China's Mixed Response to Thaw in U.S.-Myanmar Ties

When Hillary Clinton became the first U.S. Secetary of State to visit Burma (aka Myanmar) in over 50 years, no one from China was present at the meeting. But China was very much a presence in her talks with officials and with democracy leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi. Business Week reports that China stands to benefit from a thaw in U.S.-Myanmar relations:

China welcomes greater U.S. engagement with Myanmar because a wealthier neighbor would lift the economic growth of Yunnan province and other inland areas, Nay Zin Latt, one of nine advisers who meet Thein Sein “frequently,” said in a Dec. 3 interview a day after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton completed the highest-level U.S. visit to Myanmar in 56 years.

“I’m going for a win-win-win situation,” Nay Zinn Latt said in his Yangon office. “China wants us to be more developed. Our country is the gateway to the sea from Yunnan. If we are rich, Yunnan will be rich too. If we are poor, China can only get raw materials.” China’s landlocked southwest province of Yunnan adjoins Myanmar.

During her visit, Clinton offered a path to ease sanctions that have been in place for more than 20 years and have left Myanmar dependent on neighbors China, India and Thailand, which have poured more than $25 billion into ports, power plants, and oil and gas pipelines. Myanmar’s moves to roll back more than five decades of military rule have provided the U.S. an opening to rebuild political and economic ties as President Barack Obama shifts his foreign policy focus to Asia.

Nobel laureate Suu Kyi (who is depicted in a new film, The Lady, starring Malaysian star Michelle Yeoh) herself spoke of the importance of China in her public remarks after meeting Clinton. From the Los Angeles Times:

Speaking to journalists on the porch of the lakeside house where she was detained by the government for 15 years, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate also underscored that Myanmar wanted to maintain “good, friendly relations with China, our very close neighbor, and not just with China but the rest of the world.”

Clinton’s three-day visit — the first in more than half a century by a U.S. secretary of State — was motivated in part by rising concern in Washington over China’s growing political and economic clout in Southeast Asia. For example, Beijing is the largest investor in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Clinton, however, downplayed suggestions by analysts that the U.S. diplomatic overture in Myanmar was part of an intensified effort to counter Chinese influence across the region. “We are not about opposing any other country; we’re about supporting” Myanmar, she said.

Analysts said Suu Kyi’s careful call for friendly relations with China followed the pattern of other Asian nations that rely on their giant neighbor for commerce and development but are anxious to avoid being dominated by it.

An article in Asia Times takes a more cynical view
and argues that Burma’s leaders need to maintain good relations with China for when ties with the U.S. again sour:

So, as President Thein Sein makes nice with Secretary Clinton and Aung Suu Kyi, he doubtless realizes that if and when the emboldened democratic movement Suu Kyi leads takes to the streets again and the government cracks down, America’s now-friendly face will harden against Naypyidaw, and anti-regime rhetoric, diplomatic ostracization, economic sanctions, and perhaps worse courtesy of the United States will seek to shake his regime to its foundations.

Under conditions like this, it is always desirable to keep on good relations with China, its gigantic northern neighbor that has happily defied sanctions on Myanmar in the past, shares a common border, is eager for strategic cooperation, and possesses a unique asset that, although significantly devalued by Western maneuvering, still holds some geopolitical value: a veto on the UN Security Council.

The visiting tooth is a symbol of the close, if not entirely amiable relationship between Myanmar and its gigantic northern neighbor, a relationship that Myitsone, contrary to public perception, will probably strengthen, not weaken.

For its part, the Chinese government appears to have a mixed response to new improved relations between the U.S. and Myanmar, AP reports:

The discord is evident in Beijing’s public pronouncements about the U.S. secretary of state’s visit. While the Foreign Ministry expressed support Thursday for Myanmar’s outreach to the West, a top Chinese leader called for closer military relations when meeting Myanmar’s armed forces commander this week. On state-run television, a commentary appended to footage of Clinton’s arrival showed U.S. aircraft carrier groups in the Pacific.

“Beijing understands Myanmar’s aspiration to diversify its international engagement and improve relations with the United States. However, Beijing doesn’t wish to see those goals achieved at the expense of China,” said Sun Yun, an expert on China’s foreign relations at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Next week, Derek Mitchell, the US special envoy on Myanmar, will travel to Beijing to discuss developments in Myanmar with Chinese leaders.

See a preview of The Lady, a Luc Besson movie about Aung Sang Suu Kyi:

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