Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Myanmar next week to boost ties and push investment projects, in a show of support for Aung San Suu Kyi’s government as it faces global condemnation over its treatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority.
Xi will begin the two-day trip on January 17, according to Luo Zhaohui, China’s vice-foreign minister. It will be the first state visit to Myanmar by a Chinese president since Jiang Zemin’s trip in 2001.
Luo said in a briefing on Friday that the countries would seek close economic and trade cooperation through Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative – Xi’s sprawling infrastructure and investment scheme spanning Asia, Africa, Europe and beyond.
Chinese observers said Xi’s trip showed the importance of relations with Myanmar, which is strategically located and stands on the frontline of China’s geopolitical rivalry with the United States and other powers in the Asia-Pacific, such as India and Japan.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of China’s official ties with three Asian nations – Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia. Xu Liping, an expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, noted that Xi had chosen to go to Myanmar for his first overseas trip of the year, rather than the other two countries, both of which were at odds with Beijing over the South China Sea.
“It is a critical year for Myanmar ahead of the general elections in November,” he said, adding that Xi’s visit would be a boost for Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader and state counsellor.
Suu Kyi’s government has pivoted towards China in recent years, as Myanmar has meanwhile come under intense international scrutiny over the human rights situation in its northern Rakhine state. More than 730,000 Rohingya fled from the area to Bangladesh in 2017 amid a military crackdown.
In a rare move on Friday, Suu Kyi visited the northern Kachin state capital Myitkyina, which borders China’s Yunnan province, and called for peace in the remote region, where insurgents have clashed with the army over autonomy and resources.
Beijing is one of the only major powers to have openly backed Myanmar over the Rohingya issue. Last month, Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate, appeared before the International Court of Justice at The Hague to defend Myanmar’s military against accusations of genocide and crimes against humanity including the killing of thousands of people, and the rape of women and children.
Luo said Xi planned to raise the issue of repatriating Rohingya refugees during his meetings with Suu Kyi and military leaders.
“It is an issue between Myanmar and Bangladesh and indeed it is an old question,” Luo said. “At the request of the two countries, China has played a constructive role in this regard, including trilateral talks on early repatriation.”
China’s numerous investment projects, the building of the long-stalled Myitsone dam and a deep-sea port in strife-torn Rakhine state are expected to figure prominently during Xi’s trip.
Myanmar’s deputy commerce minister U Aung Htoo told local media on Thursday that Xi would sign at least two of the seven agreements needed for the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone, on Ramree Island in Rakhine, to go ahead.
A key part of the 1,700km China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, the Kyaukphyu project – especially the controversial port – was first mooted during Xi’s trip to Myanmar in 2009, when he was vice-president. It has been at the centre of a US-led campaign against China’s “debt-trap diplomacy” in recent months.
Facing enormous pressure at home and abroad, authorities in Myanmar had to cut the budget for the Chinese-backed deep water port from US$7.3 billion to US$1.3 billion in 2018.
Meanwhile, the suspension of the US$3.6 billion Myitsone dam project on the Irrawaddy River by Suu Kyi’s predecessor Thein Sein in 2011 has been a blight on Myanmar’s otherwise friendly ties with China – its top trading partner, investor and arms provider.
The past few years have seen frequent anti-Chinese protests over the Myitsone dam, the economic corridor and other Chinese projects, with the Myanmar government criticised for failing to protect the country’s interests. Thousands of people took to the streets in April when Suu Kyi attended a summit in Beijing on the belt and road scheme.
Fan Hongwei, an international relations professor at Xiamen University, said controversies surrounding the hydropower project in particular had stymied bilateral relations, and top leaders needed to resolve the issue.
“It would be a big loss for both countries if their ties hinged on a single dam project,” he said, adding that it would be better to just scrap the plan given the anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar.
Additional reporting by Laura Zhou and Agence France-Presse
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