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China's hand in Myanmar's peace talks

Publication Date : 09-02-2013


With all eyes on the outcome of peace talks this week between the Myanmar government and a rebel group to end nearly two years of fighting in northern Kachin state, one thing stood out - the firm hand of Beijing.

China not only hosted the negotiations in the Ruili border town across from Myanmar, it also sent officials to meet representatives from the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army and to take part in the talks.

The result of the seven-hour talks on Monday reflects China's strong influence over its Asean neighbour and dispels suspicions of a chill in bilateral ties, say observers.

"Anyone who thinks that Burma (Myanmar's former name) can be weaned off Beijing's sphere of influence needs only look at the fact that the generals - usually rather hostile to any type of outside intervention - would go to or send their negotiators to China to discuss what is essentially a sovereign internal affair," said analyst Maung Zarni.

China was one of Myanmar's few friends - on top of being its biggest donor and trading partner - when the junta-run country faced Western-backed sanctions from the late 1980s over its oppression of political opponents. The close friendship led Myanmar to describe its ties with China as "paukphaw", which is Burmese for fraternal or kinfolk.

But after Myanmar started its democratic reforms from 2011, there was talk of a shift in its foreign policy away from China and towards the Western world, particularly the United States.

Economic sanctions were lifted, a new US ambassador appointed and military contacts established between both countries. A series of high-level exchanges was capped by US President Barack Obama's historic visit to Myanmar last November.

At the same time, anti-China sentiments were brewing among locals over inferior-quality Chinese goods that flooded the Myanmar market as well as the environmental damage caused by Chinese factories in various parts of the country over the years.

But as the peace talks showed, China's influence has not waned, say observers.

Zarni, a visiting research fellow at the London School of Economics, said one reason is because Myanmar's honeymoon with the US is "pretty much over" after the American embassy's criticisms last month of the Kachin conflict.

In a statement, the US embassy noted that "media and NGO reports indicate that the Burmese Army continues a military offensive" against Kachin rebels near Laiza, despite the government's announcement of a unilateral ceasefire on Jan 19. The embassy also called for ceasefire talks and for humanitarian access to displaced Kachin civilians.

But the embassy's use of Myanmar's old name Burma caused chagrin to the country's retired generals. Its foreign ministry swiftly objected and urged the US to stick to its new name.

Another reason for the strong ties, said Singapore-based observer Ian Storey, is the depth of goodwill that China has built with Myanmar over the past two decades. This despite a hiccup in 2011 when Myanmar President Thein Sein suspended construction of the China-funded Myitsone dam.

Storey pointed out that China is still Myanmar's largest trade and investment partner, with 2012 figures showing bilateral trade growing 46 per cent from 2011 to US$6.5 billion.

China's cumulative investments in Myanmar reached US$14 billion last year. Of the US$900 million Naypidaw wants to borrow this year, US$527 million will reportedly come from Beijing.

Also, China has not let up on its friendship with Myanmar, say analysts. After all, there is much at stake for China, which sees Myanmar as a potential gateway to the Indian Ocean and an alternative market for its south-western regions like Yunnan. The Kachin conflict zone is also near the planned oil and gas pipelines stretching from Myanmar's coast to Yunnan to quench the Asian giant's energy thirst.

Storey of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies said China is also moved by a desire to see a stable border with Myanmar so that "Chinese companies can continue to engage in their lucrative business activities, and to ensure that the conflict does not spill over into Yunnan province".

"China is particularly worried about an exodus of Kachin refugees into Yunnan," he added.

In fact, analysts say China's role as peace broker could help it maintain its influence over Myanmar.

Said Prof Zarni: "The West may come with investment dollars and so-called foreign aid, but without ending Burma's civil war of 60 years, no big- time business or development is conceivable.

"That's where China comes in. It can intervene positively to help end the civil wars in Burma, or it can re-fuel them."


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