HONG KONG — China is eager to reaffirm its traditional political and military ties with Burma amid escalating conflicts in the South China Sea, experts say, as the Burmese president prepares for his first official bilateral talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
President Thein Sein will join Xi as well as India’s vice president in the Chinese capital on Saturday to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, a set of principles that governs relations between the three countries.
Thein Sein, who will arrive on Friday, is making his third state visit to China—and his second state visit since Xi was sworn into office last year. The two presidents, who met during a multilateral forum in China in April last year, will hold their first official bilateral talks during the four-day visit, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, which said Thein Sein would also meet with China’s prime minister and top legislator, in addition to visiting the ancient
capital of Luoyang in central China’s Henan Province.
Compared with previous Chinese leaders, Xi is widely seen as more aggressively pushing China’s agenda abroad. Under his presidency, tensions with Japan and other neighboring nations have escalated to record highs amid heated territorial disputes. Xi, who has launched China’s biggest anti-graft campaign in decades, is also cracking down on Internet speech, raising doubts about his commitment to political reforms.
When it comes to Burma, experts say the Chinese president, who was sworn into office last year, is attempting to maintain the two countries’ traditional “paukphaw,” or fraternal, relationship.
However, Burma, China and India are facing new challenges in adhering to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, an agreement in 1954 to observe mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.
Bryan Pak-nung Wong, a Hong Kong-based academic focused on international politics, said he believes China wants to make Burma a go-between with India, to ensure that the Indian Ocean sea lanes, the Kyaupyu-Kunming oil pipelines, and the economic and energy corridor across Burma are not disturbed.
“Instead of dealing with India by itself, China has chosen to delegate Myanmar [Burma] as a go-between to warm up the relationship with India, especially now that the whole world is watching how the newly elected Indian President Modi will deal with India’s relatively sensitive relationships with China and other South Asian small states,” Wong said. “Leaving Myanmar to deal with the Sino-India relationship would serve as a cushioned go-between in case any unexpected problems emerge.”
He said Chinese leaders may also seek to address persistent concerns about drug-trafficking, ethnic conflicts and illicit businesses in northern Burma’s Kachin State, which have created problems for China as well as India, including an influx of refugees over the borders and threats to the security of energy projects.
Despite these problems, experts believe China-Burma ties are stronger than either country’s relations with India.
“[China’s] relationship with Pakistan is still more important [than its relations with India], making it impossible for China and India to build political trust,” said Tao Duanfang, a prominent Canadian commenter on international affairs.
Thein Sein also has reasons to build closer ties with its biggest neighbor to the north.
Last month, the United States extended its limited economic sanctions on Burma, despite some progress on reforms. “The political opening remains nascent, and concerns persist regarding ongoing conflict and human rights abuses in ethnic minority areas, particularly in Rakhine [Arakan] State, and the continued role of the military in the country’s political and economic activities,” US President Barack Obama said in a letter to leaders of Congress.
Zhu Lvmin, a Chinese academic focused on China and Southeast Asia, believes Burma needs to “catch the eye of the US” by exploring closer military and political ties with China, in a “balance of power strategy.”
“Thein Sein may be testing the US to see how the partnership between the United States and Myanmar goes, and sending a warning by coming a bit closer to China,” said Zhu, “The government also wants to seek support from China’s side, as Myanmar’s national election, scheduled for next year, is just around the corner.”
Although the former Burmese junta benefited from China’s military and political support, Wong said Burma has seen the short end of the stick economically in the bilateral relationship. “It is therefore reasonable for Thein Sein to visit China to ensure Myanmar’s political and military ties with China, while also building economic and trade ties with the West and other major investor countries, including Japan and India.”