CHINA TOPIX

Updated 2:12 PM EST, Wed, Jan 29, 2020

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Sino-Burmese Ties to Improve as New Parliament Takes Power

Burmese Parliament

(Photo : Getty Images/Paula Bronstein) The massive Myanmar Parliament building is seen surrounded by high gates and wide 10 lane roads in this photo taken in the Myanmar capital, Naypyidaw.

China and Myanmar are likely to begin mending frayed ties this year as a parliament dominated by Aung  San Suu Kyi's political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), takes charge over Naypyidaw for the first time after winning the general elections last November.

Sino-Burmese relations have deteriorated under Myanmar's outgoing president Thein Sein,  who began distancing the country from China in favor of closer ties with the US and Japan as soon as he took power in 2011.  

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In February last year, fierce fighting broke out between the Tamadtaw -- Myanmar's armed forces -- and the Kokang, an ethnic minority group rumored to have deep and long-standing connections with the Chinese military. When stray Burmese bombs killed eight Chinese civilians in southwestern China, Beijing angrily ordered live-fire military drills near the Myanmar border.

The incident soured relations between the two former allies, and added to the already simmering distrust that attended their diplomatic exchanges.

Quiet Overtures

But analysts say the bitterness in recent Sino-Burmese relations will probably give way to a renewal of ties in the months ahead, thanks mainly to good old-fashioned political foresight and deft diplomacy on the part of Beijing.

In the past years, China has made quiet overtures toward high-ranking members of the Myanmar opposition, including Nobel Laureate Suu Kyi, who met with China's President Xi Jinping during a visit to Beijing in June last year.   Some observers have suggested that Beijing may have foreseen the opposition's victory in Myanmar's 2015 elections, and has been building the foundations for improved relations with Naypyidaw.     

The Financial Times attributes China's resurgent interest in Myanmar to a growing competition with Japan for strategic influence over the country, which commands a key trade route to the Bay of Bengal.  Then there is also a strong desire among Beijing's policymakers to demonstrate to the world the progress of China's "One Belt, One Road" program.

Speculation aside, however, the pro-democracy icon Suu Kyi -- who many agree will play a dominant role in the future of Burmese politics -- will have to confront huge challenges in managing Myanmar's dealings with its neighbor to the northeast.

Peace, Progress and Pragmatism

In an article for the New York Times, veteran journalist Jane Perlez notes that many people in Myanmar still see China as a heavy-handed neighbor interested only in building oil pipelines and extracting timber and jade from their country.  Suu Kyi risks antagonizing this fairly large section of Burmese society should she appear too keen to accommodate China's quiet offer of renewed partnership. 

The Tamadtaw, too, constitute another -- perhaps even more serious -- concern.  

Policy expert and writer Min Zin says Burmese military and intelligence officials blame Beijing for much of the unrest and rebellion among the heavily-armed ethnic armies in northern Myanmar, including the Kokang. 

Any improvement in the relationship between Naypyidaw and Beijing therefore puts the Tamadtaw's still powerful generals -- who retain control over key cabinet portfolios and 25 percent of Myanmar's parliament -- in an awkward position.

Even so, Myanmar's northern ethnic tribes are of Chinese descent, and the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) is said to exercise enormous influence among their leaders. 

This has led some analysts to speculate that the Chinese government will -- at one point in the next few months -- dangle the possibility of a ceasefire with the rebel groups in exchange for the NLD's much-needed cooperation. 

These same analysts say Suu Kyi -- who has, in her role as a politician, proved to be a consummate pragmatist -- is likely to seize the opportunity for peace with the northern tribes.  Myanmar's generals are unlikely to oppose such a deal, so long as the NLD consults them first.

Myanmar needs peace if it wants to build an economy that actually works, and most analysts agree that is precisely the kind of support that China is best positioned to provide   

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