In what seems likely to be a concerted and protracted charm offensive, China has been inviting hundreds of Myanmar opinion-formers to “improve understanding” on their part of China’s intentions. China is telling Myanmar that it knows Myanmar has changed, and that China’s attitude has changed too.
The long-term goal appears to be to recalibrate China’s relationship with an increasingly democratic neighbour that has suddenly acquired a global range of other options, many of them very attractive.
According to the State Council Information Office of the Chinese foreign ministry, Beijing has invited more than 100 journalists, government officials and members of parliament to visit the country, as well as 100 students to study in China.
Wang Xiaofeng, director of the foreign ministry’s Public Diplomacy Office, told The Myanmar Times that his country sought peaceful and prosperous relations with its southern neighbour.
“China wants Myanmar to understand that we can make money together,” he said, stressing his government’s policy of non-intervention in internal affairs. That was the message given by Foreign Minister Wang Yi to his counterpart, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, when he visited Nay Pyi Taw last April, he said.
“We agreed to solve issues amicably and through friendly relations,” said Mr Wang after the meeting.
The central problem is that despite, or perhaps because of, China’s extensive investments in Myanmar during the term of the last government and before, many Myanmar people do not have a warm opinion of their giant northern neighbour.
Under the military regime, an isolated Myanmar became economically dependent on Chinese support as the United States and Europe applied sanctions. But now, a popular and democratic government in Nay Pyi Taw has the chance to diversify its international political, diplomatic, economic, social and cultural relationships with Japan, the US, the EU, and other countries to offset its dependence upon China.
U Than Soe Naing, a political analyst, said efforts at the highest levels to improve China’s image in Myanmar were still bedevilled by long-running issues like the Myitsone dam and the Letpadaung copper mine project. But any readjustment of the relationship with China has to be managed with great care.
Last week, China celebrated its 25 years of ties with ASEAN in Jakarta. However, amid territorial disputes in the South China Sea with various ASEAN members, relations with the regional group are not particularly good.
Paul Chambers, director of research for the Institute of South East Asian Affairs, told The Myanmar Times that China needed to demonstrate its good intent through a public display of concern for the health and human rights of the Myanmar people and environment. It could not risk looking like either a bully or a patron.
“China must realise that Myanmar is no longer an international pariah state that is dependent upon China’s patronage. In fact, China relies upon Myanmar in the sense that China possesses enormous economic interests in Myanmar,” he said.
A political analyst of ASEAN, who requested anonymity, said China also had to proceed with care in forging a new relationship with Nay Pyi Taw, even as it sought to promote Myanmar’s industrialisation.
“If China wants to resume the stalled Myitsone dam project, it has to look to its relations with ordinary Myanmar people,” said the analyst.
Wang Xiaofeng of the foreign ministry said, “We will not interfere in Myanmar’s internal affairs. But we will try to help. Myanmar has water supplies and needs to use them. Together, we can make money.”
Huang Youyi, executive vice president of the Translators Association of China and former vice president of China International Publishing Group, told The Myanmar Times that China and Myanmar should focus more on bilateral economic links, with China showing respect for Myanmar as a neighbour and close partner.
“I think we both stand to gain if we understand each other’s culture better. We have a lot to learn from Myanmar. We must find a way of seeking development without changing our culture,” he said.
He called on both countries to work together to resolve the question of the Myitsone dam project, suspended by then-president U Thein Sein in 2011 amid great popular support.
“If we manage to talk through a solution, we will both benefit. The most important thing is that two countries and two peoples can work together for their mutual benefit,” he said.
Yan Myo Thein, an analyst of Myanmar-Chinese relations, said the Myitsone project was one of the key problems for the new government in terms of balancing its relations with China while retaining popular support.
“However, China might feel they have more important projects in Myanmar, like the Kyaukphyu-Kunming road and rail project,” he added.
Yun Sun, a senior associate on China-Myanmar relations with the Washington-based Stimson Center, said China had made efforts to improve relations with local communities through better corporate social responsibility programs, better public relations campaigns and more benefit-sharing with local residents in areas where it was pursuing projects approved by the previous government.
China was also diversifying its relations with different political forces in Myanmar, investing more cautiously and carefully, building better relations with the Myanmar people, and contributing to local development through CSR and foreign aid. She said it would be wrong to assume that China was still following the old policies that it had pursued in Myanmar under the military government.
The fate of the Myitsone dam is still in doubt. The Myanmar government has not announced the permanent cancellation of the project, leaving room and time for negotiation. While talks are still proceeding, it is expected that cancellation would require Myanmar to pay a high cost in compensation.
“I think it’s wrong to just assume that all Myanmar public opinion is against China and Chinese projects,” said Ms Yun. “If the projects are in the interests of the Myanmar people, why should they oppose them? This requires China to be fairer and more willing to share benefits, but it also requires the Myanmar government to educate its public. I have no doubt that the National League for Democracy government will safeguard Myanmar’s national interests in bargaining with China,” she said.