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China leaves rivals in the dust with influence in Myanmar

As Xi Jinping visits, Beijing risks backlash if it pushes too far

| Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos

Taiwan's presidential election on January 11 made Chinese foreign policy look messier than it actually is. Tsai Ing-wen won a handsome victory on a wave of umbrage against China's habit of pushing its smaller neighbors around. Her landslide suggested missteps and overreach by President Xi Jinping too.

That impression appeals to China's critics, especially in the U.S., who like to view Xi as a bully. Sadly for them, it is far from an accurate reflection of Beijing's steady and largely successful recent increase in influence elsewhere in its neighborhood.

A better picture of China's progress will be on show when Xi arrives in Myanmar on January 17, the first visit by a Chinese leader in nearly two decades. More to the point, it will underline the impotence of nations like the U.S., Japan and India, as they try to balance and blunt China's rise.

Despite its tiny economic size, Myanmar remains a strategic prize for Beijing, in part because it hosts a clutch of infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi's signature foreign policy program. Xi's aim during his two-day visit will be to push forward the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, a multibillion dollar package of port, rail and power projects, as well as a new city close to commercial capital Yangon.

Many BRI projects are white elephants -- expensive and pointless. But its schemes in Myanmar have a reasonably sound commercial logic, linking China's landlocked western provinces to the Indian Ocean. They carry within them a much grander vision too: a long-cherished "two-ocean" strategy, in effect extending China's western reach to the Bay of Bengal.

At one level, China's interest in Myanmar should bring it benefits, not least tens of billions of dollars in badly-needed investment. But in truth, it leaves the country in a deep political fix.

Some of this involves specific worries about China's largesse, and with it the risk of debt trap diplomacy. BRI projects are often excessively costly. Myanmar managed to renegotiate the cost of its planned Chinese-built Kyaukpyu deep-sea port on the Bay of Bengal down from around $9 billion to just $1 billion. Now it must do the same for a pricey rail line between Yunnan province and Yangon, which some estimates suggest might cost also $9 billion.

The larger problem is political, however. China remains remarkably unpopular in Myanmar, the legacy of its ties with the country's old military rulers. Xi has done little to help his case by continuing to push much-hated projects, notably the temporarily mothballed Myitsone mega-dam on the Irrawaddy river. Many in Myanmar suspect, probably correctly, that China would like it to become a pliant vassal state. With an election later this year, Aung San Suu Kyi and her ruling National League for Democracy badly want to avoid being seen as Beijing's lackeys.

Suu Kyi's strategy has thus far been to prevaricate, delaying some of China's megaprojects until after the election at least. But Xi's arrival suggests this time-wasting approach may be running out of road. His mere appearance requires that new projects be announced, along with the usual flurry of pledges of undying friendship.

This leaves Myanmar facing an awkward dilemma about its dependence on its larger neighbor. Its civilian and military leadership have tried hard to avoid this fate, suggests Richard Horsey, a political analyst based in Yangon.

But allegations of genocide in Rakhine State, which Suu Kyi denied publicly at the International Court of Justice in The Hague during December, have left her country with few other friends. The government "finds itself in exactly the position it has desperately tried to avoid," Horsey says. "China has Myanmar over a barrel."

China would still be wise not to overplay its hand. Recognizing Myanmar's internal political constraints could avoid the kind of backlash that its pushiness caused in Taiwan. As China seeks its own west coast, a calmer approach is almost certainly the most likely route to success.

Yet if Xi's arrival proves awkward for Myanmar, it is doubly so for the region's other powers, and especially those, like the U.S., Japan and India, which are alarmed at the speed of China's progress.

Satellite imagery of Kyaukphyu, pictured in January 2013: the U.S. helped officials in Naypyidaw renegotiate the cost of Kyaukpyu deep-sea port.   © DigitalGlobe/Getty Images

True, Japan has put plenty of money into infrastructure. The U.S. quietly helped officials in Naypyidaw renegotiate the Kyaukpyu port too. But neither nation comes close to matching China's plans. Despite its geographic proximity and historical ties, India's approach is mostly feeble and self-interested. None of the three, either separately or together, has an effective plan to help Myanmar keep a respectable distance from China's embrace.

This is true elsewhere around Asia too. China has made relatively few aggressive moves in its own backyard over the last couple of years. Instead, its leadership has been forced to focus on managing trade-war ties with a tempestuous U.S. president while also trying to deal with internal trouble spots in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

Even so, around Southeast Asia in particular, its policies are succeeding in -- gradually but inexorably -- increasing its influence. And Beijing will continue to push, seeking to extend its reach both in particular countries and broader areas like the South China Sea.

The more it does so, the clearer it becomes that those nations which aspire to balance China's rise are failing in that task. Myanmar would be a good place to start.

James Crabtree is an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He is author of "The Billionaire Raj."

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