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By EDWARD WONG
Published: November 29, 2011
BEIJING — When Myanmar’s military leader, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, arrived here on Monday in a crisp tan uniform and a matching cap, he got a welcome from the very highest levels of the Chinese government.
Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to become China’s top leader in 2012, met with him, as did Gen. Chen Bingde, the chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army. General Chen told General Min Aung Hlaing, in the words of the state news agency Xinhua, that “bilateral relations have developed well through the joint efforts of both sides.”
In any given week, such meetings would have been quickly noted and just as quickly forgotten. But the visit by Myanmar’s top general has become a subject of conversation among scholars and journalists because it came just two days before Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to visit Myanmar, the first appearance there by an American diplomat of that rank in 56 years.
One Chinese scholar, Xu Liping from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said in an interview on Tuesday that although the general’s trip “does come at a sensitive time, the meetings are not closely linked to Hillary’s visit.” But another scholar, Mu Gengyuan of the Chinese Institute of International Studies, said the general’s arrival was “clearly an opportunity to reassure Beijing and communicate with Chinese leaders before Hillary’s arrival in Myanmar tomorrow.”
The attention paid to General Min Aung Hlaing’s visit reveals the importance that Chinese officials and scholars attach to the Obama administration’s policy of engagement with Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, and its potential effect on Myanmar’s relations with China. This nation is Myanmar’s biggest economic partner, and its influence in Myanmar has in recent years overshadowed India’s.
China’s interests in Myanmar include oil and natural gas pipelines that are under construction; access to the Indian Ocean; and the stability of border regions, where ethnic clashes have broken out between the Burmese military and guerrilla groups. Trade between China and Myanmar reached $5.3 billion last year, and China is the biggest foreign investor in Myanmar, with $15.8 billion in investments there.
Now, the Chinese are warily watching as the United States makes overtures toward Myanmar’s leaders.
“There is no doubt that many inside the Chinese establishment interpret it as part of a larger U.S. strategy on China,” said Mr. Xu, an expert on Southeast Asia. “It is another step taken by the U.S. to strengthen its presence in the region.”
Conservative voices in Chinese military and foreign policy circles now talk regularly about American attempts to hem in China, despite denials from American officials. On a trip through the region two weeks ago, President Obama announced he was sending 2,500 military personnel members to Australia. He also joined Asian leaders at a summit meeting in confronting Prime Minister Wen Jiabao over China’s expansive territorial claims to the South China Sea.
Thomas E. Donilon, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, wrote in an opinion article published on Sunday in The Financial Times that the United States intended to “maintain and enhance a strong network of allies and partners” in the Asia-Pacific region. Some Asian countries, Vietnam especially, have expressed concern over China’s growing clout. Myanmar has been more circumspect, even under the new government of President Thein Sein, who American officials say has signaled a tolerance for experimentation with political and economic reforms. But one action this year — the suspension by the Burmese government on Sept. 30 of a Chinese-financed, $3.6 billion dam project that had ignited popular protests — caught the attention of Chinese leaders.
Some Chinese officials and scholars contend that the Obama administration played a role in persuading Mr. Thein Sein to block the dam or even in stoking the protests. The administration has not acknowledged any involvement.
“The incident sends a clear signal to China,” said Ms. Mu, the scholar at the Chinese Institute of International Studies, which is linked to the Foreign Ministry. “With the U.S. strategy of refocusing on the region, it is already making inroads in Myanmar. It also acts as a reminder that the public diplomacy of China still leaves much to be desired.”
Ms. Mu said that China and Myanmar remained committed to strong ties, but that their relations had changed since the United States became more involved in the region.
“The Myanmar government exhibited a strong desire to amend its relationship with the U.S. and Europe probably out of fear of becoming over-reliant on China and turning into a vassal state of an increasingly powerful neighbor,” she said.
On Wednesday, as Mrs. Clinton traveled to Myanmar, the English-language edition of Global Times ran an editorial on U.S.-Myanmar relations that highlighted the Myitsone Dam fiasco and concluded with this: “China welcomes the opening-up of Myanmar, but firmly opposes it stepping on China’s interests.”
Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, an analyst in Beijing for the International Crisis Group, said there was a range of opinions in China on the American involvement in Myanmar. While many people examining the strategic aspects see efforts by the United States to encircle China, others view Myanmar’s desire to diversify its foreign relations and escape sanctions as a natural development. “On the economic side, there are businesspeople who think they will gain from Myanmar opening up to the rest of the world in terms of a better business environment,” she said.
Relations between the Chinese Communist Party and the Myanmar government, long run by a military dictatorship, have waxed and waned. In the 1960s, when China was trying to foment Cultural Revolution-style upheaval in Burma, people were suspicious of China, wrote Thant Myint-U, a scholar with a new book on modern Myanmar, “Where China Meets India.” Anti-Chinese riots broke out in June 1967. But in the 1990s, when much of the world tried to isolate Myanmar, China kept up relations.
“There is no special dislike of China or Chinese culture; dislike suggests a familiarity that is not there,” Mr. Thant Myint-U wrote. “Rather, there is a sense of the dangers of being next to an increasingly powerful and populous nation, whose internal wars and politics have time and again spilled over to wreak havoc on the much smaller country to the southwest.”
Li Bibo and Edy Yin contributed research.
A version of this article appeared in print on November 30, 2011, on page A10 of the New York edition with the headline: Suspicious of U.S. Outreach, China Is Stressing Ties With Myanmar.
- USCIRF Letter to Secretary Clinton regarding Burma – United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (press release)
- Secretary Clinton Travels to Burma – US Department of State (press release)
Secretary Clinton traveled to Nay Pyi Taw and Rangoon, Burma, from November 30 – December 2. This historic trip marks the first visit to Burma by a US Secretary of State in over a half a century. Secretary Clinton underscores the US commitment to a …