Myanmar's changing ties with China

China is committed to friendly ties with Myanmar, Xi Jinping tells Aung San Suu Kyi

Meeting in Beijing comes amid flurry of exchanges between the two countries

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 December, 2017, 10:24pm
UPDATED : Friday, 01 December, 2017, 10:24pm

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday said Beijing was committed to maintaining friendly ties with Myanmar, as global condemnation of the Southeast Asian nation mounts over its brutal crackdown on the Rohingya Muslims.

Xi made the remarks when he met Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s state counsellor and foreign minister, who is in Beijing for a meeting between the Chinese Communist Party and political parties from other nations that runs until Sunday.

The meeting between the two leaders was the latest in a flurry of exchanges between the two countries in recent weeks as Beijing tries to secure its investment interests in Myanmar.

“China will maintain its friendly ties with Myanmar as it has in the past, and will see the China-Myanmar relationship from a wider, strategic point of view,” Xi was quoted as saying by state news agency Xinhua. “China is willing to work with Myanmar to ensure the development of ... relations stay on the correct path.”

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More than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh since August to escape conflict with Myanmar’s military. The West has accused Myanmar’s government of “ethnic cleansing” and strongly criticised Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi for not stopping the violence.

But Beijing is stepping up engagement with the country – on a recent visit trip to Naypyidaw, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed a “three-step” solution to the Rohingya refugee issue in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine.

Last week, General Li Zuocheng, of China’s Central Military Commission, told Myanmar’s Senior General Min Aung Hlaing that China’s increasing prosperity offered an important opportunity for Myanmar’s development, and the two nations’ armed forces should step up exchanges. Min Aung Hlaing also met Xi last week.

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China is a key investor in Myanmar, and Suu Kyi last visited Beijing in May for a forum on Xi’s signature “Belt and Road Trade Initiative”. Myanmar is an important part of that, particularly a US$7.3 billion deep-water port in Rakhine, backed by a Chinese-led consortium. China has also invested in a US$2.45 billion oil and gas pipeline project that went into operation in April, linking the remote coast of Rakhine to southwest China’s Yunnan province, 770km away.

China is also a major provider of military hardware to Myanmar. It has supplied more than 90 per cent of Myanmar’s military transport, according to the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database.

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“Undeniably, there is another dimension of this visit – the question is, whether Myanmar is getting closer to China in the face of the international criticisms on the Rohingya plight,” according to Sampa Kundu, a researcher at the Southeast Asia and Oceania Centre at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.

“A bilateral relationship between two neighbours is getting stronger because the influential neighbour has chosen to give its back to the relatively weaker one to fulfil its own geostrategic interests,” she said. “To what extent Myanmar will benefit from this relationship is something that the international community will watch with keen interest now.”

Fan Hongwei, a Myanmar affairs specialist at Xiamen University, said Suu Kyi would be hoping to maintain good relations with China to promote Myanmar’s national interest.

“Given the recent clashes in Rakhine state, Suu Kyi and the Myanmar government have faced pressure and accusations from the West. Meanwhile China has protected Myanmar in the United Nations, and offered to mediate between Bangladesh and Myanmar to resolve this conflict, which Myanmar will be grateful for,” Fan said.