- Chinese president’s two-day trip comes as nations mark 70 years of diplomatic ties
- US sanctions on Myanmar’s military leaders over alleged ‘serious human rights abuses’ described as a blow to Southeast Asian nation’s dignity
Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Myanmar this week is special in several ways. It is Xi's first overseas trip of the year and the first visit to the Southeast Asian country by a Chinese president since 2001. This year also marks the 70th anniversary of formal diplomatic ties between the two countries.
A recent Xinhua commentary said that "a good neighbour is better than a far dwelling relative", referring to China's ties with Myanmar. Some observers view geopolitics concerning Myanmar in black-and-white terms: a National League for Democracy (NLD) government would lead to closer ties with the West and less so with China.
The Rakhine issue effectively put paid to such earlier prognosis. If anything, there has yet to be any respite to the general downturn in relations between Myanmar and the West. In fact, the situation has worsened.
Following a round of sanctions by Western powers in 2018, the US treasury department last month imposed new sanctions against Myanmar's top military leaders over alleged "serious human rights abuses", a move that Myanmar's military (the Tatmadaw) criticised as "targeted political pressure" which "hurt the dignity" of the military. A month earlier, the Tatmadaw was accused by the US of possessing chemical weapons.
The blow to Myanmar cannot be understated. Government spokesman U Zaw Htay said the country's image had been "severely damaged internationally" as a result of censure and punitive actions undertaken by the West over the Rakhine issue.
But Myanmar's image crisis constitutes an opportunity for Beijing. It is no coincidence that amid the parrying between Myanmar and the West over Rakhine, China embarked on a renewed charm offensive to pull the country back into its fold.
A most obvious strategy is to promote itself as Myanmar's steadfast "Paukphaw" (fraternal) friend in times of need.
"The Chinese side adheres to non-interference in Myanmar's internal affairs and supports Myanmar in safeguarding national dignity and legitimate rights and interests," said China's foreign vice-minister Luo Zhaohui said in a media briefing ahead of Xi's trip.
This point was echoed by China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who visited Myanmar last month, ahead of Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi's hearing at the International Court of Justice on a lawsuit filed by Gambia against Myanmar over the Rakhine genocide allegations.
But solidarity and support for Myanmar is not just about words. Beijing looks set to take action, though not out of altruism but of national interests.
But it is premature to conclude that Xi's latest visit signifies Myanmar sliding back into China's sphere of influence. Myanmar's military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing did recently refer to China as his country's "Paukphaw" and "trusted friend forever", pledging the military's support in "speeding up" cooperation on Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative and "earnestly promote" the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.
But Myanmar's political elite are careful not to be seen as having settled firmly in one camp. Referring to ties with China as being conducted on "an equal footing", NLD spokesman Monywa Aung Shin said that "whether we like or not, we need to build good relationships with neighbouring countries", adding that Myanmar and China did not have a vassal-master relationship.
"The relationship with China is a win-win one. We are not inferior to China," he said.
Compared to the earlier State Peace and Development Council regime, the current NLD government, despite the Rakhine troubles, has enjoyed more support from major powers besides China.
Japan's ambassador to Myanmar, Ichiro Maruyama, stood by the NLD when it insisted there had been no genocide in Rakhine " a remark that has since provoked recent backlash from Tokyo-based rights activists.
Japan has also joined hands with the United States to promote fiscally sound and sustainable economic development in Myanmar. A visit to Yangon in October by the US-Asean Business Council led by the US ambassador Scot Marciel saw American companies expressing interest in expanding their investments in Myanmar.
Australia has continued with its defence engagements with Myanmar in "non-combat areas" and in June, Australian developer Gold Coast KPMG reportedly proposed a US$38 billion "new city" project in the suburbs of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state.
And not forgetting India, which continues to ramp up defence and security, in particular naval, links with Myanmar.
In March 2018, the two countries' navies staged an inaugural IMNEX drills in the Bay of Bengal, and last month, the Indian navy transferred one of its Kilo-class submarine, the INS Sindhuvir, to its Myanmar counterpart, along with associated training assistance.
That was another step in the two navies' cooperation in undersea warfare, which earlier included India's provision of anti-submarine sensors and weapons to Myanmar's navy.
Myanmar's strategic hedging beyond China looks set to continue, at least in part because of possible underlying suspicion towards Beijing's intent over the country's restive northern provinces " especially alleged covert materiel assistance for the ethnic armed groups.
In late November, the Tatmadaw seized a high-value cache of arms and ammunition from the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) in Homein in Shan state. Part of the cache included an FN-6 shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile worth about US$75,000-US$90,000.
Major General Aung Zaw Aye, commander of the Tatmadaw North Eastern Command, said: "I wonder where they got the money to buy such a weapon."
And Major General Tun Tun Nyi, vice-chairman of Tatmadaw True News Information Team, said: "I'd say the TNLA has illegally acquired weapons from China."
While the Myanmar political elites continue to remark in public about Beijing's willingness to mediate between them and the ethnic armed groups to restore peace in the northern provinces and facilitate CMEC projects, evidently they believe not to place all eggs into one basket.
With the current support, if not political but commercial, from some of the Western and regional powers besides China, Myanmar is certainly still in the hedging game. And it would be too early for Beijing to rejoice about the prospect of having pulled the South Asian country firmly back into its fold.
Collin Koh is research fellow with the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, based in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
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