China’s Influence in Myanmar

Via STRATFOR (subscription required), a look at China’s enduring influence in Myanmar:

China’s Foreign Ministry released a statement today calling on Western powers to lift all sanctions on Myanmar after the country’s by-elections were regarded by international monitors as relatively free and fair. This is an unusual statement from a state that the West has often called illiberal. China has a long-running track record of profitable relations with so-called pariah states, like Sudan and North Korea, who are often accused of undemocratic and repressive practices.

The statement can be viewed as indicating China’s acquiescence to third-country involvement in Myanmar. However, a look at the geography of the region, China’s place in it and specifically its historical interaction with Myanmar, shows that the Chinese regime is by no means conceding defeat. China’s influence in Myanmar is based on a history shaped by their shared border and characterized by relations between various ethnicities. That depth of interaction will continue into the future, especially considering the value that Myanmar’s strategic resources and locations hold for China’s economy and security.

China’s presence has, throughout the last few centuries, had an overwhelming effect on Myanmar’s internal dynamics. The Bamar ethnic group inhabits the geographic core of Myanmar and represents a plurality of the country’s population. The Bamar have tried to control the so-called ‘hill tribes’ that inhabit their mountainous borders, and they have been involved in one way or another in a continuous struggle to dominate these groups for centuries. At the same time, China, whose Yunnan province borders Myanmar and is home to some of the same ethnic groups, has in the past sent armies into Myanmar’s territory and incited insurrection among the mountain ethnicities along their borders. 

In fact, Myanmar’s recent moves toward ‘opening’ to foreign investment are a reaction against the country’s overwhelming dependence on China. In Myanmar’s view, investment from countries like Thailand, Japan and the United States will help the country maintain its independence in the face of China’s strong financial and demographic presence. 

The recent statements by its foreign ministry show that the Chinese regime recognizes that its significant influence in the country will endure, even if Myanmar seeks other partnerships. China’s size, geographic position and economic weight — along with its experience with contemporary Myanmar’s politics and economy — make that outcome almost a necessity. Powers like the United States, Thailand and India will see their influence in Myanmar increase. But China should still be able to obtain the outcomes it desires. 

These statements are also meant to address a domestic audience. China is in the midst of an internal debate over the issue of reform of its political and economic organization. There has been a surprisingly open debate in the Chinese media regarding China’s future, with alternatives offered from both the right and the left ends of the political spectrum. An official spokesman displaying support for a political and economic opening, especially in a neighboring country with high strategic value, can be seen as part of an attempt by elements within the state structure to highlight the need for reform.  

Finally, there is an international element. By publicly calling on the West to lift sanctions, which are seen by some as ineffective and detrimental to the welfare of the population, the Chinese are reaching for the moral high ground. In this way Beijing can portray itself as a full, responsible stakeholder within the international system, as Washington has long demanded it act. At the same time, China can pressure the United States to take the politically risky move of lifting sanctions.

Myanmar’s opening has presented the Chinese regime with a range of challenges, from the fear of losing a strategic asset to American encirclement close to its borders. Nevertheless, the Chinese seem to understand that beyond ideological affinity, geography plays the decisive role in international relations over the long run, and this case is no exception. Thus with proper management, China will continue to reap hefty benefits from its engagement with an opening Myanmar.

This entry was posted on Friday, April 6th, 2012 at 6:09 am and is filed under China.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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