THAT is how Myanmar is being portrayed, and not without reason. For both China and the United States, the stakes couldn’t be higher. China has invested heavily in the country. According to an article published recently in the New York Times “the pipelines are finished. The oil storage tanks gleam in the tropical sun. The deep-sea port set in jade-coloured waters awaits the first ships bearing crude from the Middle East.” Yes, billions have been poured into infrastructure projects, and yes, China helped the impoverished country giving it a Lifeline during the long years it was under a UN embargo.
Yet, with the “Myanmar spring,” not to be confused with the overthrowing of decades-old regimes in the Mid-East, the gradual relaxation of control has provided its people with some voice; voice to vent opposition to many projects led by giant Chinese corporations today. What has vexed the Chinese leadership more than the protests is the fact that the Myanmar leadership is actively engaging with the West that is being reciprocated in the West, particularly in Washington.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for China. It is standing on the verge of gaining a western seaboard to fuel the double-digit development that its cities on the eastern coast have been experiencing. As pointed out by David Piling in a recent article in Financial Times, “An 800km gas pipeline will connect Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, to the Bay of Bengal, passing through central Myanmar. Next year an oil pipeline will open the same route. Road and rail will follow.” Well, that pipeline is now finished. Little wonder that China views with dismay the budding signs of democracy taking root in a country which until very recently was led by an iron-fisted military. It was much easier to deal with a one-party system, where State-to-State deals were the norm of the day. Well, times have changed. And the rules of the game have changed too.
But have they changed so far as to tilt Myanmar towards the West? Or merely given its leadership a chance to play off one against the other? Institutionalisation of full democracy has a long way to go in Myanmar. The first cautious steps have been taken. Building of democratic institutions, holding of genuine elections, establishment of a true-multi party political system and an army that will uphold a constitution are all works in progress that will take years of political manoeuvring to achieve. Given China’s dominance over Myanmar over the preceding decade and a half, it is difficult to imagine a Myanmar without a significant Chinese presence.
The pipeline that has been built is more than just about tapping into the vast reserves of natural gas Myanmar possesses. As pointed out by the outgoing president Hu Jintao, China must find a way out of the “Malacca Dilemma.” Presently about 80% of the oil China imports from the Mid-East must pass through the Malacca strait — one that is very much under the control of the US navy. The new oil pipeline provides a way out of this. The deep sea port that has been built will berth the oil tankers and the pipeline will divert as much as a third of the total imports now passing through Malacca Straits. And the new gas pipeline that has an annual capacity of handling some 12billion cubic metres constituting approximately 28% of China’s total gas imports is the second lifesaver for the country.
It is natural for the Myanmar leadership to feel dwarfed by China. Over the decades, China has invested billions in every major conceivable infrastructure project, be it dams or mines. The West has responded overwhelmingly in the positive with the first signs of relaxation. It explains why the tilt towards the West was perhaps necessary. The release of political prisoners, cautious relaxation of the right to expression has been met with a return of aid agencies and technical assistance. Myanmar’s leadership ordering inquiry into alleged excesses committed by Chinese companies including seizure of land and causing damage to the ecology are warning signs for Beijing.
The writing is clear on the wall. At least it is for China. It must tread very carefully if it wishes to protect its investments in its neighbouring country. Indeed, a new line of thinking apparently is already on the cards. The move to engage affected communities by some of the largest Chinese state-owned companies to “publicly embrace Western-style corporate social responsibility practices toward the people who live near their vaunted projects” is seen as a damage-control effort to promote “social obligations of Chinese state-run corporations.” It will be highly interesting to see how the game is going to be played out among the tripartite leadership of Myanmar, China and the United States. One thing is clear beyond the shadow of a doubt. China will have to get its act together really fast in order to survive the new rules of the game.
The writer is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.
Source: The Daily Star