As Myanmar experiments with a new democratic system, several new political forces have emerged that are shifting the country's previous military-dominated course. Beyond the myriad ethnic minority groups, four different mainstream forces are redefining the country's international relations, perhaps most crucially with neighboring China.
The new political power centers include the government led by President Thein Sein; the Union Solidarity and Development
Party (USDP) steered by parliamentary head Shwe Mann; the military commanded by senior general Min Aung Hlaing, and the democratic opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
China is now building separate and distinct relations with each of the four mentioned groups. Understanding China's policies toward each group is thus key to accurately assessing Beijing's broader country strategy and internal calculations.
On the formal government level, China and Myanmar seem to have smoothed over many of their previous problems. Those issues came to the fore in 2011, coincident with a warming trend in diplomatic relations with the West. Now, after China's strong intervention on the Kachin rebel issue in early 2013, border tranquility has been mostly restored. Thein Sein's government has meanwhile agreed to the resumption of the locally opposed Letpadaung copper mine, while a solution to the suspended US$3.6 billion Myitsone dam is under negotiation.
Thein Sein visited China in April for the annual Boao Forum and met with new Chinese leader Xi Jinping. He also met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in October during the East Asia Summit. In public, bilateral ties seem even-keeled, with officials and state media on both sides regularly extolling the historical friendship. (Myanmar's now unfettered private media has more critically assessed the bilateral relationship.)
Those friendly official portrayals, however, conceal a more tepid bilateral reality. Most strikingly, Chinese leaders have recently dropped Myanmar from their regional itineraries. For instance, no member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) has visited Myanmar since their inauguration in November 2012.
During China's regional charm offensive this fall, President Xi and Premier Li paid back-to-back visits to five of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries, namely Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, along with visits to Cambodia and Singapore by PBSC members Liu Yunshan and Zhang Gaoli, respectively. Since his inauguration in March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has made six trips to eight different Southeast Asian countries, barring only Myanmar and the Philippines.
On the economic front, relations have recently cooled. Compared with fiscal year 2011, Chinese direct investment to Myanmar fell by more than 90% to US$407 million over the same period in 2012. Large Chinese state-owned enterprises have historically been the largest investors in Myanmar, but the suspension of certain Chinese projects and policy uncertainty have sapped that earlier enthusiasm. As Chinese investments in Myanmar have slowed, commitments to other Southeast Asian countries have accelerated.
While Beijing has clearly been irked by Thein Sein's government and certain of its policies, the negativity does not necessarily extend to the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). That's because Beijing believes Thein Sein, rather than the USDP, is mainly responsible for the policy shifts that have undermined China's substantial interests in the country.
China is hopeful that the USDP will remain a China-friendly political force and discreetly praises the political strength and ambitions of Shwe Mann, the present USDP chairman and speaker of the Lower House. Chinese analysts privately perceive him as the most likely winner of the presidency in the 2015 elections. To this end, Beijing has been eager to cultivate close relations with him and assist the USDP in capacity building.
In a clear political hedge, China is also working to build a better relationship with Myanmar's democratic opposition and civil society groups. Their rising political influence, especially that of National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Suu Kyi, has been demonstrated in both domestic and foreign policies.
China has extended olive branches to the democratic opposition since late 2011.
Ambassadors from Bangkok have held a series of unprecedented meetings with Suu Kyi, while Chinese officials, scholars and companies have begun to engage the political opposition and civil society groups. As a part of this diplomatic outreach, dozens of groups of Myanmar journalists, civil society leaders and political parties have been invited to visit China, including delegations from the NLD.
Whether and how to invite Suu Kyi for a formal visit to China is still a nettlesome question for Chinese policy-makers. As a global pro-democracy icon, Suu Kyi symbolizes values that are out of step with China's prevailing authoritarian order. Her fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates the Dalai Lama and Liu Xiaobo are both considered "enemies of the state" in China. Some policy-makers even believe a Suu Kyi visit could spark social uncertainty and political instability inside China.
As Suu Kyi evolves from pro-democracy icon to mainstream politician, such concerns are gradually lifting in Beijing. China now views Suu Kyi as making decisions based on political need rather than idealistic principle, including her decision to support the continuation of the controversial China-invested Letpadaung copper mine and her refraining from critical comment on the politically sensitive issue of Rohingyas, a minority Muslim ethnic group that has been subject to racial attacks by Buddhist Burmese.
Suu Kyi has also publicly indicated her support for a robust relationship with China, helping to mitigate somewhat Beijing's concern about her future international alignment choices. Many Chinese analysts now see Suu Kyi as seeking China's support for her bid for the presidency in 2015, which at present she is constitutionally barred from serving. Some Chinese analysts believe Beijing will extend a formal invitation for her to visit the country in her official capacity as an opposition politician some time in 2014.
Among all the political forces jockeying for position in Myanmar's new political order, the military is perhaps the most China-friendly group. This is partially a legacy of China's special relationship with the previous military government and strong personal ties with individual generals who wielded influence before 2011. These special ties are strengthened by certain shared political values and common economic interests.
In Beijing's view, there are few problems in military-to-military ties. Despite the tepid political and economic relations at the government level, senior military exchanges and visits have been robust in 2013. In January, for instance, the Deputy Chief of Staff of China's People's Liberation Army, Qi Jianguo, co-chaired the first Sino-Myanmar strategic security consultation with Myanmar's Deputy Commander-in-Chief Vice Senior General Soe Win.
Fan Changlong, Vice Chair of the Central Military Commission, China's supreme military organ, visited Myanmar in July. These visits were reciprocated by a trip to Beijing by the Myanmar military's commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing in October to meet with top Chinese leaders. Democratic reforms in Myanmar have apparently not affected bilateral Chinese arms sales, training and military assistance.
China's differentiated approaches and policies toward different political power centers in Myanmar indicate a more sophisticated country strategy and nuanced diplomacy. After two years of relative disorientation and confusion, China is now actively catching up with Myanmar's new political reality.
Yun Sun is a Fellow in the East Asia program at the Stimson Center, a nonprofit and nonpartisan think tank that studies peace and security challenges around the world.
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