The terse response of foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, to Myanmar President Thein Sein’s announcement last week of the suspension of the two countries’ Myitsone dam project in northeastern Myanmar close to the border with Yunnan, is more notable for what it didn’t say than for what it did. Hong noted that the project had “gone through scientific feasibility studies and strict examinations by both sides” and called for “friendly consultations” to settle “relevant matters that have emerged during the implementation of the project”. Hong also said that “the legitimate rights and interests of [China’s] companies should be protected”.
Hong did not make any reference to the social and environmental impacts that have been the basis of the protests within Myanmar against the project, which has been likened to the Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze for its size and potential adverse impact on local inhabitants and landscape alike. Some 10,000 Kachin villagers would have had to be relocated had the project gone ahead and 40 villages submerged by the creation of the reservoir behind the dam that would cover an area the size of Singapore. The local ecosystem would be further altered by the plans of China Power Investment Corp., the state-owned power company that is the Chinese partner in the construction of Myitsone, to divert the two rivers, the N’mai and the Mali, that become the Irrawaddy at Myitsone, so their confluence occurs further upstream.
There is no indication that China is going to give up on the project, which is intended largely to supply electric power to Yunnan. Hong is playing the good cop in public, which, to this Bystander, suggests one of two things. Either that Beijing was consulted in advance of Thein’s announcement, and to whatever degree, stomached the decision (we suspect testily given its unhappiness with the growing anti-China sentiment in the country). Or that other Chinese officials will be playing the bad cop in private discussions with their Myanmar counterparts, if they are not already. One outcome may be a commitment to the resumption of construction at Myitsone, which is two-fifths done, once Thein’s term of office is done in 2015, with no other joint projects being similarly stopped in the meantime, plus a crackdown on the local ethnic insurgencies that have disrupted several of them.
In either set of circumstances, the judgement Beijing has to make is whether Thein is sacrificing one iconic project in the cause of getting greater international recognition for his isolated government, particularly from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is bidding to be chairman in 2014, and in which Beijing would be happy to have a fast friend. Or whether there is a more fundamental shift in Naypyidaw against one of the few allies that stuck with Myanmar’s pariah military regime and now the military backed civilian government that has succeeded it.