President Xi Jinping made a two-day visit to Myanmar on 17th and 18th of January. Though the visit was declared as one to mark the 70th anniversary of the diplomatic ties between the two countries, the real reason for the visit appears to be to regain the momentum of the Chinese dominance in Myanmar which had shown some strains recently.
In an op-ed published under his name in Myanmar State owned newspapers- on the previous day of his visit, Xi said that he looked forward,to renewing Chinese “pauk-phaw” ties with Myanmar and discussing future cooperation during his visit. He did mention that Myanmar is an important partner country in the BRI. In fact, the idea of partnership is only to have an alternate opening to the Indian Ocean besides the CPEC corridor in Pakistan.
During the visit, Myanmar and China signed a total of 33 Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs), agreements, exchange of letters and protocols.
The agreements focussed mainly on cooperation in sectors in infrastructure mega project development, Railways, industrial and power projects, trade, investment and human resources. Thirteen of the MoUs were for strengthening collaboration in the infra structure that included China Myanmar Ruili-Muse cross border economic cooperation zone.
The most significant major project was the development of the Kyaukphyu deep Sea Port and the SEZ which would enable China to connect Yunnan Province to the Indian Ocean. The cost of the project was reduced to 1.3 billion Dollars on Myanmar’s insistence, but it still has to pay 30 percent of the total cost. This looks to be beyond Myanmar’s capacity though most of the potential gains are for China!
As expected, the focus was on three other projects- one, the Railway line between Kunming-Mandalay- Yangon- Kyakphyu, Overhauling of the border zones in the Shan State and a brand new city on the opposite side of the Yangon’s river. The last appears to be a questionable project as Yangon itself is just a few metres above sea level and it is too risky to build a modern city so close to an area that is susceptible to climatic changes.
On the eve of the visit of President Xi, the general situation in Myanmar was rather grim.
The much- needed peace with the ethnic armed organisations had become a distant dream. The fighting with the Arakan Army had continued and despite heavy losses both sides seem to be taking a hardline stand even on the question of a temporary cease-fire. What is to be noted is that despite the the exodus of over 100,000 civilians, the Arakan Army continues to be popular with the people! It is also observed that Arakan Army has shifted its operations further south in the Rakhine State that besides requiring more troops to the region, the areas will be closer to major Chinese investments.
The three other groups of the northern alliance who are Chinese proxies continue to be defiant and is nowhere near signing the National Ceasefire agreement. Significantly, the Army unearthed a huge cache of Chinese made weapons that included handheld FN-6 portable Air Defence shoulder fired missiles- a weapon that has been given only to the Wa group by China. It is not clear whether the Army Chief mentioned this incident during his personal meeting with President Xi during his visit, but there was a total denial by the Chinese authorities a day prior to the visit.
On top of these, the Army decided to up the ante by attacking the training base of Kachins in Northern Shan State in Hseni township, a clear message that Army is not going along with the Civilian authorities in looking for a cease fire with the Northern Alliance. Significantly, Suu Kyi had just visited Myitkyina the headquarters of Kachin State the previous day.
Su Guoxiang, the Chinese Representative- the points man in touch with the armed organisations, met all the members of the FPNCC- The Federal Political Negotiation Consultative Committee prior to President Xi’s visit.
The Joint Statement issued at the end of the visit, did say that the Chinese side “supports” the efforts of Myanmar side to advance reconciliation and peace process through political dialogue forward in the spirit of the Panglong Conference, in actual practice, it looks that the Chinese have advised the FPNCC not to sign the National Ceasefire Agreement and instead push for a different narrative called by the Wa leadership. The Chinese duplicity cannot be more brazen that this!
There has been an economic stagnation that has been going on for the last one year with very little investment from outside, thus opening the way to receive Chinese funds with open arms!.
Suu Kyi’s move to amend the Constitution has also not succeeded so far with the Army unwilling to give up its firm grip on the Country. In calling for amendments to the Constitution, over 3700 suggestions have come and the Army representatives have been consistently opposing the amendments on procedural grounds!
Tough Suu Kyi’s personal popularity soared after she personally presented Myanmar’s case in the International Court of Justice denying Genocide, internationally her appeal was ignored and the ICJ gave a direction unanimously to Myanmar to “take all means within its powers to prevent Genocide”
In such a situation faced by Myanmar, President Xi’s visit came at an opportune time, giving Myanmar diplomatic protection over Rohingya case. China made no bones of its eagerness to develop an alternate route to Indian Ocean which it did during his visit. Another major investment promise is the development of US 2.6 Billion LNG power plant project in Mee Laung Gyaing.
That the Chinese side proceeded with caution is indicated by no mention of the stalled Myitsone dam, vigorously opposed by the locals, and the more ambitious development of China-Irrawady Economic Belt for which many studies have already been made by the Chinese in the last few years.
The local paper “Frontier” called post Xi’s visit as a new “era”, but at the same time cautioned that the Chinese will have to be more careful as to how it extends its influence over Myanmar in the years ahead. One litmus test would be how far the Chinese will be able to bring around the more heavily armed members of the FPNCC, to the negotiating table for signing the National Cease fire agreement which in the long run would be in Chinese interests too. It looks that China may not oblige as it gives a firm hold on Myanmar in the near to mid term.