When Myanmar held its first election in 20 years in November 2011 and dissolved the State Peace and Development Council in March 2011 after the handover of power from the old regime to the new government, the Western countries were concerned that the changes were actually superficial and the ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, was a proxy for the junta. Since then, however, concrete steps have been taken in political reconciliation, expansion of basic freedom and domestic peace progress in Myanmar.
The Western countries have approved the progress of the political reforms in Myanmar and responded with positive postures. The US and Japan obviously increased the engagements with the country. Quite a few analysts believe that the increasing Western role has made China uncomfortable, since China enjoyed overwhelmingly influence in Myanmar in the years when the country was isolated. Actually, the increasing Western engagement in Myanmar has had an impact on China-Myanmar relationship.
With the changes in this country, the Myanmar government is paying more attention to local civilians’ interests and their demand for environmental protection. At the same time, the Western media is again exaggerating the problems concerning China’s projects in the country, especially some involving environmental protection.
Since most of China’s projects focus on resource exploration and development, they are vulnerable to environmental review. The Myitsone project is a good case in point. Under the pressure from environmental organizations and local civilians, Thein Sein’s government finally cancelled this project.
However, this single project will not hinder the progress of China-Myanmar cooperation. Neither will China overreact to the Western engagement, because fundamentally, China believes that a prosperous Myanmar is along with the interests of all the related parties. Accordingly, China does not aim at exclusive presence in Myanmar. China is willing to cooperate with other countries, including the Western economies, to promote the country’s development.
Years’ isolation has badly influenced the country’s economy. After the military regime took over in 1988, most of Western countries suspended bilateral development programs, imposed economic sanctions and put in place restrictions on bilateral and multi-lateral engagement with the country. Sanctions were intensified after the 1990 elections, as the winning of the opposition National League for Democracy was not implemented. Myanmar became increasingly isolated from the West as well as from the global economy.
China has always called for Western countries to lift their punitive sanctions on Myanmar. Now the US has proceeded in easing the sanctions. The changing US attitude has also enabled the country to re-engage with international financial institutions, which is of great importance to the country’s development. In past years, the US utilized its influence in international financial institutions to ban the aids to Myanmar. Now, the situation has changed. In February 2012, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed a partial waiver of restrictions imposed on Myanmar under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The waiver would allow assessment missions and limited technical assistance in Myanmar by international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. In November 2012, the World Bank approved a development grant of US$80 million as the first lending to the country in 25 years.
Japan follows the suit of the US engagement in Myanmar. After the US eased the ban on the imports from the country, Japan announced to provide 50 billion yen in government loans. In addition, Japan has strengthened its efforts for debt-relief. Recently, Japan’s Finance Minister Taro Aso visited the country and reaffirmed Japan’s intention to waive part of the 500 billion yen Myanmar owes it in debt. Aso also proposed that Japan would help Myanmar develop a big industrial zone.
The Western involvements will relieve the pressure on China’s relationship with Myanmar. When Myanmar was isolated by the Western world, China was among the few countries determined to develop the relationship with the country. The bilateral relationship was seriously questioned and criticized by the Western countries. Since the US began to upgrade diplomatic ties with the government of President Thein Sein and has nominated the first US ambassador to Myanmar since 1990, the climate of the public opinion in the West for China-Myanmar relationship is likely to be improved
Even though the Western countries have begun to embrace Myanmar, it is difficult for the country to give up its ties with China. China will remain an important neighbor and partner with strategic importance.
Myanmar’s policy of seeing China as a friend will not be changed. The foundation of the relationship, which was built since the 1950s and also during years of isolation, is solid. Even though Myanmar is seeking more cooperation with the Western world, it is unlikely that this country will underestimate it relationship with China or take sides between China and the Western countries in regional affairs.
In the future, Myanmar will continue to provide cooperation opportunities for Chinese companies. At the same time, China will pay more attention to the demand of the local civilians and the environmental issues, and will strengthen the efforts in benefiting the local community. The prospects of China-Myanmar cooperation are positive.
Su Xiaohui, Deputy Director, Department of International and Strategic Studies, China Institute of International Studies