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Uncle Sam can't beat out the Chinese in Myanmar
Publication Date : 07-08-2013
With sanctions against Myanmar lifted, US President Barack Obama is launching a new American charm offensive in that country to vie against the People's Republic of China as chief economic benefactor. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe doesn't want to be outdone. Both visited Naypyidaw and Yangon, promising help to Myanmar after President Thein Sein's quasi-democratic change in government.
Myanmar, known for hundreds of years as Burma, is a country very rich in oil and natural gas, which are waiting to be tapped with the long-awaited arrival of foreign direct investment. With UN sanctions in place for its very poor human rights records, Myanmar, ruled by a military dictatorship since it became independent after World War II, has few investors from abroad except for the People's Republic of China. The 1,700-mile Sino-Burma natural gas pipeline on July 29 began pumping an estimated 12 billion cubic metres of natural gas a year to the mainland Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi. The line will be responsible for 6 per cent of China's natural gas needs.
Of course, the natural gas pipeline, which had a US$1.04 billion price tag attached to it, had been planned and its construction had begun long before the international sanctions were lifted. There is another pipeline, which is costing $1.5 billion to build, parallel to the one for natural gas, and is expected to carry 12 million tons of crude oil to China.
Although six nations are involved in the funding of the natural gas pipeline project, including South Korea and India, the China National Petroleum Corporation holds a 50.9-per-cent stake. The People's Republic is the chief benefactor. It will be a boon for both China and Myanmar: gas flowing one way, cash flowing the other. The oil pipeline enables the People's Republic to diversify its crude oil import routes and avoid traffic through the Strait of Malacca. China benefits more.
Thein Sein's reforms have put Myanmar square in the sights of a turf war between the United States and China, and despite Beijing's decades of business undertakings in the country, it seems that Myanmar is keen on changing the status quo. Naypyidaw's old pro-China policies seem over. Thein Sein has suspended construction of the Myitsone Dam, an ambitious project China is undertaking to build the world's 15th largest hydroelectric power station to supply Yunnan with electricity. To the recent FDI attraction conference at Naypyidaw, the People's Republic was not invited.
There are many in Myanmar who, with China's dominance over their economy for decades, want a change in current relations between the two countries. They may try to opt for American and Japanese assistance, but the Americans and the Japanese should never forget that Myanmar and China call each other Paukphaw, a Burmese word for “siblings” which is never used for any other foreign country, reflecting their ages-long close and cordial relationship.
Naturally, some historical enmity remains. Ming China and Qing China invaded Burma. Offended by Chinese dominance, many Burmese who have been given more freedom by the reformist Thein Sein regime have found the Middle Kingdom their target of verbal attack. One placard waved by protesters in front of the Chinese Embassy in Yangon read: “This is our country — Dracula China get out!”
One of the main purposes of the American initiative is to make Myanmar a link in the containment of China in its “return to Asia.” Washington may again try the Dollar Diplomacy that President William Howard Taft practiced in Latin America and East Asia to further US aims through use of its economic power, but chances are that it won't succeed. Times have changed, and more importantly, Myanmar isn't a banana republic. It is China's Paukphaw.
Siblings may fight each other, but they are united in confronting strangers. Uncle Sam can never win over Myanmar with the dollar, which isn't as aplenty as it was during President Taft's time.