[After years of encouraging the armed groups, China wants to end the prolonged fighting. The lawlessness created by that conflict has allowed the illegal jade and timber trade, worth billions of dollars, to flourish, but it has also made legitimate commerce across China’s southern border with Myanmar almost impossible.]
By Jane Perlez and Wai Moe
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar in Beijing on Thursday. China has persuaded
rebel groups to join a peace conference she is convening this month.
Credit Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press
BEIJING — As Myanmar’s leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, met this past week with Chinese officials during her five-day visit here, China helped arrange a gift for her back home, a reminder that it wants to make itself Myanmar’s new best friend.
Since assuming power this year, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has said her major goal is to end 70 years of civil war with ethnic minorities seeking greater autonomy. The gift, announced Thursday, was a letter signed by three well-armed and stubborn ethnic rebel groups with ties to China that declared their intention to join a peace conference she will convene this month.
“I do believe that as a good neighbor China will do everything possible to promote our peace process,” Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi said at a news conference here on Friday. “If you ask me what my most important aim is for my country, that is to achieve peace and unity among the different peoples of our union. Without peace there can be no sustained development.”
But China was not acting out of altruism when it nudged the groups to join the peace talks.
After years of encouraging the armed groups, China wants to end the prolonged fighting. The lawlessness created by that conflict has allowed the illegal jade and timber trade, worth billions of dollars, to flourish, but it has also made legitimate commerce across China’s southern border with Myanmar almost impossible.
Once peace comes, China plans to build roads and railways across northern Myanmar to the Bay of Bengal, a short cut to supplement the recently built oil and gas pipelines that would bolster trade from the Middle East by avoiding the South China Sea. China also has other projects in mind to knit Myanmar into its orbit.
As an indicator of that interest, the Chinese president of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Jin Liqun, met with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi on Friday.
But China is not the only player in Myanmar with plans for new relationships and investments after decades of corrupt military governments. The United States was the handmaiden to the successful election in November, when Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won in a landslide. She is scheduled to visit the White House next month, an invitation intended to confirm the legacy of President Obama’s role in Myanmar’s transition from authoritarian rule to a fledgling democracy.
Washington, facing widespread popular sentiment against nation building, no longer pays for major projects abroad, except through the World Bank and other international financial institutions.
American corporations have been reluctant to invest in Myanmar; although the Treasury Department lifted an array of sanctions a few months ago, others were tightened on some major companies in Myanmar.
That means that China has an opportunity to play a major role as a builder in Myanmar, a nation strategically placed between India, China and Southeast Asia and with access to the Indian Ocean.
But the United States is not completely out of the picture, analysts say. They note that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is working to cultivate ties with both Washington and Beijing as foreign minister, one of the many posts she holds as the country’s de facto leader.
“China sees everything in a transactional way to help themselves,” said Hans W. Vriens, a managing partner of Vriens & Partners, a corporate advisory company that specializes in Myanmar. “Its expectations may be too high. Aung San Suu Kyi is rebalancing with China, but they’re not going to move away from the United States. Washington was a very, very big role in the whole transformation to democracy and will remain so under her.”
The Obama administration is not opposed to China’s role in resolving the fighting between the myriad ethnic groups and the army, Mr. Vriens said.
An end to the wars in the border region where the groups influenced by China operate is in the interests of the United States and its ally Japan, which has made Myanmar a major destination for its foreign aid and corporate investment, he said. Japanese government experts are helping Myanmar’s ministries draw up plans for urban renewal and transportation routes.
On Thursday, three armed groups that had refused to attend the peacemaking gathering, called the Panglong Conference, said they were willing to be there on Aug. 31. All of them — the Kokang group, the Arakan Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army — receive backing from across the border in China.
The Kokang, an ethnic Chinese group, used southern China as a haven for tens of thousands of refugees last year during fierce fighting with the Myanmar Army.
In a reversal, the Kokang’s leader, Peng Jiasheng, 85, said in a recent letter that he welcomed Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s overtures. “I believe the full stream of history will go ahead,” he wrote.
And with China’s backing, the most recalcitrant of the ethnic fighters, the United Wa State Army, the largest ethnic army in Myanmar, has also said it will join the peace gathering.
The conference, to be in held in the capital, Naypyidaw, is Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s signature effort since assuming power.
She has likened the initiative to the peace talks in Northern Ireland, and she is working on it with the British politician Jonathan Powell, a chief negotiator on those talks and chief of staff under Tony Blair, then the prime minister.
China’s president, Xi Jinping, told Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi on Friday that China would play a “constructive role” in the peace process. Before arriving in Beijing, she promised China a role as mediator at the conference.
But Sumlut Gun Maw, a prominent leader of the Kachin, a largely Christian group that is fighting the Myanmar government, warned that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi should be careful not to overplay her hand with China.
Mr. Sumlut Gun Maw, who met with Obama administration officials in Washington several years ago, said the relationship with the Chinese could backfire.
The Wa and Kokang enjoy “comradely” ties with China, he said, and China is likely to demand much in return for delivering them to the peace process.
Jane Perlez reported from Beijing, and Wai Moe from Yangon, Myanmar.