SINGAPORE/NAYPYIDAW – In China’s carefully choreographed diplomatic calendar, the itinerary of the president’s first overseas trip can send signals about his long-term strategic goals.
In 2017, Xi Jinping opened with a speech at the World Economic Forum defending globalization from criticism by U.S. President Donald Trump. A year earlier, he became the first major world leader to visit Iran after international sanctions were lifted. This year, Xi’s first state visit will be to conflict-torn Myanmar.
While the European Union and the U.S. have criticized Myanmar for what the United Nations has called genocidal acts against its minority Rohingya population, China, which often faces scrutiny over its own human rights record, is continuing its role as a vocal supporter.
Upon his arrival to the capital of Naypyidaw on Friday, Xi will meet with de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who last month defended Myanmar at the International Court of Justice in the Hague over accusations the country’s military had committed atrocities with “genocidal intent,” forcing more than 700,000 ethnic Muslims to flee across the Bangladesh border. Suu Kyi rejected the case brought by the Gambia as “incomplete and misleading” and said the exodus of civilians was caused by an ongoing internal armed conflict with insurgents.
The court is expected to deliver its findings on Jan. 23.
Xi is also set to meet Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, which the U.N. says is responsible for the atrocities. Last month, the U.S. Treasury Department placed sanctions on four Burmese military leaders, including Hlaing, for their roles in the alleged human rights abuses. Myanmar’s military has repeatedly denied committing atrocities against the Muslim minority.
“Our government believes that President Xi’s visit will take bilateral ties to the next level because we have agreed to sign some important agreements during his visit,” Than Myint, Myanmar’s minister of commerce, said by phone. “We are all excited about President Xi’s trip and this will truly become a significant milestone in the history of Myanmar.”
Last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held talks with Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw a day before she flew to the Netherlands. While there was no mention of the forthcoming trial in official statements, Wang stressed China had always “opposed interference in the internal affairs of other countries.”
Beijing has also urged the development of a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor as part of its pan-Eurasian Belt and Road Initiative, according to a ministry statement on Dec. 8. As the sole land bridge between two regional giants — India and China — Myanmar has the potential to tap into global supply chains.
With Western businesses hesitant to bankroll projects in Myanmar due to the crisis, the nation has increasingly turned to its northern neighbor to fill the gap. In the first 11 months of 2019 investment from China reached $20.9 billion, accounting for 25.21 percent of all foreign direct investment, second only to Singapore, according to government data.
But more than just money, a relationship with China can also provide Myanmar with diplomatic protection should the UN Security Council decide to take action.
“At a time when Myanmar does not have many international friends, the trip is significant,” said Lee Morgenbesser, a senior lecturer at Griffith University’s School of Government and International Relations in Australia, who has written extensively on democratization in Southeast Asia. “China might be compelled to use its veto power to protect Myanmar from an arms embargo or trade sanctions.”
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui said on Friday Beijing would support talks with Dhaka for the repatriation of Rohingya refugees living in squalid camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. And as China seeks to expand its global trade routes, Luo said both sides plan to discuss further economic cooperation during Xi’s visit.
Beijing is also supporting Myanmar in less direct ways: Chinese tourist arrivals increased 150 percent in 2019 when compared with 2018, Naung Naung Han, president of the Union of Myanmar Travel Association and vice chairman of Myanmar Tourism Federation, said.
Still, Myanmar is unlikely to jump fully into China’s camp. As recently as 2018, Myanmar scaled down a Chinese-led deep-water port project in Kyaukpyu along the coast of the Bay of Bengal for fear of falling into debt, bringing the cost down from $7.2 billion to $1.3 billion, Monywa Aung Shin, a spokesman for the ruling National League for Democracy Party said by phone Wednesday.
“The NLD government usually reviews the progress of mega projects to reduce people’s concern over the Chinese projects,” he said.
Xi’s visit comes at a time when Myanmar is overly reliant on China for diplomatic protection and foreign investment, now that relations with the West have become strained, said Richard Horsey, a Myanmar-based political analyst and adviser to the International Crisis Group.
“Given deep suspicions in Myanmar about China’s intentions and the risks of becoming too tightly bound to its giant neighbor, Naypyidaw will be reluctant to be seen to capitulate too much to Chinese demands — particularly in an election year,” Horsey said.
Sharing a 2,200-km (1,360-mile) border, China also has an interest in seeing Myanmar resolve decades-long internal armed conflicts between security forces, ethnic groups and hundreds of militias that often spill over into Chinese territory.
A flagship issue for Suu Kyi during the last general elections in 2015, there has been little progress in peace talks while a nationwide cease-fire has remained elusive, the International Crisis Group said.
“China’s direct or indirect influence over these enormously complex, lucrative, as well as bloody uplands is what consumes Myanmar thinking, far more than the broader geopolitics,” Thant Myint U, author of “The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century,” wrote in an email.
“Myanmar simply cannot say no to China if it wants peace in the country,” he said. “Yet it knows that Chinese influence, already potent, can quickly become overwhelming.”