As US-Myanmar ties warm, China stands conflicted

AP News
Posted: Dec 01, 2011 10:17 AM
As US-Myanmar ties warm, China stands conflicted

China is a conflicted observer to Hillary Rodham Clinton's trip to Myanmar, caught between worries about U.S. encirclement in Asia and a desire to see its isolated, at times teetering neighbor become more stable.

The discord is evident in Beijing's public pronouncements about the U.S. secretary of state's visit. While the Foreign Ministry expressed support Thursday for Myanmar's outreach to the West, a top Chinese leader called for closer military relations when meeting Myanmar's armed forces commander this week. On state-run television, a commentary appended to footage of Clinton's arrival showed U.S. aircraft carrier groups in the Pacific.

"Beijing understands Myanmar's aspiration to diversify its international engagement and improve relations with the United States. However, Beijing doesn't wish to see those goals achieved at the expense of China," said Sun Yun, an expert on China's foreign relations at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Though estranged for decades when China armed anti-government ethnic groups and supported communist revolution in what was then called Burma, Beijing pivoted in the 1990s to lavish the benefits of trade on Myanmar, just as its military-backed government was sinking deeper into international isolation.

Now as Myanmar's largest economic partner, with $4.4 billion in trade last year and nearly $16 billion in total investment, China has unmatched reach. Its state companies are extracting minerals and timber and investing in dams and pipelines. Chinese food products, medicines and other goods flood Myanmar's markets.

As a result China is both ubiquitous and unpopular. The infrastructure projects have drawn protests from ethnic and environmental groups, which in part led to the new government's recent decision to suspend the $3.6 billion China-funded Myitsone dam. Myanmar companies complain they cannot compete with lower-cost Chinese goods, many of which are smuggled over the border and not taxed. One midsize maker of cakes and cookies has said it might have to shut down.

"The Chinese are surprised by the changes in Burma. They misunderstand our country, our people," said Aung Kyaw Zaw, a former Burmese Communist Party strategist who lives in the Chinese border city of Ruili. "They have good relations with the government, but not with the people of Burma. There's more and more anti-Chinese sentiment among the people and among the army."

Further unnerving to Beijing is that Myanmar's tentative rapprochement with Washington comes amid a push by the Obama administration to strengthen ties with other countries on China's periphery as a hedge against its rising power.

As Myanmar warms to Washington, some Chinese foreign policy experts want renewed backing for the ethnic groups to tweak the Myanmar government and bring it in line, said Sun, the Brookings expert. For decades Beijing ratcheted its support for the groups up and down as leverage with Myanmar.

Though that remains an option, Sun said there's no evidence China is doing so. In recent years, Chinese policy has generally been to cool temperatures on its border with Myanmar.

Beijing-approved peace talks between the government and ethnic rebels have foundered in part over renewed fighting that Myanmar watchers said have displaced thousands, sending them to relief centers along the border.

Such chaos raises the prospect for Beijing that Myanmar could become another North Korea _ a client state whose dysfunction could spill across the border and destabilize China. The remedy for that, many experts inside and outside the government argue, is for China to encourage Myanmar to welcome Clinton and improve relations with the West, bringing in trade and investment that will spur growth and stability.

"If it improves relations with the United States, then its international environment will be better, and it can concentrate on economic construction and improving the lives of its people," said Qu Jianwen of Yunnan University, in the Chinese province bordering Myanmar. "Myanmar's internal political difficulties and ethnic disturbances have for too long prevented it from focusing on economic development."

Though better relations with Washington may allow Myanmar to reduce its dependence on China and give it some bargaining power, ultimately, Myanmar experts say, any distancing is limited by geography and by the pools of ready Chinese investment.

On Thursday, China said it will host the headquarters for a multinational security detail with Myanmar, Laos and Thailand to better police shipping on the Mekong River along their borders.

"I think people get confused when they say the Burmese want to move away from China. No no no," said Maung Zarni, a longtime exiled activist who is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. "The Burmese cannot move away from China, because of geographic location, and the economic penetration as well as the demographic influence of China over Burma. What they want is the best of both worlds."


Associated Press writer Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.