Ever since the military regime assumed power in Myanmar, European Union (EU) and the United States imposed sanctions on the country which led to increased economic and political dependence on China. Myanmar had become more dependent on China than ever before. However, in March 2011, the transition from military rule to civilian rule for the first time in 23 years led by Thein Sein’s sought to adjust its relations with China. Now, the relationship between China and Myanmar is at a crossroads.
With the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) landslide victory in the general elections, China’s hopes to start a new era in its relations with Myanmar. However, the details of China’s policy will be determined by the positions and policies of the NLD government. China’s relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi was largely suppressed under the military government. During the 20 years of military rule in Myanmar, Beijing minimized contact with Suu Kyi and the NLD out of consideration for the military government’s sensitivity. As a result, Chinese diplomats, officials, scholars and businesses had almost no relationship with the democratic opposition and China could pursue its political and economic agendas by working with the government alone.
When NLD take office at the end of March 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD will inherit many problems with China from the current Thein Sein government. However, the inauguration of the NLD government may also be an opportunity to start a new era in Myanmar’s relationship with China. In an interview with the Chinese Xinhua News Agency after winning the elections, Aung San Suu Kyi promised a friendly policy toward China, but emphasized that China’s investments should be designed to gain the trust of the Myanmar people. She pledged to pay “special attention” to ties with Beijing while saying that Myanmar would take a balanced approach in its foreign relations. She also stressed the need for transparency in economic projects. She also reportedly praised China’s One Belt One Road initiative, expressing the hope that it would benefit all sides.
After all, at this stage, China is no longer expecting preferential treatment from Myanmar but rather hopes to be treated fairly and equally. China still enjoys overwhelming influence in Myanmar, representing more than just a formidable force to be reckoned with. In fact, its presence and influence can be felt in almost all walks of life in Myanmar. The change of government in Myanmar does not alter China’s strategic pursuits in the country. China still wishes to press development of its infrastructure and connectivity projects through the country to the Bay of Bengal. In this context, China will initiate its relations with an NLD government by demonstrating cooperative intentions with friendly gestures. It is more than likely to offer the new government financial capital, aid projects, and even assistance in the peace process to help it achieve its priority goals. However, China will also demand responses on certain issues critical to China.
This would include a final resolution to the suspended Myitsone dam project, a clear decision on the development of the Kyaukphyu special economic zone, as well as agreements on the series of One Belt and One Road projects, such as the Sino-Myanmar highways and the Irrawaddy River land-water joint transportation program. China will closely observe the development of the peace negotiation with the ethnic groups, especially with those in northern Myanmar along the Chinese border. Now that Suu Kyi has vowed to lead the peace process, many observers are hoping that her unique background and popular strength might bring more confidence to the ethnic minorities in the process and therefore break the impasse. China understands very well that a peaceful and unified Myanmar would serve China’s broader interests since the conflicts in northern Myanmar are the most immediate obstacle blocking China’s economic and strategic programs. Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD should not expect that China will abandon its relationship with other political forces in Myanmar, including the USDP, the military, and the cronies. After all, no one can be completely certain about the country’s political future, and it makes perfect sense for China to maintain good contacts with all potential parties. The lesson of picking either or any side in Myanmar has proven costly and Beijing is unlikely to repeat the same mistake.