Xi's New Year visit to Myanmar: A milestone in bilateral relations
Updated 14:05, 16-Jan-2020
Ji Xianbai and Liu Bojian

Editor's Note: Ji Xianbai is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Liu Bojian is a research assistant at the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore. The article reflects the authors' opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

Marking the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Myanmar, Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Myanmar on January 17 and 18. It will be the first visit to Myanmar by a Chinese leader in nearly 20 years and Xi's first major foreign trip in 2020. The visit is indicative of China's latest foreign policy priority, which is to maintain good relations with its southern neighbors under its Periphery Diplomacy policy.

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi chose China as her first overseas visit in 2016 after the National League for Democracy won the election, and confirmed from day one that China is an indispensable economic and diplomatic partner of Myanmar. Additionally, when it comes to mediating inter-ethnic conflicts within Myanmar, China has a balanced three-point plan (of de-escalation, repatriation and development assistance) to ease the Rohingya crisis.

By contrast, U.S.-Myanmar relations under the Trump administration have been adrift. Trump imposed renewed economic sanctions on Myanmar in 2019, in effect undoing the rapprochement with Myanmar during the Obama era. At the regional level, the Indo-Pacific strategy espoused by Trump is not accompanied by any concrete economic pillars (like the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the context of the erstwhile Asia Pivot) and therefore not attractive as seen by many countries in Southeast Asia including Myanmar.

Trucks carrying goods from Myanmar line up to enter China via ports in Ruili, southwest China's Yunnan Province. /CGTN Photo

Trucks carrying goods from Myanmar line up to enter China via ports in Ruili, southwest China's Yunnan Province. /CGTN Photo

During the upcoming visit, President Xi will probably discuss with the leadership in Myanmar about the longstanding Myanmar-Bangladesh border disputes. While Beijing's approach to the disputes has to be restrained, cautious and in line with the non-intervention principle, China has huge stakes in the peaceful resolution of the issue. Both Myanmar and Bangladesh are key partners for China's proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In particular, China wants to see its investments in Kyaukpyu on the Bay of Bengal near the conflicted border area succeed.

As part of the BRI, China and Myanmar had agreed to jointly develop an oil and gas pipeline from Kyaukpyu to Yunnan and a deep-sea port with a surrounding industrial special economic zone in Kyaukpyu. The pipeline project went on well, transporting energy into China while creating jobs and tax revenue for Myanmar from 2013.

President Xi's visit to Myanmar will reassure the country of China's commitment to the economic development of Myanmar and its peaceful thinking behind the entire Kyaukpyu endeavor. More broadly, Xi's trip is likely to speed up the realization of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor as an interim step towards building a Bangladesh-China-Myanmar-India (BCIM) Economic Corridor to accomplish railway connectivity and freer flow of goods and services from Kunming to Kolkata and vice versa. The case for win-win cooperation is strong as Myanmar will benefit as a land-bridge between the booming Chinese and Indian economies. Therefore, it is also in Myanmar's best self-interest to support the BCIM corridor and the BRI at large.

China is reaching out to Myanmar proactively at the start of 2020. Hopefully, Myanmar will return the favor by cooperating more closely with China and pushing forward financially bankable and locally empowering BRI projects in Myanmar more resolutely.

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