The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced President Xi Jinping’s Jan. 17-18 state visit to Myanmar on after it was widely reported by Burmese and English media.
Why now? At this particular moment, the West, including the United States, strongly condemns Myanmar for the treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, referring to it as ethnic cleansing or even genocide. Only a month ago, Myanmar’s de facto leader, State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi, was at the International Court of Justice, defending Myanmar against accusations of genocide. The Rohingya crisis has disrupted the U.S. strategy of engaging Myanmar after the country’s democratization in 2011.
Recently, with the ongoing Rohingya humanitarian crisis, it seems that most of the Obama administration’s efforts have washed down the drain. As a result of its withdrawal, the U.S. now has less leverage to promote its interests and compete with China in Myanmar.
The Rohingya issue, however, opens a window of opportunity for China, which has shown sturdy support for the country at the United Nations, despite Western criticism. This support has helped China win the hearts and minds of Myanmar’s armed forces (the Tatmadaw), the civilian government and the general public.
Xi’s upcoming visit carries historical significance. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries. His visit is intended to deepen the Pauk-Phaw relationship. Over the seven-decade course of relations, only two of China’s top leaders ever visited Myanmar — Deng Xiaoping in 1978 and Jiang Zemin in 2001. Xi will be the third.
This year is also an election year for Myanmar. Xi’s visit might signal China’s support for the incumbent government led by Suu Kyi. The two leaders have met six times since Suu Kyi was elected to Myanmar’s parliament. The upcoming meeting will be their first in Naypyitaw, the nation’s capital.
This is not Xi’s first visit to Myanmar. Ten years ago, he visited the country as China’s vice president and witnessed the signings of some memorandums of understanding related to Chinese investment projects. Among those investments are the controversial Myitsone Dam and the Kyaukphyu special economic zone, with the latter viewed as Beijing’s strategic window to the Indian Ocean.
While the Myitsone project is still in limbo, the Kyaukphyu special economic zone is making slow progress. Parliamentary approval was given in 2015, and the Myanmar government signed a framework agreement on the deep sea port with a consortium led by China International Trust and Investment Corp. in 2018.
But Myanmar has renegotiated the project’s terms and scaled down its size under the influence of the United States. The U.S. involvement is only a pilot program for broader resistance to projects financed by China in neighboring countries. With the gradual realization of President Donald Trump’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and a greater U.S.-China rivalry, Kyaukphyu will not be the last case of American interference in regional projects.
Many observers of Myanmar assume Xi’s trip will speed up stagnant Chinese investment projects in the frameworks of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor and the Belt and Road Initiative. The visit will likely strengthen bilateral economic ties, advancing infrastructure connectivity via economic cooperation zones at the border, road upgrades, railway projects and other social and economic development schemes.
It is true that the Chinese business community in Yangon is frustrated by the slow pace of progress. But Beijing is already moving beyond simply pushing as many investment projects as possible. Since the 2019 BRI forum, Beijing has started to transition the initiative toward high-quality development, focusing more on sustainability and quality over quantity. Though sketchy private schemes under the name of the BRI exist, official promotion is more measured than before.
Other than economic relations, Myanmar’s stalled peace process is also a big concern for China, whose involvement in the peace process is primarily driven by concern over security and stability along the Yunnan border. The armed conflict in northern Myanmar has already brought death to multiple Chinese citizens in recent years.
Xi has visited eight ASEAN countries since taking power in 2012, with Thailand and Myanmar the exceptions. His upcoming visit indicates that bilateral relations are at their peak since the Myitsone suspension in 2011. It will give Myanmar a political, economic, and social boost at a moment at which it faces intense condemnation from the West. It will also send a signal to China’s neighboring countries and beyond about China’s unwavering support of an incumbent government in time of crisis: A friend in need is a friend indeed.