The low sonorous murmurs of Buddhist prayer rising above the sea of twinkling golden stupas becomes distant and distorted, as the startling bright lights of gleaming shopping centres engulfs the crammed streets of downtown Yangon.
Myanmar, like many countries, is a place of contrasts, challenges and complexity. As an undergraduate student taking part in the ‘Political Economy of Myanmar Course’ this year and a first-time traveller to Myanmar, I became increasingly aware of the great importance of the multi-dimensional relationship between Myanmar and China. From lively karaoke in Naypyidaw, to the green mountain tops of the Shan mountains and to the smallest villages in between, the cultural and geographical diversity of this country should not be underestimated.
Despite intensifying Chinese economic and strategic interests and considerable support from the USA for Myanmar’s ongoing political transition, Myanmar has engaged on a higher pragmatic bilateral level with China. Myanmar as an emerging Asia Pacific state cannot afford direct and confrontational great power competition manifesting into a potentially dangerous Sino-USA rivalry in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi has thus sought to navigate the complexities of the increasing Sino-USA competition in the Asia Pacific Region, by continuing her father’s overarching post-Second World War emphasis on an independent, pragmatic and non-aligned foreign policy for Myanmar.
Since the victory of the National League of Democracy in the 2015 elections, Suu Kyi as foreign minister and state counsellor has pragmatically intensified Myanmar’s paukphaw ‘cousin’ relationship with China amid growing uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific. Prior to the NLD’s landslide victory, relations between the Thein Sein government and Beijing cooled because of the stalling of the billion dollar Myitsone Dam project in Kachin State, in what Jürgen Haacke has described as the military’s fear of ‘…undue military, political or economic dependence on China.’ Indeed, Myanmar’s experience of exploitative British colonialism has a created a strong and ‘pervasive’ nationalistic sentiment that sustains much of the Tatmadaw’s hypersensitivity to foreign interests in Myanmar.
Geographically, China is a key and influential actor in Myanmar’s border regions and peace process. In a recent New York Times article Jane Perlez highlighted China’s continued indirect support of ethnic armed organisations such as the United Wa Army, despite China’s extensive investment in infrastructure projects in Myanmar. The United Wa Army is believed to have the military capabilities to rival or at least challenge the Tatmadaw, with an estimated 20,000 active soldiers, as well as an arsenal of helicopters and tank destroyers allegedly supplied by China. The Wa region is virtually a self-administered area that has more cultural ties with China, rather than with Myanmar. Its close proximity to the border and an association with the illegal narcotics trade in China has even resulted in the circulation of Chinese currency instead of the Burmese Kyat.
President Xi Jinping’s extensive Belt and Road initiative, including the Kyaukphyu oil, and gas pipelines originating in Rakhine State are geostrategic and economic projects that Beijing has focused on in Myanmar. The Kyaukphyu pipeline is considered as economically and strategically significant because it allows Beijing to transport large amounts of oil and natural gas overland from Rakhine State and transport it into Yunnan Province, where it is processed and sent to power the industrial centres further east. The pipelines are currently in operation, allowing China to source energy from the Bay of Bengal without it having to pass through the highly-contested and geostrategically significant Malacca Straits, currently controlled by Singapore. China has also begun constructing a number of deep-sea ports in Myanmar, as part of the ‘string of pearls strategy’, that has also seen China building ports in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. The People’s Liberation Army Navy is attempting to exercise influence on the waters to China’s East and also in the Indian ocean, making China what Steinberg refers to as a ‘two ocean country.’ China’s economic interests in Myanmar have been focused primarily in terms of developmental investment and these have rarely come into conflict with the interests of the USA.
Under the de facto leadership of the state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar will continue to attempt to pursue a foreign policy that isn’t solely reliant on a foreign actor. It is very probable however, that Myanmar’s desire for democratic reform, greater state unity and foreign investment in a wider regional context of great power competition is going to be increasingly difficult to pursue. Especially given the present situation in Rakhine state which has seen, according to the United Nations’ Refugee Agency, over 300,000 Rohingya refugees escaping violence and fleeing to Bangladesh since the 25th of August 2017.
Particular moments in Myanmar stand out to me as being intensely provocative. Standing at the base of the Shwedagon Pagoda the low hum of afternoon prayers still resonating, I realised the great extent to which the challenges facing Myanmar are inter-connected and intricate. Soaring above thunderous monsoon clouds over the Bay of Bengal, I reflected how wonderful it was to live and breathe research and understand how even the simplest human narratives can create a burning desire to explore and to investigate.