Myanmar has been drawn into the sphere of influence of its superpower neighbour – China – advancing the Chinese geostrategic interests through the so-called “Guanxi” diplomacy as Western powers retreat from the country, a local think tank has said in a report.
The Institute of Strategy and Policy (ISP)-Myanmar said in a report released in Yangon on Sunday.
The report comes at a time when Myanmar faces immense international pressure on its handling of the northern Rakhine State crisis, in which over 650,000 Muslims fled to neighbouring Bangladesh after deadly violence last year and the year before.
ISP-Myanmar, a non-government policy and strategy think tank group that publishes Myanmar Quarterly journal, said in the report that diplomatic relations between Myanmar and China have deepened under the ruling NLD government, with increasing multi-layered Chinese engagement with diverse stakeholders in Myanmar through what is known as “Guanxi” diplomacy.
Guanxi is a deep-rooted ideology in Chinese society that emphasises cultural dynamics based on personalised networks of influence, which ISP-M officials said encompass soft power diplomacy – not just to promote the Chinese image.
“It asks the question whom you know. And based on that, it’s a calculated enhancement of building ties. It’s more than soft power diplomacy, not just to clean the Chinese image,” said Daw Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee, head of the China desk at ISP-M, the main author of the report.
“It’s giving favour to the ones who can serve your long-term interests,” she said.
Before 2010, the three pillars of Myanmar-China relations were engaging with the military regime, international pressure on the then-ruling military junta and Myanmar’s economic dependence on China.
But the pillars have now changed as a new political landscape developed in Myanmar following some political reforms initiated by the military junta after 2010, with new players coming in and increased international attention and interest on the country.
The reforms created anti-Chinese sentiment in terms of strategic investments in Myanmar as more countries slowly began to pour in investments and aid to the country.
The report noted that the introduction of the Chinese multi-layered engagement strategy has pulled Myanmar closer into China’s sphere of influence, especially after the country came in for intense international criticism over Rakhine last year.
While the West has always taken a values-based approach to Myanmar, China remains a staunch defender against possible threats of intervention from the international community on the Rakhine crisis.
But the report noted that with its support for Myanmar’s peace process, foreign investment and diplomatic protection from international criticism, China will not likely give Myanmar a blank check.
“It’s likely that China will bring Myanmar back into its sphere of influence and pursue its geo-strategic and economic interests through the Belt and Road Initiative,” said the report, highlighting the potential of China-financed mega projects in Myanmar.
It also imposes an influence on Myanmar’s peace process, which is a top priority of the NLD government. For instance, the Chinese government’s facilitation paved the way for the attendance of a powerful bloc of armed ethnic groups that operates along the China-Myanmar border.
“It is better if players in Myanmar can handle the peace process on their own instead of allowing China to become part of it,” said the ISP official.
Also, with the NLD leadership failing so far to impress the public in economic growth, Myanmar’s dire need for foreign investment in infrastructure is creating a situation for China to take a bigger role and exercise more influence on the country’s economic development.
“China also wants Myanmar’s support in its domestic and international affairs. One such thing includes its territorial claim in the South China Sea,” Daw Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee said.
The author said China wants the easing out of local aggression and to gain support and possible willingness to share the governance and economic development model by which Myanmar’s neighbour has succeeded.
“As Myanmar increasingly embraces China, there is a potential that Myanmar’s political and economic reforms could lead toward a Myanmar version of democracy with Chinese characteristics,” said the report.