By C. S. Kuppuswamy
Myanmar’s President Thein Sein visited China from 26 to 28 May 2011. This is his first state visit since he was sworn in as President on 30 March 2011. His first official overseas trip was to Jakarta in early May this year to attend the ASEAN Summit.
His entourage of officials and ministers included the Commander-in-Chief Gen Min Aung Hlaing, Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Hla Min, Home Minister Lt Gen Ko Ko and Border Affairs Minister Maj Gen Thein Htay.
“I think the main purpose of Thein Sein’s brief visit is to show a special gesture of goodwill to their mentor and to seek its advice on some sensitive domestic issues about ethnic armed groups along the Chinese border” said Thakin Chan Tun, a former Myanmar ambassador to China (Reuters-May 24, 2011).
Earlier this month (May 12 to 15), Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission Gen Xu Caihou visited Myanmar and had met Thein Sein amongst others.
Thein Sein had earlier been to China on a number of occasions as a general, as an SPDC member and also as the Prime Minister. However this visit carries a special significance in that he is visiting as the head of state and is on a state visit.
The Chinese objectives in keeping the relations with Myanmar on a special footing are evident from extracts of the media report (The Irrawaddy May 25) quoted below:
“According to Chinese experts, the Chinese government is attempting to shift from its longstanding ‘One Ocean’ policy to a ‘Two Ocean’ strategy taking in both the Pacific and Indian oceans. Its Indian Ocean allies, Burma and Pakistan, are key to this ambition, they say.”
“In a 2009 report on the Sino-Burmese relationship, Chinese scholars Li Chenyang and Lye Liang wrote: Hence, a core objective of China’s policy towards Myanmar (Burma) is to establish a strategic network of road, rail and air transport from Yunnan Province in the southwest through Myanmar to the Indian Ocean and also to construct water, oil and gas pipelines.”
In this connection Paper No. 4357 dated 2nd March 2011 “Sino-Myanmar Relations and its impact on the region” (http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/papers44/paper4357.html) posted on this site traces the relations between these two nations in the last sixty years.
The visiting president was given a reception at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing by Chinese President Hu Jintao on 27 May 2011. During their hour long talks the two leaders reviewed the growth of China-Myanmar relations. A Chinese media report indicates that the relationship has been upgraded to a “comprehensive strategic partnership”. Thein Sein agreed to work more closely in the areas of energy, transport and agriculture. The report adds that under the strategic partnership, the two countries will maintain close high level contacts, continue to build bilateral relations between the parliaments, governments, judicial departments and political parties. At the end of the talks both presidents witnessed the signing of a series of economic agreements.
Thein Sein had also a separate meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao where he was assured that China would continue providing assistance to help Myanmar develop economically.
In a strange co-incidence the Chinese President Hu Jintao had met with Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, a day before he met the Myanmar President Thein Sein. There is no indication to suggest that the two delegations had met with each other in Beijing.
Some media reports indicate that China has asked Myanmar to allow the Chinese Navy to dock in Myanmar ports and get direct access to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. In this connection, Ma Jaili, an expert at the government think-tank, the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations said “I know India is very suspicious about Chinese navy’s role in the Myanmar area. There is no need to worry because the Chinese navy will never take a hostile approach to India or any neighbour” (Times of India 28th May 2011).
The following points are noteworthy in the joint statement issued at the end of the talks
“China reaffirmed its respect for Myanmar’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity and its support for Myanmar’s pursuit of its development path suited to its national conditions.”
“Myanmar reiterated its adherence to the one-China policy, and pledged to continuously support the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations and peaceful reunification of China.”
“The two sides also agreed to further enhance coordination and cooperation in the United Nations and other multilateral areas, and jointly safeguard the interests of developing countries.”
“The two neighbors also vowed to strengthen cooperation in such regional mechanisms as the the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) plus China, Japan and the Republic of Korea, ASEAN plus China and the Greater Mekong Subregional Economic Cooperation.” (Source Xinhua).
One of the agreements signed during the visit is “to jointly build a rail transport construction project in Burma. The agreement was a supplement to a memorandum of understanding signed in April between the Myanmar Union Ministry of Rail Transportation and the China Railways Engineering Corporation, the parent company of China Railway, to build the railway between Burma’s border town of Muse and the port city of Kyaukpyu.” This railway line will be running more or less parallel to the twin gas and oil pipe lines under construction from the Arakan coast to Kunming.
China and Burma also inked a framework agreement for a line of credit worth $763 million from the China Development Bank.
“According to official statistics, during the last 23 years China has been the leading investor in Burma, investing US $ 15.5 billion, followed by Thailand ($9.56 billion), South Korea ($2.915 billion), the UK ($2.659 billion) and Singapore ($1.818 billion). Most of China’s investments are in hydro-power projects and the energy sector, including the strategic Sino-Burmese oil and gas pipelines”. (The Irrawaddy-May 26, 2011).
The US has reiterated that it will continue with the policy of sanctions while engaging with the new Myanmar government. However the ever improving relationship between China and Myanmar is causing concern to the US and other Western nations. In fact some analysts feel that lifting of sanctions may help in reducing Myanmar’s total dependence on China.
The fact that both Myanmar and North Korean delegations were in Beijing at the same time indicates Beijing’s blessings of North Korea’s military help and nuclear assistance to Myanmar.
India should be concerned at the likelihood of Myanmar allowing the Chinese Navy to dock at Myanmar ports in the Bay of Bengal. One should note China’s ambitions to be an Indian Ocean power too.
China has more to gain from this “comprehensive strategic partnership” than Myanmar, though Myanmar will benefit economically and in its border management with the troublesome ethnic groups on the China border.