The warm relationship between Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and China has shown signs of distress lately, ushering in a new political scenario in South-East Asia, where China can play the dual role of friend and foe. Friend – as an economic necessity; foe – as a muscular neighbour.
In Myanmar, we could easily sniff out a change in the attitude toward the regime, a subtle change though it was. A small window of tolerance for dissent is visible from the dark days of dictatorship. The formally civil government, through its President Thein Sein, promised a large amnesty. Although only few political dissidents were freed as part of the amnesty granted, however the hope has not vanished. The exiled talents have been invited to return home to rebuild a once prosperous country. There is even a promise to stop the stern censorship to allow freedom of expression and criticism. Expectations are real, including the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Ki, has expressed her satisfaction: “We are beginning to see the beginning of a change”, marking the conclusion of unprecedented meetings with the regime.
Myanmar is desperately trying to get out from the international isolation and sanctions imposed by the western nations. The country needs capital and technology as an engine of its growth to defeat underdevelopment and poverty. An enduring embargo from the advanced countries is the last thing a resource-rich territory like Myanmar needs.
Naypydaw, the new capital brimmed with nationalistic pomposity, seems have made up the mind to estrange from Beijing and tighten its bonds with Washington and European capitals, because the Burmese president unexpectedly put off the construction of a controversial dam in the north of the country until 2015. The Mytoson campsite on the Irawaddy river, the lifeline for Myanmar, has been closed, despite a huge investment from Beijing (US$3.6 billion). China was responsible for financing the whole project designed to supply hydropower to its southern province of Yunnan bordering with Myanmar.
As usual, when investing abroad, Beijing sent capital, equipment, and workforce to guarantee effective control. This time, China Power Investment Corporation, a giant SOE, was involved together with its Burmese counterpart, Asia World Company. However anxiously Beijing urges the compliance to an international contract, Myanmar just ignored the solemnity of agreement and refused to budge. Thus, a crisis has publicly erupted. The dispute reflects a wide discontent in Myanmar over China, whose presence is perceived more as a slow invasion rather than a friendly help. In addition to the Burmese national of Han descent, there are approximately two million Chinese workers in the country. Goods from China represent over 40% of import, while investment from Beijing accounts for 2/3 of the total. The dam has been long opposed by the local villagers, the nationalistic press, and the environmental protection groups. For the first time in years, the Government gave credit to this dissent.
Now the burden is on Beijing, whose pragmatic friendship with other countries is often questioned. Its approach was apparently mutually profitable: China offers a seat on the economic band wagon in exchange for raw material and resources. Now this magnet is no longer an automatic attraction. The traditional animosity with India and Japan shows only marginal improvements, new tensions arise in the South China Sea with Vietnam and Philippine. Even from Africa – after the elections in Zambia – the former win-win relationship with China has been severely reconsidered. Latest addition to this list is Myanmar – perhaps a more dangerous fracture, because of its vicinity and old mutual protection.