Last September, when the government of Myanmar – the country formerly known as Burma – suspended construction on the Myitsone dam, the common perception was of an insignificant technical issue, not a sign of a dampening in relations with China. Beijing has historically been Myanmar’s primary political patron, and remains so to this day.
Although the country operates on the fringes of the international community, Myanmar should not be written off. With 55 million citizens, vast natural resources, a strategic location, and a rich intellectual history, Myanmar could be a worthy ally for any nation. Instead, the regime has been under economic sanctions imposed by the West for decades, against which China has been Myanmar’s most effective bolster.
Six months after putting construction of the dam on hold, however, Myanmar is still resisting China’s insistent efforts to resume the project.
At stake is a 3.6 billion dollar hydroelectric dam project, one of the largest in Southeast Asia, that is being built with the direct involvement of Chinese state owned energy companies China Power and China Southern Power Grid. China has provided capital, technological know-how, and even labor for the construction; incidentally, the dam, located in northern Myanmar, was intended to provide China’s southern provinces with vital electric energy. The lack of response to pressure from Beijing is a sign that the political climate in Myanmar is changing. Myanmar has in fact been on a path of reform that could soon free it from Chinese patronage. Delaying the dam construction until 2015 could be a message to the rest of the world that Myanmar is ready to come out of its political and economic isolation.
The United States has already made moves to improve relations, sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on an official visit last November, the first of its kind in over 50 years, prompted by reforms made by Thein Sein, Myanmar’s president since March 2011. Sein, an ex-military general, has introduced a new constitution, legalized labor unions, and relaxed restrictions on the press. He has also gained popular credibility by engaging with Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and daughter of a revolutionary hero. Freed from house arrest in 2010, Suu Kyi was elected to Myanmar’s Parliament this April 1st, in a landmark special election. Building on a cautious but growing reciprocal trust, Myanmar is taking small steps towards convincing the West that its reforms are real.
Democratic ideals are not the only thing on the negotiating table; significant multilateral financing, primarily from the IMF, could breathe life into an economy suffocated by the inaction of previous governments. With the possibility of these loans, cooperation with China may seem to come at a high price. Myitsone dam is being built on the Irrawaddy River, a Myanmar national symbol, but 90% of the energy produced will go across the border, to the Chinese province of Yunnan. The environmental pollution, land requisitions, and village relocations caused by the construction have caused popular resentment in the areas affected.
Encouraged by budding international support, Myanmar is trying to remove itself from China’s smothering embrace, with the hopes that bargaining at different tables can guarantee a more independent future. China could also learn a lesson from its relationship with Myanmar: an alliance should be sought in harmony, and not by exploiting another country’s weakness. From Africa and Southeast Asia – once considered Beijing’s spheres of influence – an unequivocal message is being broadcast, urging China to rethink its approach to international cooperation. Being rich and powerful is not always enough to be a leader, if you are unable to earn the friendship of your allies.