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Xi’s visit establishes sovereign equality in Sino-Myanmar relations

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s historic State visit to Myanmar last month was aimed at drawing Myanmar closer to China than ever before and convince the world of the importance of Beijing’s new international approach.

But despite all the pomp and ceremony both countries gave the visit, there seems to have been few concrete results. “Although useful, the trip doesn’t merit the hype given it, on both sides of the border,” Ms. Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Centre in the US and expert on Chinese foreign policy, told South Asian Monitor (SAM).

This visit was never about economics or results, according to a Chinese official. “It was always political. ” It represented Beijing’s outreach to the international community, especially the regional neighborhood, and offers a blueprint for bilateral relations based on equality, justice and harmony, he added.

Of course it was also intended to bolster their special relationship, or brotherhood, between Beijing and Myanmar. That this was largely about cementing that special relationship was highlighted in the Joint Statement issued at the end of the visit. It redefined Sino-Myanmar relationship as the “Sino-Myanmar Community of Common Destiny” – the highest possible level of bilateral relations for Xi Jinping’s administration, according to Yun.

“It includes political, economic and security cooperation and commands genuine mutual support for each other, especially on the most difficult issues, such as China's support of Myanmar on the Rohingya issue and Myanmar's acceptance of Taiwan as ‘a part of the People's Republic of China’,” Yun explained.

This idea of a ‘community of common interest’ has been part of Beijing’s international outlook over the past decade or so, but has become a bedrock of Xi’s political thought. It is now closely associated with his signature foreign policy initiative – the One Belt, One Road Initiative (BRI) proposal he unveiled back in 2013. The BRI encompasses road and rail links covering nearly seventy countries in Asia, Africa and Europe.

At the inaugural Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing in 2017 – attended by Aung San Suu Kyi – Xi Jinping focused on showcasing China's commitment to this development initiative, including Beijing’s ambition to reshape global governance. China’s concept of a ‘community of common destiny’ was put forward with the intention to establish a new international political and economic order based on equity and justice.

For Xi, the concept of ‘community of common destiny’ covers five perspectives including political partnership, security, economic development, cultural exchanges and safeguarding the environment.

“We should build partnerships in which countries treat each other as equals, engage in mutual consultation and show mutual understanding,” Xi explained in his speech to the General Debate of the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York in 2015.

“We should create a security architecture featuring fairness, justice, joint contribution and shared benefits … promote open, innovative and inclusive development that benefits all… promote harmony, inclusiveness and respect for differences…. We should build an ecosystem that puts mother nature and green development first,” he added.

China is keen to increase its role in global affairs in accordance with its growing strength. But in the face of a growing pushback internationally – in Africa and South Asia in particular -- this visit was essentially about Beijing’s securing its soft power goals: namely, winning the hearts and minds in Southeast Asians and showing China’s ‘benevolence’ through its relationship with Myanmar,” Ms Yun said.

But regional analysts believe there was also a concrete purpose behind the visit and especially its timing -- at the beginning of an election year in Myanmar, when the country’s civilian leader will be trying to win a second term in office.

It was President Xi’s first trip abroad in 2020, his first visit to Myanmar since 2009, and the first visit by a Chinese President since Jiang Zemin came in 2001.

Of course, Xi’s visit was an occasion to discuss the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). “Kyaukphyu is now firmly established as China’s backdoor to the Indian Ocean, anchoring the CMEC with its rail corridor and oil pipelines.” John Blaxland, Professor of International Security and Intelligence at the Australian National University said.

“For Beijing this is critical for fostering further development in China’s southern Yunnan province while also reducing dependence on trade flows through the Indo-Pacific jugular vein, the Malacca Strait – through which the majority of China’s trade flows currently,” he pointed out.

“Myanmar is of fundamental importance to China’s plans for the future and Aung San Suu Kyi’s acceptance of Myanmar’s being a node in the BRI is a remarkable achievement,” Blaxland added.

During the visit President Xi characterized China-Myanmar relations as based on “mutual trust, mutual respect, and mutual support” and have been guided by the “five principles of peaceful coexistence”. These include: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. But at the same time he called for the implementation of the major CMEC projects in the Belt and Road Initiative.

During the visit Myanmar and China signed a total of 33 Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs), agreements, exchanged letters and protocols. These are intended to boost bilateral relations and provide substantial Chinese economic support to Myanmar. Xi also promised that China would provide US$570 million in development assistance to Myanmar over the coming three years.

From relationships with communist Laos and the authoritarian and internationally isolated Cambodia, China has reaped benefits, in the form of loyalty and support in ASEAN on difficult issues like the South China Sea disputes. In return, these countries have benefitted economically.

But Myanmar is in a different category. Fiercely independent and nationalist, Chinese ‘economic benevolence’ is as likely to arouse much suspicion as support in Myanmar.

Therefore, there is little chance of Myanmar’s becoming a Chinese pawn. It will more likely try to maintain a modernized version of neutrality, according to Professor Steinberg, Distinguished Professor of Asian studies Emeritus at Georgetown University. In fact this was underlined by Myanmar’s measured response to the excessive Chinese overtures on Xi’s visit.

While Myanmar fully supports the BRI, it will not allow projects on Myanmar soil that do not bring benefits to the Myanmar people. The projects need to prioritize national development, not damage the environment and support the social development of its people, the State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi said during Xi's visit.

“While we are definitely open for business from everywhere, only Asian countries, particularly China, are lining up to take advantage of the enormous opportunities Myanmar offers investors and traders,” Commerce Minister, Thant Myint told SAM on the sidelines of the visit.

“All infrastructure ventures, including Chinese projects are only acceptable if they meet Myanmar’s national interest, including economic and strategic,” the minister explained.

Myanmar offers enormous development opportunities but it needs to carefully review them to ensure that the proposed projects fit into the government’s strategic development plan and not burden the country with unnecessary debt, he said, referring to the widespread accusations against BRI projects being white elephants, and ‘debt traps’.

All proposed infrastructure plans – including the major Chinese schemes -- must comply with the ‘Project Bank’ and other procedures, Sean Turnell, Special Economic Advisor to the State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, told SAM recently. This means they must be open to an international standard tendering process, with approved bids then being open to various financing models – government or donor supported, and public private partnership.

China has accepted these terms, and reiterated this during the state visit, Turnell added.

For Myanmar the visit was a success. Most of the agreements are non-binding, according to senior government officials. As a measure of the success of the visit, an official quipped: “We gave nothing away.”

But despite the economic benefits Beijing is bestowing on Myanmar, China’s strategic vision remains political. The Chinese are keen to convert their southern neighborhood into a friendly, peaceful, pro-China zone. But Myanmar will be the last country in the immediate region to sign up to Beijing’s grandiose vision, unlike Cambodia and Laos.

A part of Beijing’s concern is countering US influence in the region. This concern has heightened within the Chinese government over the last year or so, in the face of US President Donald Trump’s belligerent stance towards Beijing which took the shape of a ‘trade war’.

For many experts and analysts this gave President Xi’s visit even greater urgency. And Aung San Suu Kyi’s warm endorsement of the Chinese leader would have been most welcome, according to Professor Steinberg.

“The trip helps China's strategic interests in Southeast Asia and further undercut US influence in Myanmar -- already at a very low ebb. So from a Chinese viewpoint, it was certainly a successful visit,” he told SAM in an email.

“China's demonstrated interests and prioritization of Myanmar could help the country justify its strategic importance to the US, forcing reconsideration of Myanmar's strategic utility and the consequences of China's ‘return’ to Myanmar,” said Ms Yun. “It is a chance for Myanmar to enhance its strategic value.”

But more than that, Myanmar successfully asserted its independence and Beijing acquiesced. For several years the controversial Myitsone dam in Northern Myanmar – suspended in 2011 by the previous government of President Thein Sein -- has plagued bilateral relations. Xi Jinping – who witnessed the original agreement in 2009 when he was Vice President – had apparently taken the Myanmar government’s decision personally and felt insulted. For several years, hints from Chinese officials were that a Xi visit to Yangon will dependent on sorting out “the dam thing”.

But Myitsone did not come up at all in the bilateral discussions, this time, according to both Chinese and Myanmar officials.

“Myitsone is a non-issue compared to Kyaukphu, which affects our national interest,” said a senior Chinese source. It seems neither side wants to pursue the project, and it has been quietly forgotten and sidelined.

But more importantly it shows Beijing’s priorities. The CMEC, and especially the ‘community of common interest’, tops China’s agenda, leaving Myanmar substantial room to maneuver.