When Xi Jinping travels to Myanmar on January 17, it will be the first visit by a sitting Chinese president since Jiang Zemin toured the country in December 2001.
Xi’s visit will show just how much times have changed between now and then. Jiang visited Myanmar when it was still ruled by a military junta and China was the then isolated nation’s closest ally.
Xi, on the other hand, will be meeting democratically elected leaders and China is no longer the country’s only important partner.
Countries such as Japan and India are now vying for influence by offering various kinds of assistance — economic, political and in the case of India even military — to challenge China’s previously dominant role.
But in a curious twist of events, Myanmar’s still-powerful and autonomous military is the one wary of China and its intentions.
The top brass see it as their duty to protect the country’s sovereignty, while nominal leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a politician who wants here government to be re-elected this year, has turned to Beijing for economic and other assistance after her previous allies and admirers in the West distanced themselves from her over the Rohingya refugee crisis.
Xi and his Myanmar hosts are expected to sign a number of agreements during his high-profile visit, covering the development of special economic zones in border areas as well as a deep-sea port at Kyaukphyu which is being built with Chinese economic assistance.
Myanmar is of the utmost economic and strategic importance to China, as one of only two friendly neighbors that provides it with direct access to the Indian Ocean, bypassing the contested South China Sea and the congested Malacca Strait through which most of China’s energy imports travel.
The other is Pakistan, but that less-developed link involves treacherous roads over high mountains and a volatile and unpredictable political climate in the lowlands. The link also connects to China’s far west, far away from energy consuming industrial centers.
The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), as it is known, is a vital link in Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a US$1 trillion infrastructure-building scheme that aims to connect China with the rest of the world in hitherto unseen ways.
The CMEC already includes gas and oil pipelines built in 2013 and 2017 and improved highways in Myanmar’s northeastern Shan state that connect to China.
The corridor aims to complement those with new highways and a high-speed railroad, which in its first phase will connect the border towns of Ruili on the Chinese side and Muse in Myanmar with the central city of Mandalay. Eventually, if all goes to plan, it will be extended down to Kyaukphyu on the Bay of Bengal.
The problem for Myanmar is that Beijing’s development assistance comes in the form of loans and credits rather than grants, and requires the participation of Chinese companies.
That, in turn, will inevitably lead to future dependence on China for finance, maintenance and trade. The Hambantota port in Sri Lanka serves as a warning to other countries for what can happen if loans to China cannot be repaid. Sri Lanka was offered a debt-for-equity swap which gave China Merchant Port Holdings a 99-year lease on the port, effectively handing it the power to run the facility.
There are concerns that could also happen in Myanmar. If the same kind of dept-trap scenario follows at Kyaukphyu, China would gain not only a strategically located port but also have railroads and highways connecting through the southwestern province of Yunnan.
The CMEC would become more than just a trade corridor; it could be a Chinese-controlled artery through which Beijing’s influence would spread in the region, a scenario in which Myanmar could become a pawn in a powerplay undermines its national sovereignty.
The BRI’s opacity adds to the uncertainty and concern. When Xi launched the BRI in 2013, the idea was to show China’s greatness on the world stage. From the very beginning, however, critics say it was a poorly thought-out scheme.
No Chinese ministry has been assigned to plan and monitor ambitious BRI initiatives or even draw up plans for future projects. More than 50 countries may have signed on to be beneficiaries of the scheme, but it remains unclear what constitutes a BRI project or who qualifies to be a participant.
The New York Times reported on August 1, 2018 that attempts were being made to win friends with grandiose BRI schemes, including plans for an indoor ski slope near the beaches of Australia’s Gold Coast, a spa with Chinese medicine in the Czech Republic, and cultural centers and amusement parks in the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Italy, Hungary and Serbia. There is even a BRI coloring book for children, the report noted.
But a backlash is becoming more and more apparent, including in Myanmar. Myanmar’s government recently moved to downsize the cost and China’s participation in the Kyaukphyu port and its adjacent economic zone.
There has also been widespread opposition, including clashes between Chinese workers and locals at Shwe Kokko, a massive Chinese urban development project on the Moei river which forms the border with Thailand.
In central Myanmar, protests continue against a Chinese-operated copper mine in Monywa near Mandalay. China’s bid to build a huge dam and hydroelectric power station at Myitsone in the nation’s far north have also met local resistance, causing the project to be postponed, though China continues to lobby to restart the $3.6 billion mega-project.
A similar pattern of resistance can be seen elsewhere in the region. In Bangladesh, there has been no progress in 22 of the 27 Chinese-initiated infrastructure, power and energy projects which were proposed when Xi visited that country in October 2016.
Muslim groups in Bangladesh have criticized China for its treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, where an estimated million are held in detention camps.
In Nepal, China has completed only ten of the 25 reconstruction projects it had agreed to after the 2015 earthquake. In August and September last year, anti-China protests erupted in the capital Kathmandu against alleged hacking of Nepalese websites by Chinese entities and the involvement of Chinese nationals in trafficking of women from Nepal.
In November, demonstrators burned effigies of Xi after a government report indicated that China had encroached on 36 hectares of Nepalese land.
Anti-Chinese protests have also erupted in other so-called “BRI countries.” In Kazakhstan, people voiced opposition to Chinese investments which they believe would undermine the country’s sovereignty, and the treatment of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang.
There may be more trouble ahead for Xi in Myanmar as well. If China is serious about pressuring Myanmar to re-start the Myitsone dam project, demonstrations could be staged in response. As much as 90% of the electricity from the dam would be exported to China at a time Myanmar is starved for power.
China’s influence over Myanmar’s efforts to establish peace between the country’s military and assorted ethnic resistance armies is another bone of contention.
China is not seen by either side as an honest broker, but a force that is trying to manipulate the process to its own advantage.
As part of what appears to be a carrot-and-stick policy, Chinese interlocutors are on the one hand talking about peace while on the other several of the ethnic groups fighting government forces in the north are equipped with new Chinese weapons.
Xi will visit Myanmar for only two days — January 17 to 18 — a shorter trip than Jiang’s four-day visit in 2001. When Jiang was there, Yangon was still the capital of Myanmar and, unlike now, anti-China demonstrations were unthinkable under the then ruling junta.
Xi will be safer in the new secluded capital Naypyitaw. But protests could take place in Yangon and perhaps elsewhere in the country over China’s rising influence over the country. And this time the military and its security forces may be willing to look the other way rather than suppress them.