By Yap Kwong Weng and Sun Xi
Last month, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi made her first official visit to China after taking office as State Counsellor, deliberately before her trip to another giant, the USA.
The visit to China was believed to aim at repairing and strengthening bilateral ties between the two nations that once had a much closer relationship. The term “baobo” (brothers and relatives) was often used to describe their level of closeness years back.
To begin with, Myanmar (then Burma) was the first non-Communist country to recognize the People’s Republic of China founded in 1949. In turn, China stood firmly together with Myanmar, even when its former military-run regime was isolated by the international community.
In recent years, bilateral ties have been strained especially during the recent transition period of Myanmar’s new government. However, this is likely to change for the better.
One could argue their relationship has become more transactional. With billion-dollar infrastructure deals high on the agenda, there is little doubt that the emphasis is focused on the bottom lines. Relationship building is of course as important but there is a saying that business comes first. Perhaps this is the stage where both countries are equally at.
If anything, China’s show of support in the recent peace talks between Myanmar government and its ethnic groups was an encouraging move. It takes pride to maintain friendships and to develop existing ones where possible. This could be their first step towards longer term cooperation, regardless of the outcome of the peace talks.
A win-win situation is envisaged from Myanmar’s end as it seems committed to work with China in the long run. This is clearly in its benefit and is a logical step to take.
Myanmar needs China to grow faster. It wants to build large-scale infrastructure projects such as ports, bridges and highways. China has been doing so. Since the 1990s, China has helped Myanmar build its hydropower plants, oil pipelines and key bridges, which have played a supporting role in ensuring the country’s long term stability. Today, China is Myanmar’s largest foreign investor, far ahead of those countries in ASEAN.
Likewise, China needs Myanmar to support its strategic development, especially the Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor and the ambitious “One Belt, One Road” initiative.
All this comes at a time where existing banks in Myanmar, including big players from Asia, are not ready to fully finance large government projects. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) have supported several Myanmar projects, but that is not enough to meet the country’s development gaps.
It is, therefore, in the interests of China to invest appropriately in Myanmar at this time. As a rising economic power with global stature, China continues to bear some implicit responsibility, which could also be viewed as a thankless role. For example, if China takes an aggressive investment stance in Myanmar, the US and Japan would be put on guard. If China does not support Myanmar in development, then it could be seen as a well-to-do neighbour unwilling to assist during difficult times.
In reality, China has been misunderstood as a country that is aggressive and overbearing. Many in Myanmar believe that the Chinese are out to exploit them, so they do not trust them completely. Reports of jade smuggling into China across Myanmar borders in past years have worsened China’s public image.
Clearly, China wants to participate towards the growth of Myanmar in a peaceful and harmonious way. As the world’s largest exporter, it brings an efficient system of work ethic and systems. It also brings about thousands of years of culture and heritage to the table. But business is business.However, we do not have the impression that China is seeking power over Myanmar. We are not persuaded either that China is trying to take advantage of Myanmar’s circumstances during development.
What we are certain about is China’s determination to oppose any attempt by any other country or group of countries, to impede its “Chinese Dream”. The question is how it would treat smaller countries more gently and responsibly like Myanmar, a neighbouring country that holds historical and strategic significance.
Clearly, China wants to participate towards the growth of Myanmar in a peaceful and harmonious way. As the world’s largest exporter, it brings an efficient system of work ethic and systems. It also brings about thousands of years of culture and heritage to the table. But business is business.
Brotherhood is no more than a propaganda slogan. China should re-evaluate its diplomacy to maintain more sustainable relationships with others. The consequences can be quite heavy if this is not managed well.
Its past split with the “big brother” Soviet Union and the ongoing dilemma with its “little brother” North Korea are vivid examples that show tensions caused by such fluid dynamics. Bringing it back to Myanmar’s case, the key point is: actions speak louder than words especially when development is now the priority.
As China-Myanmar relations enter a new chapter, commercial initiatives are expected to guide its mutual cooperation. In the future, China and Myanmar may no longer look like close brothers as before, but at least their new type of partnership will be more sustainable.
Yap Kwong Weng is CEO of Leap Group, a Singapore company based in Myanmar. He is a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.
Sun Xi is a China-born independent commentary writer based in Singapore.