United States President Barack Obama visits Myanmar today.
This milestone is one of many over the past year of reform for the once-pariah state also known as Burma. These reforms and the consequent improvement of US-Myanmar relations appear to be an unalloyed good.
In the past year the reformist government of Present U Thein Sein has released many political prisoners, allowed progressively greater political participation by the democratic opposition and made significant progress towards ending ethnic insurgencies that have troubled the country for decades.
As Myanmar has reformed, the US, which once imposed a harsh sanctions regime, has sought to encourage and support the process. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar in December 2011.
The US has lifted or suspended most of its economic sanctions. This, in turn, paves the way for aid, investment and advice from the US, its allies, and multilateral financial institutions. For US and Western firms Myanmar holds the promise of rapid-growth investment opportunities in an underserved market of 60 million people.
But behind these positive developments lurks a danger: the sensitivity and potential reaction of China, Myanmar’s neighbour to the north, to increased US involvement.
For China, the relationship with Myanmar has economic and strategic value. Myanmar is a market for Chinese goods. Myanmar also supplies or will supply China with primary products ranging from agricultural and fisheries to minerals and natural gas.
China is also deeply involved in infrastructure construction in Myanmar, including several hydropower projects and a special economic zone in Kyaukpyu in Rakhine State. China is also building gas and oil pipelines and a transportation corridor across Myanmar from Kyaukpyu to Ruili, on the China border.
The natural gas will come from fields off Myanmar’s west coast but the oil will be brought from Africa and the Middle East. The pipeline allows China to bypass the Strait of Malacca, a potential choke-point subject to control by the US Navy.
Chinese descriptions of China-Myanmar relations invariably stress harmony between the two peoples from time immemorial. These often use the Burmese word “Pauk Paw” for the special fraternal nature of the relationship. This narrative glosses over historical conflicts, the last of which ended only in the mid-1980s when China shifted from supporting revolution to encouraging trade.
China’s vision of “Pauk Paw” harmony also papers over the anti-Chinese sentiment prevalent in Myanmar. The perception in Myanmar is that Chinese companies use bribes and the Chinese government’s support for Myanmar at the United Nations to obtain preferential concessions for resource and infrastructure projects. This popular view holds that the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw, has been selling out the nation to the Chinese.