June 15, 2015

Myanmar Is Pivoting Away from China

The following article originally appeared in Foreign Policy on June 15, 2015. An excerpt is below and the full text can be accessed here

Beijing’s effort at currying favour with Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD is borne partly of desperation, and indicates how swiftly Beijing’s stock in Myanmar is falling. China was Myanmar’s main backer and largest investor during its years of international seclusion, supporting strategic infrastructure projects such as oil and gas pipelines, ports, and dams. Between 1988 and 2013, China accounted for a whopping 42 percent of the $33.67 billion in foreign investment that flowed into Myanmar. But the nature of these projects — including concerns about forcibly-relocated populations, land confiscation, environmental hazards, and the inflow of cheap goods and labor — made China unpopular with the Burmese public (the extent of such sentiments is impossible to determine, in the absence of reliable public-opinion surveys.)

Myanmar’s military was even more reliant on China: Almost 60 percent of the country’s arms imports during that same period came from the Middle Kingdom. And until recently, the military remained favorably disposed to their northern neighbor. Yet Beijing appears to have ruined the one good relationship it had going in the country. The suspension of the Chinese-backed Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River in 2011 — a project initially agreed between Myanmar’s military junta and the state-owned China Power Investment Corp. in 2005 — hurt ties. But it was the killing of five Chinese citizens by Myanmar’s air force in March, while conducting raids on rebels along the border, and China’s response, that has significantly widened the rift with the military. Although Naypyidaw offered a grovelling apology, Beijing’s provocative decision to stage live-fire military exercises along the border in early June further tarnished relations with its one real constituency in Myanmar. [Read more.]