China And Myanmar: An Energy-Based Friendship

A stronger friendship with China may be flowing through the pipelines in Myanmar. Cast into doubt by recent events, Myanmar’s partnership with Beijing is finding a valid test through the establishment of infrastructure. The Chinese vice minister of foreign affairs, Fu Ying, recently visited Myanmar and gave a boost to the completion of a pipeline between the two countries. In just a few months the oil and gas pipelines will be ready to carry combustible hydrocarbons into Yunnan province, after a trip of over 1,100 km, mostly in Burmese territory, effectively cutting the country in half from the southwest to the northeast. Oil from the Middle East will arrive in the Burmese port of Kyaukphyu, while natural gas will begin its voyage in the gas fields of Shwe, in the area of the Bay of Bengal controlled by Myanmar. When operations begin, probably in May of 2013, the energy link will be the first step towards an alternative to the traditional route via which 80% of China’s oil is transported. Oil tankers will no longer be forced to transit the Strait of Malacca, double back around Singapore, and then back up through the South China Sea, a region that is now feeling the tensions of territorial disputes between Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. The project began in 2007, when Myanmar found a solid and dependable ally in Beijing, one of the few they had to count on after being hit with economic sanctions. In a pragmatic partnership between neighbors, Nypydaw, Myanmar’s new capital, essentially delivered their economic destiny into the hands of their Chinese neighbors, both with regards to trade and investment. The Dragon is hungry for energy, of which Myanmar has plenty, and has a strategic interest in having an outlet to the Indian Ocean. The construction of the oil and gas pipelines is one of the results of this necessity, developed by the China National Petroleum Corporation. Nevertheless, the close friendship with China had a moment of hesitation after Myanmar began reforms in 2011. The military junta has now retreated within its ranks and a civilian government now guides the country, local elections have been held, and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has been freed from house arrest. Encouraged by the democratic progress, the West has responded with a cautious line of credit. Sanctions have been suspended, and Myanmar is no longer considered to be on the outskirts of the international community. Even US President Barack Obama himself visited the country last November, in his first foreign visit after being reelected. However, this new situation has made China merely important, and no longer indispensable. The first warning sign was the interruption of work on the Myitsone dam, called into question by the government of Myanmar for environmental reasons. Since then the project, underwritten by the Chinese to ensure a supplementary energy source, has been considered a symbol of Myanmar’s desire to find even a modest amount of independence from its giant Asian neighbor. When they have been finished, the great oil and gas lines will swing the pendulum of the alliance in the opposite direction, but it will be an increasingly common move in the future, an inevitable step upon reentering the chessboard of international politics.