China’s Myanmar Strategy: Elections, Ethnic Politics and Economics
21 Sep 2010
As Myanmar approaches its first elections in two decades, China’s primary concerns are the security and stability of its south-western border and protecting its strategic and economic interests in the country.
China’s Myanmar Strategy: Elections
, Ethnic Politics and Economics
, the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, examines China’s approach to Myanmar and the challenges and opportunities the relationship presents for the two countries.
“Despite widespread international opinion that the elections will be neither free nor fair, China is likely to accept any poll result that does not involve major instability”, says Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Crisis Group’s China Adviser and North East Asia Project Director. Beijing hopes the elections will serve its strategic and economic aims by producing a government seen both domestically and internationally as more legitimate.
As the elections draw near and tensions remain high along the border, China has been taking a direct role in managing border stability. Beijing was caught off-guard by the Myanmar government’s military offensive into Kokang in August 2009 that caused more than 30,000 refugees to flee into Yunnan province. Since then it has used pressure and mediation to push the Myanmar government and the ethnic groups that live near the border to the negotiating table. Prior to the Kokang conflict, China saw the ethnic groups as buffers and bargaining chips in its relationship with the Myanmar government, but now it increasingly views them as a liability.
Beijing feels that increasing energy stakes in Myanmar and the Obama administration’s engagement policy are changing the bilateral balance of power to Naypyidaw’s advantage. Beijing is seeking to boost its political and economic presence in the country by stepping up visits from top leaders and increasing economic investment and trade. Another factor impacting its strategy towards Myanmar is the U.S. government’s engagement policy, which Beijing sees as a potential challenge and an attempt to curb China’s influence.
Yet China’s pursuit of its interests in Myanmar is encountering difficulties. Internally, Beijing and local Yunnan governments diverge in their perceptions and approaches to border management and the ethnic groups. Beijing prioritises border stability over commercial interests, but Yunnan values border trade and profits from its special relationships with ethnic groups. Within Myanmar, the location of large-scale Chinese energy investments—including in Kachin, Shan and Rakhine States—links their security to the stability of ethnic group areas.
“Many projects are causing popular resentment towards China, due to unequal distribution of benefits, environmental damage, and harmful impacts on local communities and traditional ways of life,” says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “If China does not act to limit their negative effects, it risks increasing tensions in ethnic group areas and possible violent backlash”.