China's Xi Jinping visits Burma in boost for Aung San Suu Kyi ahead of genocide ruling

Sophia Yan
Myanmar students hold Myanmar and Chinese flags as they prepare to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping outside of the airport in Naypyitaw - REUTERS

Chinese president Xi Jinping is visiting Myanmar to finalise billions of dollars in investment projects, and to shore up Beijing’s influence over the pariah South East Asian nation shunned by the West over its brutal policies toward ethnic Rohingya Muslims. 

The two-day trip is Mr Xi’s inaugural state visit this year, and the first by a Chinese president in 20 years.

Mr Xi is expected to meet with top leaders including Myanmar president U Win Myint and state councillor Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto government leader. 

Deals on the table include a landmark £1 billion deep-sea port in western Rakhine state, the centre of the Rohingya conflict. Related projects are also planned, including a high-speed rail link connecting the port to southern China, along with a vast industrial park.

Together, these infrastructure investments are seen as China’s gateway to the Indian Ocean.

Both nations have hailed the trip as bringing them closer than ever after seven decades – Myanmar was the first non-Communist country to recognise China after the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949. And China is now Myanmar’s top trading partner.

But experts say it’s a fraught bilateral relationship that has, at least for now, reached a convenient time for the two sides to cosy up. 

“For China, their interests are clear – keep Myanmar within their zone of influence, maximise their infrastructure investments, and through this develop their own access to the Indian Ocean,” said Champa Patel, director of the Asia-Pacific programme at Chatham House.

And Myanmar “needs China to show the international community that ‘everybody else is criticising us, but we still have the top leader of a great power paying a state visit to our country,’” said Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center, a US think tank.

In some ways, how Myanmar has dealt with China – with some deference toward Beijing, which then lends support against international pressure – is a template for how Beijing wishes the rest of Southeast Asia would behave. Nations including the Philippines and Malaysia have grown more politically cautious toward China. 

The China-Myanmar relationship hasn’t always been smooth – tensions flared after widespread public anger stalled plans for a £2.7 billion mega-dam, a project that remains unresolved. It’s a flashpoint in bilateral ties that is expected to become an election issue as Burmese head to the polls later this year.

But fortunes are tied, as the two countries share a restive 1,500-mile border - “home to dozens of insurgent armies and hundreds of militia,” said Thant Myint-U, historian and author of The Hidden History of Burma. 

“The biggest, the United Wa State Army, fields nearly 30,000 well-armed troops and administers territories nearly the size of Belgium.”

Officials from both countries have touted Chinese investment as a way to create new jobs, boost the economy and stabilise conflict along the border. 

But some experts say border security is necessary if Beijing-backed projects – which already risk backlash over Chinese intentions – are to succeed in such strife-ridden zones.

“The Chinese think the Burmese can’t be trusted, and the Burmese worry about what China wants,” said Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based political analyst. Resource-rich Myanmar worries “it’s an extractive relationship, not a win-win.”

Still, agreeing to more Chinese investment is a way for the Burmese government to thank China for its support in other areas.

China has emerged as a powerful backer for Myanmar – a proxy nation in the strategic struggle against the West over influence – boosting Ms Suu Kyi’s defiant stand against international condemnation over ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims.

Next Thursday, the International Court of Justice, the UN’s highest court, is set to rule on a request for emergency measures in a genocide case filed by Gambia against Myanmar, stemming from the brutal military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in 2017 that forced more than 730,000 to flee.

If upheld, a request for “provisional measures” aimed at protecting the Rohingya while the case proceeds, would be automatically sent to the UN Security Council. 

But China holds a key vote on the Security Council, and could block demands including better access to humanitarian aid or the repeal of discriminatory laws. 

Beijing has consistently supported Ms Suu Kyi’s regime, offering a financial lifeline to escape the impact of possible sanctions, and attempting to thwart any UN attempts to hold Ms Suu Kyi and her generals to account.

However, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, predicted that defending the Burmese military against genocide “will likely be a bridge too far even for Beijing’s clout on the global stage.”

“Myanmar is, in any case, very good at not caving to international pressure and it hasn’t up until now changed its approach on the Rohingya issue,” said Mr Horsey.

“I think it knows that it needs China’s protection on the Security Council,” he said. But “how much does it need to capitulate to China’s interests in order to keep China on side? I think Myanmar is testing that.”