Policy Paper

China’s Strategic Misjudgement on Myanmar

By Yun Sun
in Program

Below is an excerpt from “China’s Strategic Misjudgement on Myanmar,” from the Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 31:1 (2012).

2011 marked a year of significant setbacks for China’s relationship with Myanmar. The rapid changes in Myanmar’s domestic politics brought serious challenges to both China’s existing interests in the country and its strategic planning for the future. Early in the year, after the March inauguration of the new Myanmar government, China possessed a well-developed strategic blueprint for its relations with its south western neighbour. Key elements of this blueprint – border stability, energy transportation, and economic cooperation – remained China’s basic considerations in Myanmar. Beijing, however, began to envision and foster an additional layer of strategic cooperation based on the traditional fraternal friendship and economic ties between the two nations. This additional diplomatic aspiration was manifested during the visit by the No. 4 military leader of China’s Central Military Commission six weeks after the inauguration of Thein Sein’s government, as well as through the establishment of a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” two weeks later. “Coincidentally,” during the same time period, Yunnan province launched the “bridgehead campaign” aimed at turning Yunnan and Myanmar into China’s bridgehead into the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, as reciprocation for China’s long-term diplomatic support, China solicited Myanmar’s endorsement of its positions on regional multilateral forums (especially the ASEAN), most notably on the issue of the South China Sea.

Since August, however, a series of events has frustrated China’s Myanmar aspirations. The suspension of the controversial Myitsone Dam project and the rapid improvement of Myanmar’s relationship with the West, especially with the United States, fundamentally shook Beijing’s previous understanding of Myanmar as one of China’s “few loyal friends” and rocked the foundation of its strategic blueprint. As a result, China is carefully recalibrating its expectations about Myanmar and, subsequently, adjusting its policies and commitments.

The setbacks China has encountered are deeply rooted in several strategic misjudgements about post-election Myanmar. From prior to the November 2010 elections until the announcement of the Myitsone Dam suspension, the Myanmar policy circle in China believed the elections would prompt no fundamental change in Myanmar’s domestic politics. China underestimated the democratic momentum encouraged then tolerated by the former military officials, along with their willingness to adapt and change. In China’s perspective, privileged military rulers would never give up their power willingly, and the new civilian government would be only marginally and negligibly different from the old junta. Secondly, China mistakenly regarded the U.S. engagement as failed and thought that it had ended after the 2010 elections, when Washington pronounced those elections as “neither free nor fair.” Most Chinese policy analysts believed that Myanmar had embarked on a long path of slow political changes and economic reforms conducive to China’s economic and strategic endeavours in the country. Last, but not least, China overestimated its political and economic influence in Myanmar and underestimated the anti-China sentiment of the local people, which led to a rather blind confidence in China’s policy towards Myanmar and the concomitant failures of 2011. 

The paper is available here

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