’s extraordinary announcement that next year the Burmese army will, as observers, probably attend America’s annual regional military exercises with its friends, known as Cobra Gold. This year’s event, in Thailand, included contingents from South Korea, Indonesia, Japan and Singapore. If the Burmese join this lot, then expect the more conspiratorial readings of the “pivot” to get a really good airing in the Chinese capital.

At The Wall Street Journal, Deborah Kan and Patrick Barta discussed these geopolitical manoeuvres and the prospects for expanded American commercial investment. Barta stressed, however, that “Burma cannot afford to upset China in the long run”.

Thein Sein’s chief political advisor Ko Ko Hlaing recently visited China and stressed the breadth and depth of ties between the two countries. From Qin Zhongwei at China Daily:

Myanmar was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic ties with New China in 1950. But the two countries’ close relationship dates to centuries ago, Hlaing said. He said the ancestors of people now living in both countries had referred to each other at one time as “paukphaw”, a Myanmar word meaning brothers and sisters.

The countries’ relationship has remained strong in recent decades, especially during Myanmar’s isolation, a time that it received much assistance from China. China is now the country’s largest investor and trade partner, he said.

[…] “We need to keep cordial relations with all nations,” Hlaing said. “But the truth is, China is our most important neighbor. We will never forget that.”

This very importance has been a major force behind Myanmar’s recent shift, however. China’s stance towards its much smaller neighbour has at times been predatory. One example is the voracious logging carried out there by Chinese companies dodging environmental restrictions at home. “Soon the trees will be all cut,” a manager at one Chinese logging firm told The Globe and Mail last year. “Without the trees, there will be only mountains. So we will look into mining them.”

The key case, however, is the Myitsone Dam, whose suspension by Thein Sein’s government was a pivotal moment in its rejection of total dependence on China. The dam’s impact assessment found that it would cause “serious social and environmental problems” in Myanmar, but all of the electricity it produced was intended to be transmitted to China. At YaleGlobal earlier this month Bertil Lintner saw trouble brewing for China in Myanmar as this unbalanced relationship bred resentment:

Even within the ruling military, anti-Chinese feelings run high. Already in 2004, a document was compiled by Lieutenant Colonel Aung Kyaw Hla, a researcher at Burma’s Defence Services Academy located in Pyin Oo Lwin, an old hill station in the highlands northeast of Mandalay.

[…] The thesis bluntly states that having China as a diplomatic ally and economic patron has created a “national emergency” that threatens the country’s independence. Aung Kyaw Hla, probably a committee of army strategists rather than a single person, goes on to argue that although human rights are a concern in the West, the US would be willing to modify its policy to suit “strategic interests.” Although the author does not specify those interests, the thesis makes it clear that includes common ground with the US vis-à-vis China. The author cites Vietnam and Indonesia under former dictator Suharto as examples of US foreign-policy flexibility in weighing strategic interests against democratization.

If bilateral relations with the US were improved, the master plan suggests, Burma would also gain access to badly needed funds from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other global financial institutions. The country would then emerge from “regionalism,” where it currently depends on the goodwill and trade of immediate neighbors, including China, and “enter a new era of globalization.”

But Chinese officials have suggested that they, too, see advantages in a more open Myanmar, provided that core Chinese interests are protected. Yunnan Party chief Qin Guanrong commented on the issue during the 18th Party Congress in Beijing this month. From Ben Blanchard at Reuters:

“We understand and support the wish of the Myanmar authorities wanting to open up and become part of the world,” he told reporters on the sidelines of a Communist Party congress, in rare comments on a sensitive relationship.

“We believe that Myanmar’s leaders will exercise their wisdom to lead their country’s opening up. They know that the people of China will always be true friends of Myanmar’s.”

[…] Still, concern persists over some vital Chinese projects in the country, notably a twin oil and gas pipeline being built across Myanmar into Yunnan.

[…] “We hope that Myanmar will protect the safety of China’s investments and personnel there,” Qin said. “Because the cooperation on these projects accord with the interests of both sides, and are mutually beneficially and win-win.”

A Global Times editorial on Tuesday, meanwhile, urged readers not to read too much into Obama’s visit, and repeatedly insisted that China’s relationship with Myanmar remains secure.

Myanmar’s opening-up was unavoidable. Sino-Myanmese relations must undergo some changes to adapt to this. But the changes will be limited.

There is no possibility that bilateral relations will be overturned entirely. China is the biggest neighboring country of Myanmar and has irreplaceable influences on it. More importantly, such influences are based on equality.

Myanmar is becoming open to the West in order to maximize its national interests. But it’s unwise to replace China with the West. Both the current leadership of Myanmar and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi well know this.

That said, Obama’s visit may still have an eye toward challenging China’s influence. But the actual effect will be difficult to tell. Obama likes to be applauded for his efforts in promoting democracy in Myanmar and this merits some reward. However, the US can’t squeeze China out of Myanmar.

The newspaper has been equally insistent on the question of whether China might follow its neighbour towards elections and a freer press. “Myanmar’s reforms,” it claimed in August, “are still flower buds that haven’t been exposed to wind and rain yet. We sincerely hope Myanmar’s reforms will prove successful. But it’s naïve if we doubt the road we have taken, just because these buds look different from China’s prosperous tree of reform.” At China File, Bi Cheng argued that this condescending attitude betrays complacency:

One weibo user called Dengba invoked the One Hundred Days Reform of the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when China’s emperor rolled out a series of policies—modeled on Japan’s earlier Meiji Restoration—to modernize Chinese society, only to see the powerful conservative faction in his court shut them down a few months later.

“The Great Qing has made and will make significant progress in its reform,” Dengba wrote, likening the voice of the Global Times editorial to those of the hardline Qing aristocrats. “We mustn’t make an idol of Japan, a backward country that has completed the Meiji Restoration.”

[…] It is against the brightening backdrop held up by China’s neighbors that Beijing’s suspicion and wariness of basic freedoms and rights seems anachronistic. The Global Times editorial is oddly reminiscent of Emperor Qianlong’s reaction to the Macartney Mission in 1793. The British aimed to expand trade with the Qing Empire, but Lord Macartney’s entreaties famously ended in failure because Qianlong found engagement with the rest of the world unnecessary. China, believed the emperor, possessed everything it needed in abundance, and, as such, it was unnecessary to “import the manufactures of outside barbarians.” “Strange and costly objects do not interest me,” Qianlong wrote in the letter he sent back to King George III.

[…] As “strange and costly” as press freedom seems to China’s censors, it may be unstoppable in the Middle Kingdom. […]

See also Sim Chi Yin’s photographic exploration of the Chinese presence in Myanmar at China File; the full text of Obama’s speech in Yangon; Max Fisher at The Washington Post on the significance of the president’s use of the name ‘Myanmar’; Scott A. Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations on the visit’s message to Kim Jong Un; coverage of the country’s ongoing sectarian violence from Human Rights Watch and The Economist; more on Myanmar via CDT; and a video from The New York Times last week summarising various aspects of Myanmar’s apparent transition: