Xi Jinping Left China for Myanmar at Peak of Coronavirus Crisis

Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses a gathering at Soltee Hotel in Kathmandu, Nepal, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. Xi on Saturday became the first Chinese president in more than two decades to visit Nepal, where he's expected to sign agreements on some infrastructure projects. (Bikash Dware/The Rising Nepal via AP)
Bikash Dware/The Rising Nepal via AP

Chinese dictator Xi Jinping was conspicuously invisible during the worst periods of the coronavirus epidemic in January, earning him as much criticism as his authoritarian regime would allow from its subjects, who accused him of everything from poor leadership to cowardice.

Xi’s travel plans during January took him to Myanmar, which he has been working to bring closer to China ever since the West recoiled in disappointment and horror from Myanmar’s abuse of the Rohingya Muslims.

Chinese officials notified the public of the growing coronavirus outbreak in central Wuhan on January 20. Chinese Communist Party officials told the World Health Organization (WHO) about the outbreak at the beginning of the month and shut down the wild meat market previously believed to be the origin of the virus on January 1, suggesting behind-the-scenes attempts to contain the outbreak throughout the month.

Voice of America News (VOA) on Wednesday judged that Xi’s plan to beat a path to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar made progress during Xi’s visit, the first time a Chinese leader has visited in almost 20 years:

Whether China’s coming spending splurge spells boom or bust for threadbare Myanmar — and peace or more war for its restive fringes — remains a worry.

A pair of Chinese-built oil and gas pipelines already bisect Myanmar, from Kyaukphyu on the country’s Bay of Bengal coastline to its border with China’s landlocked Yunnan province. As part of Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor would add a rail link to the route, an industrial park along their shared border and — most critically, and controversially — a deep sea port at Kyaukphyu to anchor it all.

“For China I think it’s very important. This plays into their need to build new economic corridors that can sustain the landlocked Chinese interior … Yunnan province being quite a sort of backward province in terms of its development,” said Hervé Lemahieu, director of the Asian Power and Diplomacy Program at Australia’s Lowy Institute, a research group.

“And it’s important as well in terms of the fact that they want access, direct access to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean via a route that bypasses the choke point of the Malacca Strait. So that’s another kind of key strategic concern.”

Nearly a third of the world’s seaborne trade passes through the strait connecting the Indian Ocean to the hotly contested South China Sea — including some 80% of China’s energy imports. The narrow waterway, which the U.S. Navy regularly patrols, would be easy to cut off in the event of a fight.

Myanmar is one of several Southeast Asian nations China seeks to incorporate into an economic and political federation through its Belt and Road (BRI) infrastructure program. Access to the Indian Ocean could make Myanmar one of the most important BRI prizes, but there have been some setbacks, including public resistance to expensive port and hydroelectric dam projects that looked an awful lot like debt traps. 

The port project is still happening, although its scale has been reduced, but the hydroelectric dam initiative is in such bad shape that Xi did not even mention it publicly during his visit. Myanmar might already be debt trapped, as China holds almost half of its public debt and has purchased a great deal of political clout with investments across the country. 

As with other Belt and Road targets such as Kenya, critics in Myanmar complain that China brings in Chinese labor to handle much of the work, leaving few jobs for the locals. In Myanmar’s case, hiring the locals could be problematic, because quite a few of them are armed insurgents:

Myanmar’s military has been waging war with an ever-evolving cast of ethnic armed groups on the country’s edges for six decades. Some operate as little more than armed gangs. Others, vying for autonomy from a central government they accuse of ignoring minority rights, have carved out pockets of self-rule. The corridor cuts straight through a swath of northeastern Myanmar just across from China where ethnic Kachin, Shan and Ta’ang rebels are all active.

Illicit border trade in timber, gems and much else has helped sustain the strongest of these rebel armies, giving China substantial sway over which way the peace talks turn.

As one analyst pointed out, the Chinese could end up hiring insurgents from rival groups to work as security on Belt and Road projects, which would not be good for the security of either BRI or Myanmar.

Of course, there is a coronavirus angle to China’s relationship with Myanmar. To date, 154 citizens of Myanmar have returned to their own country, with assistance from its embassy in Beijing, to avoid the epidemic. A large number of illegal immigrants from Myanmar live and work in China, and some have expressed a desire to return until the virus threat has receded.

The Diplomat thought Xi’s visit marked a decisive turn away from the United States and toward China for Myanmar – actually something of a return to the status quo from the Nineties, when China provided diplomatic cover for the ruling military junta. 

Among the junta’s many offenses against international sensibilities was the long imprisonment of political activist and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who became Myanmar’s leader when it transitioned from military rule to (limited) democracy and then horrified her former supporters and admirers by countenancing a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.

The military, which retains outsized influence over Myanmar’s politics, is now one of the more skeptical parties regarding Chinese influence, in part because Beijing flirted with supporting insurgent groups during the latter years of the junta’s rule. 

China can win over most of Myanmar’s political elite by offering the same gruesome deal it extends to all of its prospective clients: loads of investment and financial support, including lavish payouts to the elite, without any of the moral scruples imposed by the Western world. The Chinese Communist overlords who herded a million Uyghur Muslims into concentration camps, and are currently selling the re-educated Uyghurs as slave labor, aren’t going to lose any sleep over what happens to the Rohingya or raise principled objections to the tactics Myanmar’s government employs against insurgent militias.

“Since the alienation of the West over the Rohingya issue, China has seen a new opening and a new opportunity in this, and they are more able to have their say in Naypyidaw and push their line there,” National Democratic Institute president and former U.S. special envoy Derek Mitchell told Foreign Policy. Naypyidaw is the capital of Myanmar.

“[The Chinese] use it as an opportunity to invest, whether through the Belt and Road or the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, or the peace process – those are all different ways to ensure that Burma remains in its sphere of influence,” Mitchell said.

The government of Myanmar made this fairly explicit in February when they warned Western pressure over human rights violations would push them inexorably into China’s waiting arms.

“The more sanctions Western countries impose on us, the more likely that is to boost our ties with our Asian alliances. We’ve opened the door to everyone,” Commerce Minister Than Myint said.

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