Originally Published 2011-05-25 00:00:00 Published on May 25, 2011
As part of its political transition from military to "civilian" rule, Myanmar adopted a new constitution through a national referendum in 2008 and conducted its first national elections in two decades in November 2010.
China and the New Leadership in Myanmar
As part of its political transition from military to "civilian" rule, Myanmar adopted a new constitution through a national referendum in 2008 and conducted its first national elections in two decades in November 2010. The military party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, won the controversial elections. In February 2011, former military general Thein Sein was elected as the new president of the country and on 30 March, a new government was officially sworn-in.  

Even as the international community watches the developments inside Myanmar, world leaders have been cautious in recognising the new Myanmar government that is dominated by former military generals, with the exception of few countries, the most notable being China. Chinese President Hu Jintao sent congratulatory letter to Myanmar new President Thein Sein the next day he was sworn in. The Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao also congratulated Thein Sein. For the new leadership in Myanmar, these endorsements are important as it tries to gain international recognition.

China was also the first country to send a top political figure to Myanmar to back the new Myanmar government. Two days after the new government was sworn-in in Myanmar, Jia Qinglin, the fourth most important man on the community party's politburo visited Myanmar. It was reported that the Chinese leader has brought "more than a billion dollars in aid and soft-loans for development and military hardware."1

It is no surprise that China is President Thein Sein's first state visit, the state-run New Light of Myanmar reported on Monday.2 This is his second overseas trip since being sworn in - earlier this month he was in Jakarta to attend a regional summit of ASEAN. The Irrawaddy, a Thai-based newspaper specializing in Burmese affairs, quoted sources saying that the president's talks in China are expected to focus on security and strategic matters, including the possibility of Chinese naval ships docking at Kyaukphyu, a deep-sea port in western Myanmar.3 Another report cited a Myanmar government official as saying that the president wanted to "visit China first because it is important both for diplomatic and economic ties.'4

Over the past two decades or so, China has strengthened its ties with Myanmar in all fronts. China stands as the second largest trading partner of Myanmar, only next to Thailand, and the top investor, for the first time, in Myanmar's foreign investment line-up. In 2010, China and Myanmar bilateral trade reached US$ 4.4 billion and Chinese investment in Myanmar was US$ 12.3 billion.

Earlier this year, the new Myanmar government awarded a contract to the Chinese company, Yunnan Construction Engineering Group, to rebuild the 312 km stretch of the historic Stilwell Road from Myitkyina in Myanmar's northern Kachin state to the Pangsau Pass on India-Myanmar border.5 The road from Myitkyina to the Chinese border and the brief Indian section has already been rebuilt.

The new government in Myanmar also reached a memorandum of understanding with China in April this year on a joint rail transport construction project extending between Myanmar's border town of Muse and western Rakhine state's Kyaukphyu, a port city.6 The first phase of the overall project of Muse-Lashio-Kyaukphyu is from Sino-Myanmar border town, Muse to Lashio in Shan State in northern Myanmar. The project is targeted to complete within three years and will be implemented in line with another ongoing China-Myanmar pipelines project to transport oil and natural gas from Kyaukphyu to Kunming, the capital Yunnan Province.

During the recent visit of a high-level Chinese military delegation to Myanmar led by General Xu Caihou, the vice-chairman of China's Central Military Commission, in 12-15 May, the Chinese general has reportedly discussed the possibility of Chinese naval ships to dock at Kyaukphyu deep seaport in western Myanmar.7 The Kyaukphyu deep seaport is being developed by China and it is also the starting point of the China-Myanmar trans-national pipelines.

For a long time, China has dreamt of reaching the Indian Ocean through Myanmar to safeguard its interests, particularly, energy security and sea-lanes of communication. China's concerns also arises out of the ethnic unrests in Sino-Myanmar border and one of the priorities of China's Myanmar policy has been stability in the border region. Apart from the worry of spill-over effect of ethnic unrests in the border region, any instability in the region will have huge impact on border trade and on the ongoing infrastructural projects such as the trans-national pipelines. The recent high-level visits of Chinese officials to Myanmar were surely used to reassure Beijing's support to the new leadership in Myanmar and a clear signal that China wants Myanmar to remain within its embrace.

The international community has been cautious in recognising the new government in Myanmar. The Southeast Asian regional grouping, ASEAN, has of course "reiterated" its support to the political developments in Myanmar in it recent summit held in Jakarta. The US-led western sanctions on Myanmar have done little for the new Myanmar's government to change its approach towards the West. The western countries have expressed the concern that Myanmar could become a "satellite state" of China, but with the policy they have adopted towards Myanmar, it is only ensuring that such fear becomes a reality in the near future.

Asian powers including India and Japan have also remained cautious in endorsing the new government in Myanmar. India has missed opportunities in the past and if does not get its act together soon, the possibility of it missing another opportunity in Myanmar seems to be in the making. As China grows stronger and richer, it has become more aggressive as seen in the territorial disputes with Southeast Asian countries and Japan. In the last decade of the twentieth century, reports proliferated on China's growing presence in Myanmar, a worry that prompted regional powers to reassess their policy towards Myanmar. Today, the threat looks even more real than ever before.

K. Yhome is a Research Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

1 Larry Jagan, "Burma goes on a Charm Offensive", The Irrawaddy, 22 April, 2011, http://irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=21153

2 "President U Thein Sein to pay State Visit to PRC", New Light of Myanmar, 23 May, 2011.

3 Wai Moe, "China to be Thein Sein's first State visit", The Irrawaddy, 16 May, 2011. http://www.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=21301

4 "Myanmar's new president to visit China", The Straits Times, 19 May, 2011 http://www.straitstimes.com/BreakingNews/SEAsia/Story/STIStory_670276.html

5 Subir Bhaumik, "Will the famous Indian WWII Stilwell Road reopen?, BBC, 8 February, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-12269095

6 "China, Myanmar sign MoU on rail transport project", China Daily, 28 April, 2011. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/bizchina/2011-04/28/content_12412367.htm

7 Wai Moe, "China to be Thein Sein's first State visit", The Irrawaddy, 16 May, 2011. http://www.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=21301
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