Chinese construction companies are behind many of the new buildings going up in Yangon
While in Yangon, Myanmar last month, I had a chance to talk with several Myanmarese who naturally asked me where I lived. When I told them I lived in China, what struck me most with their response was their anxiety over their neighbor China. The taxi driver who drove me to my hotel from the airport was perhaps the most vocal, and extremely concerned about growing Chinese ownership of hotels, nightclubs and natural resources. His anxiety was mimicked by many others I spoke with, from real estate agents to businessmen. Being neighbors with the Chinese, the current anxiety is not new. The Myanmarese indeed have a long history of interaction with the Chinese:
In more recent times, the Myanmarese government has been forced to rely on foreign direct investment from China for its social development, due to economic sanctions imposed by Western governments over human rights concerns. While Chinese investment has had a positive effect on development, resulting in improved roads and reliable electricity, certain negative consequences have included flooded plains from hydroelectric dams, hills stripped of their teak-forest, and local markets overwhelmed by cheap Chinese-made goods. The Myanmarese are also concerned about Chinese support of ethnic insurgencies, a thriving cross-border narcotics trade, and an influx of illegal Chinese immigrants.
Now with China increasingly asserting its rights to the vast majority of the South China Sea, along with its increasing economic influence on a global stage, the Myanmarese anxiety has risen once again. Given that China’s claims are largely resource grabs under the guise of recovering lost territory, Myanmar, with its abundant resources and strategic location, has plenty to worry about. Under a 2007 agreement, China Power Investment Corporation has the right to build seven large dams in Kachin State to supply power to Yunnan – the largest dam is under construction at Myitsone. Chinese companies are also building pipelines across Myanmar to funnel natural gas and imported crude oil from ports in Myanmar to southwest China. And Chinese companies also own vast fertile lands being used to farm rubber, cassava, sugar cane and pineapples.
While the Myanmarese have long been fearful of the dragon next door, the latest methods the Chinese have employed to secure resources, at the cost of their neighbors, should serve as a wake up call to the Myanmarese government. Recent reforms by paramount leader Thein Sein have led to a relaxing of sanctions by the U.S. Government, and could lead the way to an increase in investment from American companies. The Myanmarese government is well aware of the need to further push economic and political reform (and quell internal unrest) to help diversify inward foreign investment away from the Chinese and to a variety of nations. The new Chinese leadership will need to be more cognizant of the effects of an increasingly aggressive foreign policy on neighboring populations with long memories.