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China's moves to win friends and influence people in Myanmar

China's moves to win friends and influence people in Myanmar

In his recent conversation with Sam Roggeveen, Lord Michael Williams made some insightful comments on Aung San Suu Kyi's recent visit to China, suggesting it showed that Beijing was prepared to publicly recognise the importance of other political figures and parties in Myanmar while also sending a message that it was willing to move away from the Myanmar Government.

Street scene from Sittwe, capital of Rakhine State, Myanmar. (Flickr/dany13.)

As others have pointed out, China is likely well aware that it needs to be prepared for when old political allies are replaced by new, unfamiliar faces. In fact, for some time now, Beijing has forged closer ties with Myanmar's smaller political parties. Of particular interest is China's growing engagement with political groups in Rakhine State. 

In 2014, a group of party delegates from Myanmar, including members of the Rakhine National Party (RNP), visited China at the invitation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). And in April this year, a delegation comprised solely of RNP members also traveled to China to discuss 'the development of Rakhine State and its people'. Subsequently, an RNP spokesperson claimed there would be further cooperation between the two parties, including a visit by a CCP delegation to Rakhine in May and then, later in the year, an RNP-organised visit to China comprising selected Rakhine youth leaders.

So why is China engaging with political parties like the RNP?

After the National League for Democracy (NLD) boycotted the 2010 elections, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) remained the dominant political party in Myanmar going into the current transition period. This provided some reassurance to Beijing that most of the older leadership (whom China had dealt with) would remain in the new government, albeit mainly as civilians. 

But the outcome of the 2015 elections is less predictable.  [fold]

There are claims China's influence is waning, especially with major projects being suspended or creating bad publicity. There are also reports of growing anti-China sentiment and even official tensions rising from Myanmar's inadvertent bombing of Chinese territory during recent fighting in Kokang.

China has made considerable investments in Rakhine State, situated on Myanmar's west coast, including offshore oil and gas concessions and the development of the deep sea port in Kyaukpyu, which is also the start point for the Myanmar-China oil and gas pipelines. China has reasons to be concerned about its investments. These projects have been subject to increasing local and international pressure and criticism, including targeted protests, and there are calls for Rakhine State to receive a larger share of revenue from energy and extractive projects in the region.

In short, developing relationships beyond the ruling USDP allows Beijing to build influence on various levels and in different ethnic regions. Building close relations with the RNP is a logical starting point.

The RNP is the dominant ethnic political party in Rakhine State. It formed from the merger of two local (ethnic) political parties: the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) and the Arakan League for Democracy. In the 2010 elections, the RNDP won a majority of the electable seats in the Rakhine regional parliament as well as several seats in the Amothya and Pyithu Hluttaws (the upper and lower houses of parliament).

The RNP also has high hopes for the 2015 elections, aiming to win a majority in the state parliament as well as all available seats in the Amyotha and Pyithu Hluttaws. And there are reports that the RNP may form allegiances with other ethnic groups to ensure greater influence in parliament and developments in Rakhine State. While the RNDP was unable to influence the appointment of the regional chief minister, as this position is currently appointed by the president, the leader of the RNP, U Aye Maung, has said he wants to become the next chief minister of Rakhine State.

China's relationship with groups like the RNP will be particularly useful if (or when) the USDP becomes a much weaker player in Myanmar politics, or if the Union Government devolves more autonomy and power to regional governments. Such a move was proposed recently in a formal submission to change the constitution, but the actual amount of power that would be devolved is open to question.

If there were significant crises or threats to China's assets, it is highly likely that the Union Government would step in. But winning over local political groups such as the RNP could help to avoid this kind of disruption before it occurs. And as part of its strategy to keep those it sees as influential (or even a threat) onside, China has also avoided involvement in Myanmar's Rohingya issues, which many local Arakan are likely view as 'interference'. 

Beyond ensuring protection for its investments, such moves may also create favourable conditions for new ventures. In light of reports of China's strategic interest in the Indian Ocean, this may include using the ports in Kyaukpyu as logistical support for its naval fleet and Chinese maritime activities in this region in the years to come.

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