[Burma] as US interest wanes, China swoops in

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Date: Jul 20 2017 03:01:11
#alternate alternate alternate As U.S. Attention Wanes in Southeast Asia, China Woos Myanmar

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Asia Pacific

As U.S. Attention Wanes in Southeast Asia, China Woos Myanmar

By JANE PERLEZJULY 19, 2017
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Photo
Members of the rebel United Wa State Army at a ceremony in Poung Par Khem, Myanmar, in June. China made use of its ties to the group to bring
its leaders, and those of six other rebel groups, to a peace conference in May. Credit Ye Aung Thu/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar — When Myanmar’s leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, wanted to hold a peace conference to end her country’s long-burning
insurgencies, a senior Chinese diplomat went to work.

The official assembled scores of rebel leaders, many with longstanding connections to China, briefed them on the peace gathering and flew
them on a chartered plane to Myanmar’s capital. There, after being introduced to a beaming Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, they were wined and dined,
and sang rowdy karaoke late into the night.

A cease-fire may still be a long way off, but the gesture neatly illustrates how Myanmar, a former military dictatorship that the United
States worked hard to press toward democracy, is now depending on China to help solve its problems.

The pieces all fell into place for China: It wanted peace in Myanmar to protect its new energy investments, it had the leverage to press the
rebels and it found an opening to do a favor for Myanmar to deliver peace.

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China is now able to play its natural role in Myanmar in a more forceful way than ever before as the United States under the Trump
administration steps back from more than six years of heavy engagement in Myanmar, including some tentative contacts with some of the rebels.
The vacuum left by the United States makes China’s return all the easier.
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When Myanmar began to adopt democratic reforms in 2011, the Obama administration quickly reciprocated, loosening sanctions as part of a
broader effort to strengthen relationships with Southeast Asian nations as a bulwark against China’s rise.

As Myanmar’s relations with China cooled, the result of what many saw as heavy-handed intervention by Beijing, Barack Obama became, in 2012,
the first American president to visit the country. He came again in 2014, promoting stronger trade and security relations, and counted
Myanmar’s opening as a foreign policy coup.

But the United States did little to build on the new relationship, and now the tables have turned. As the Trump administration pays little
attention, China is exercising strategic and economic interests that come from geographic proximity, using deep pockets for building
billion-dollar infrastructure and activating ethnic ties with some of the rebel groups, all areas where the United States cannot compete.

“China wants to show: ‘We are doing our best at your behest,’” said Min Zin, executive director of the Institute for Strategy and Policy in
Myanmar, who attended the peace gathering in May. “As the United States recedes, Aung San Suu Kyi is relying more and more on China in
Myanmar and on the international stage.”
Photo
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Beijing in May. Since becoming Myanmar’s de facto leader last year, she has visited Beijing twice and passed on an
invitation to Washington. Credit Pool photo by Mark Schiefelbein

And not only Myanmar. Across Southeast Asia, China is energetically bringing nations into its orbit, wooing American friends and allies with
military hardware, infrastructure deals and diplomatic attention.

In the Philippines, an American ally, President Rodrigo Duterte is leaning strongly toward Beijing. The military government in Thailand,
another American ally, has bought submarines from China and, at China’s request, deported Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group that China accuses
of fomenting violence in China. In Malaysia, China is offering Prime Minister Najib Razak lucrative deals like high-speed train projects.

After the Obama administration made big gains in Myanmar, China’s president, Xi Jinping, was reported to have asked, “Who lost Myanmar?” The
message has gotten through, as China is now pushing on multiple fronts to bring the country back into its fold.

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Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi seems receptive. She has visited Beijing twice since becoming Myanmar’s de facto leader last year. In contrast, she
skipped an invitation from Washington to attend a conclave of Southeast Asian foreign ministers — she is also foreign minister of Myanmar —
organized by Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson.

China and Myanmar have also found common cause in their hard line on Muslims. At the United Nations several months ago, China blocked a
statement supported by the United States on the persecution of the Rohingya, the Muslim minority in Myanmar.

But nowhere is China’s effort to win over Myanmar clearer than as mediator in Myanmar’s ethnic civil wars, the mission Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi
says is dearest to her heart.

“I do believe that as a good neighbor China will do everything possible to promote our peace process,” she said during a visit to China last
year. “If you ask me what my most important aim is for my country, it is to achieve peace and unity among the different peoples of our
union.”

China is well positioned to help. Among the armed groups most resistant to peace talks are the United Wa State Army and the Kokang Army, both
of which have been tacitly supported by China for years in their battles with the Myanmar military.

The Wa, whose army is said to have 20,000 members, use Chinese currency in their autonomous region, where illegal narcotics are made and
exported into China. Two Wa arms factories produce weapons with the help of former Chinese Army officers, and the Wa have received Chinese
armored combat vehicles and tank destroyers, probably through Chinese middlemen, experts say.
Photo

China plans to build a $7.3 billion deep-sea port in the poor fishing town of Kyaukpyu, giving its navy a base on the Indian Ocean. But
residents say they have seen few benefits from a decade of Chinese pipeline construction. Credit Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

A third group, the Arakan Army, uses Chinese arms and vehicles provided by the Wa.

China’s special envoy for Asian affairs, Sun Guoxiang, brought the leaders of all three to the peace conference, as well as the leaders of
four other rebel groups, most of whom use Chinese weapons.

“China wants quiet in Myanmar,” said Maung Aung Myoe, an expert on the Myanmar military at the International University of Japan. “It hurts
their interests to have fighting because it disrupts China’s trade. China now owns the peace process. The Myanmar military knows that.”

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China has a particular interest in pressing the Arakan rebels to the peace table. They operate in the western state of Rakhine, where they
can wreak havoc with the Chinese-built pipelines that carry oil and natural gas from the Bay of Bengal to southern China. Keeping Rakhine
free of unrest may have also been a factor in China’s blocking the United Nations from issuing a statement on the allegations of atrocities
committed by Myanmar’s army there.

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The stakes are rising as a Chinese state-owned corporation negotiates final permissions to build a $7.3 billion deep-sea port at Kyaukpyu, a
port town in Rakhine that will give China highly prized access to the Indian Ocean.

Citic Construction of China is to start building the port early next year, having won the contract by covering 85 percent of the cost, said
Oo Maung, vice chairman of the Kyaukpyu special economic zone management committee. Citic also won the right to build a $3.2 billion
industrial park nearby, he said.

The port is a signature project of China’s global “One Belt, One Road” initiative, a $1 trillion global infrastructure campaign, which
ensured preferential financing, said Yuan Shaobin, vice chairman of Citic Construction.

The United States generally leaves construction projects and other investments abroad to private companies, and Myanmar, a frontier economy
fraught with risks, is considered an unattractive destination, said Mary P. Callahan, associate professor of international studies at the
University of Washington.

“American companies haven’t come because of the high price of land, and a difficult approval process,” she said. “The labor force is cheap
but not skilled.”

America’s loss may be China’s strategic gain. China’s ownership of the port — Citic will have the right to operate it for 50 years, with a
possible 25-year extension — hands Beijing a giant boost in its long-term plans for supremacy in the Indian Ocean, analysts said.
Photo

Construction was halted before it had barely begun on a Chinese-financed dam planned for the Irrawaddy River. Some in Myanmar suspect that
China is helping with the peace process to win approval for the dam. Credit Minzayar Oo for The New York Times

Once completed, “Kyaukpyu will be a Chinese naval base,” said Mr. Maung Aung Myoe, the military analyst. “China desperately needs access on
the eastern side of the Indian Ocean.”

China is already building Indian Ocean ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and it is seeking approval for one in Bangladesh.

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Some hurdles remain. Frustration with China roils the scruffy town of Kyaukpyu, among the poorest in Myanmar. After a decade of Chinese
pipeline construction in the area, ordinary people say they received few benefits. The schools built by China as part of a corporate
responsibility project were empty shells, they said.

“I got a few cents a day for digging the pipeline and about $250 for the five-year use of my land,” said Tun Aung Kyaw, 56, a farmer who was
walking to herd his six cows in bare feet, a thin tarpaulin tied across his bare chest to protect him from the monsoon rain.

Citic is aware of the hostility and is working with nongovernmental organizations in Kyaukpyu to avoid past mistakes, Mr. Yuan said. Citic
will train Myanmar workers for 3,000 jobs for the park and the port, he said.

China also faces suspicions among Myanmar’s politicians, many of whom opposed a Chinese-financed dam planned at Myitsone, on the Irrawaddy
River, to provide power to China. The previous government, yielding to public opposition, suspended the $3.6 billion project. Ms. Aung San
Suu Kyi’s government has appointed a commission to decide the dam’s fate.

A confidant of hers and a member of her political party, Mi Khun Chan, said China viewed aiding the peace process as part of the cost of
winning a green light for the dam.

For all the misgivings among her people about China, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi seems impressed with Beijing’s power to assist in peace.

Her father, Aung San, the leader of Burma after World War II, dreamed of a united country. He almost got there, presiding over an agreement
with ethnic leaders in 1947 for a federation of states. Six months later he was assassinated.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi wants to finish the job. “Our goal is the emergence of a democratic federal union based on democracy and federalism,”
she said at the opening of the peace conference.

For the moment, she has China at her side.

Wai Moe contributed reporting, and Yufan Huang contributed research.

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China Helps Aung San Suu Kyi With Peace Talks in Myanmar AUG. 20, 2016
*

Visiting Beijing, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi Seeks to Mend Relations AUG. 17, 2016
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‘There Are No Homes Left’: Rohingya Tell of Rape, Fire and Death in Myanmar JAN. 10, 2017
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Obama Pledges to Lift All Sanctions Against Myanmar SEPT. 14, 2016

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China Helps Aung San Suu Kyi With Peace Talks in Myanmar AUG. 20, 2016
2.

Visiting Beijing, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi Seeks to Mend Relations AUG. 17, 2016
3.

‘There Are No Homes Left’: Rohingya Tell of Rape, Fire and Death in Myanmar JAN. 10, 2017
4.

Obama Pledges to Lift All Sanctions Against Myanmar SEPT. 14, 2016

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