On January 17, Chinese President Xi Jinping will pay his first visit to Myanmar in his current capacity, the first time a Chinese leader has done so in nearly two decades. While both sides will look to make inroads in their ties, these positive developments will belie a more complex set of realities undergirding the overall relationship amid the wider region.
China and Myanmar have a relationship that dates back to 1949, when Myanmar was the first non-socialist country to establish ties with the People’s Republic of China. Both sides share common interests, including maintaining a level of stability along their 2,200-kilometer border and improving economic ties, despite concerns that persist such as Beijing’s support of rebels in the country. While Myanmar’s opening in 2011 had raised initial worries about increasing Western encroachment at the expense of China’s interests, increasing scrutiny on Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis has increased Beijing’s leverage in positioning itself as a partner amid the Southeast Asian state’s diplomatic troubles.
Later this week, the bilateral relationship will be in the headlines again with the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Myanmar. While Myanmar’s leaders have made trips to China, this constitutes Xi’s first visit to the country in his current capacity (his last visit there, in 2009, came when Xi was vice president) and the first by a Chinese leader since Jiang Zemin’s trip nearly two decades ago. And it comes amid dynamics that reinforce the significance of Myanmar for Beijing in various senses, be it Naypyidaw’s role as a gateway to the Indian Ocean or its status within China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
During the visit, both sides will be keen to talk up the positive developments in ties, with 2020 constituting the 70th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral ties. China will seek to position itself as a continued supporter of Myanmar’s government amid Western scrutiny and use this momentum to drive further inroads, be it on some previously stalled China-Myanmar development projects, including those tied to the BRI, or other areas such as people-to-people ties, with 2020 designated as China-Myanmar Culture and Tourism Year. And Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) will also see an opportunity to stabilize and boost a key relationship as it nears elections later this year given Beijing’s important role in the country’s economic growth as well as its faltering peace process.
But even as we see the headlines focus on positive aspects of ties, it is important to keep in mind that they will belie more complex realities undergirding overall ties. While China may get some gains in Myanmar spotlighted during Xi’s visit, the bigger picture is that Beijing faces a much more challenging environment to make advances in the Southeast Asian state due to a range of factors, including the growing presence of other key players such as Japan and South Korea, greater awareness of the risks of Chinese projects, and related instances of popular unrest in the country. And though Myanmar’s NLD will find it in its own interest to stabilize and boost ties at this current time, Naypyidaw will be cautious about overcommitting and could also well recalibrate its external relationships once the environment changes.
Of course, that does not mean we should ignore the gains that China and Myanmar may tout during Xi’s visit this week. And nor are both sides unaware of the challenges for ties. It is no coincidence, for example, that in a January 12 interview given to Global Times ahead of Xi’s visit, China’s ambassador to Myanmar was keen to reinforce a series of principles through which China conducts its foreign relations with smaller countries like Myanmar, including mutual respect and reciprocity.
It’s precisely on such issues that Naypyidaw and some other Southeast Asian states see a gap between Beijing’s actions and its words. We ought to be aware of how much rhetoric can diverge from the realities of the China-Myanmar bilateral relationship amid the focus on Xi’s visit.