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Burma-China: Another dam puzzle (part 1)

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1 November 2011 12:46

Andrew Selth is a Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute.

Over the past 20 years, Burma has developed a close relationship with China. It thus came as a shock when President Thein Sein announced in late September that he had suspended construction of the massive Myitsone dam in northern Burma.

China's public response was low key, but the decision clearly upset Beijing, which had already invested heavily in the project and stood to benefit most from it. The Burmese president claimed that he was responding to the popular mood in Burma, where there is reportedly widespread concern about the dam and its consequences.

Given Naypyidaw's record, however, this explanation was unconvincing, leading to widespread speculation about the real reasons for the decision, and the future of the bilateral relationship. After the failure of the 1988 uprising, Burma was ostracised by the West, which imposed economic and other sanctions against the new military government. Largely as a result, the generals turned to China, which was prepared to provide Burma with loans, technical assistance, arms, trade goods and diplomatic support.

Burma has since balanced this relationship with other foreign links; for example, it joined ASEAN in 1997. The unprecedented closeness of the two countries, however, and groundless rumours about a Chinese military presence in Burma, has led some observers to label Burma a Chinese client state.

China has never exercised the kind of influence in Burma that has often been claimed. Indeed, it has been careful not to upset its notoriously prickly southern neighbour. It could even be argued that, in some respects, Burma has exercised the whip hand in the relationship, by exploiting its critical geostrategic position and possession of precious natural resources.

Even so, successive Burmese governments have recognised that a close friendship with China serves the country's national interests, and have tried to maintain an amicable relationship. Burma still relies on China's protection in the UN Security Council. This makes Thein Sein's suspension of the Myitsone project even more surprising.

So what might the reasons be for Thein Sein's decision? A number of possible explanations present themselves, which will be examined in a follow-up post.

Photo by Flickr user Uriel Akira.

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