Myanmar stands as a good example of the cooperation and competition that characterizes the relationship between Beijing and Washington. Much of the commentary on Hillary Clinton’s visit to Myanmar, the first by a U.S. Secretary of State in half a century, has concentrated on how Washington wants to detach Beijing’s hold on Naypyidaw. This is seen as part of a grander plan on the part of the Obama administration to counter China’s growing influence in the region. Yet, to this Bystander, it seems that not only can the U.S. do no more than loosen Beijing’s grip, from tight to firm, but also that is now, on balance, in Beijing’s interest that Myanmar emerges from its international isolation.
That isolation has left China as Myanmar’s largest trade and investment partner. Construction of the Myitsone dam may have been suspended but work on six other Chinese-built dams continues. The road, rail and energy pipeline connections across between Yunnan province and Myanmar’s Bay of Bengal coast are being developed by the day. Chinese companies have a first mover advantage that could be readily exploited if international sanctions on Myanmar are lifted and its population of 60 million is provided with an opportunity to catch up with the economic progress of the rest of Southeast Asia.
Neither U.S. nor Indian firms are in any position to leapfrog Chinese ones in Myanmar, any more than Washington or New Delhi will leap ahead of Beijing politically. The security risk to China’s southwestern reaches is marginal compared to the potential economic and political gains.
Beijing certainly does not want a full-fledged democracy that is in Washington’s pocket on its doorstep. Yet it would not be adverse to a more broad-based government in Naypyidaw that could bring to an end Myanmar’s minority ethnic conflicts. These insurgencies are primarily being fought along the length of the border with Yunnan. China’s commercial interests in extracting Myanmar’s natural resources and sending cheap manufactures in the opposite direction are far better served by peace than strife. As we have noted before, Beijing does not want another flood of refugees from the fighting.
Nor would China be too sorry to see North Korea lose a fast friend and export trans-shipment point in Burma. That would only make Pyongyang more reliant on Beijing, and reduce by one the potential ranks of nuclear armed neighbors. Meanwhile, Beijing and Naypyidaw are strengthening their military ties. Min Aung Hlaing, the new commander of Myanmar’s armed forces, may have pointedly made his first foreign visit to Vietnam, but he was in Beijing earlier this week to sign a memorandum of understanding with Chen Bingde, his PLA counterpart, to deepen military cooperation. He also met President-Assumptive Xi Jinping. Closer military ties will help China’s naval reach into the strategically important waters of the Indian Ocean.
State media has stuck an uncommonly neutral tone in its coverage of Clinton’s visit to Myanmar, highlighting her promotion of economic reforms and the need for ethnic conflicts to be resolved. Beijing has more common cause with Washington on both those fronts than those looking for a grander geopolitical game imagine.