Every man is my superior in some way
In that I learn from him.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
Title: China’s Multilayered Engagement Strategy and Myanmar’s Reality: The best fit for Beijing’s Preferences
Author: Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee, Head of China Desk, Institute for Strategy and Policy (ISP Myanmar)
# Pages: 99(In English and Burmese)
First edition: February 2018
After I had read it the first time, I said to myself: Now you’re a toothless tiger and over the hill. Time to make way for the young ones.
I’m glad we have someone like her in our country. We will need more like her, if we are going to survive and prosper as a nation. And the following is what I have learned from her and through her:
Before 2011, China enjoyed a preeminent position in Myanmar due to the political and economic sanctions imposed by Western countries. But after the reforms began in that year, the bilateral relations between the two experienced an abrupt shift:
- Outpouring of anti-Chinese sentiments as expressed by movements opposed to Chinese-financed projects, such as Myitsone dam and Letpadaung
- Resumption of armed conflicts between the Tatmadaw and Chinese border based ethnic armed organizations (EAOs)
- Myanmar’s reintegration into the international community, among others (P.12)
Now, “current evidence suggests that China-Myanmar relations are moving back to square one and resemble earlier patterns of close ties.”
- Joint naval exercise held in 2017
- The “2+2” dialogue held annually since 2016 and involves officials from each country’s ministries of defense and foreign affairs
- Building relations with political parties by inviting their members (significantly, the majority of non-Burman participants are from Kachin, Rakhine and Shan states) for study trips in China. “Themes related to China’s Belt and Road initiative, a component of many trips.”
“A majority of the non-Burman participants expressed concerns about China’s attempts to promote its model for engagement with ethnic minorities that emphasizes social and economic issues but does not include political decentralization. (Page 26)
- Representatives of EAOs, particularly those that had signed the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) say they have yet to receive any invitations for such study trips
Relations have also further improved following the National League for Democracy (NLD)’s landslide winning in the 2015 elections and its inauguration as the first civilian government—though the ministers of defense, home and border affairs are still appointed by the Tatmadaw chief:
- More bilateral meetings with China than any other countries. “On each occasion, she visited China just before the (Union Peace Conference-21st Century Panglong), held in August 2016 and May 2017”
- Official support for One Belt One Road (OBOR) and BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) Economic Corridor.
“ADB report estimates that between 2017 and 2030, Myanmar will require approximately US$120 billion to fill the infrastructure gap in its energy, transportation and telecommunication sectors… In this context China’s Belt and Road Initiative offers an opportunity for Myanmar policy makers to support infrastructure projects.” (Page 32-33)
Here, she asks “whether or not the mega infrastructure projects are compatible with peace,” reminding the reader that “a massive hydropower project in 2011 ended the 17 year ceasefire between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).”
- The international community’s condemnation of the Myanmar government and increased pressure in 2017 over the Rohingya crisis had also pushed the country toward China, that has provided the desperately needed diplomatic protection
Here comes what Myanmar, particularly the government-cum-Tatmadaw, can repay for these favors, as “there is no free lunch”, according to the Americans. The Chinese are more polished. They use the word “guanxi”, which I have never heard of except if something unpleasant happens, and we say, “Mei guanxi” (meaning “it doesn’t matter” or “no problem”).
Common translations such as “relationships” or “network” does not reflect the wide cultural implications that the word describes. It emphasizes mutual obligation, reciprocity and trust. Through guanxi,a relationship between two friends can be likened by each friend to being a pseudo “elder sibling-younger sibling” relationship, with each friend acting accordingly. The friend who sees himself as the younger sibling will show more deference to the friend who is the older sibling. Whether or not the Burmese word “paukphaw” meaning “siblings of the same womb” embodies the same connotation, I have no idea.
“In line with this concept, if someone does a favor or acts very friendly in the interaction, the receiving side feels obliged to reciprocate in a similar manner and can experience social discomfort when unable to grant a favor or meet a request.” (Page 37)
She notes that, nevertheless, a number of issues still remain unresolved, notably:
- Continued fighting along the Sino-Myanmar border which presents an impediment to the implementation of OBOR projects as a peace settlement in the near future appears unlikely
- The future of the Chinese backed Myitsone dam project remains uncertain
All the same, what is clear is that Myanmar is increasingly embracing China, she concludes. “There is a potential that Myanmar’s political and economic reforms could lead toward a Myanmar version of democracy with Chinese characteristics.”
“ I hope she’s wrong. “