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China building up ties with Myanmar’s new government

Today, the U.S. seems to be in retreat from Southeast Asia under the Trump administration



A few steps away from Yangon’s historic Bogyoke museum, which is dedicated to the father of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, a newly renovated building stood ready for a soft opening. On August 6, Song Tao, head of the International Liaison Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) proudly opened the “Daw Khin Kyi Women’s Hospital,” named after the state counselor’s mother.

Later in that afternoon, Song visited U Tin Oo, chairman of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), who has been hospitalized since May. He also met with Aung San Suu Kyi herself. This was not Song’s first meeting with a legendary political figure in Myanmar; during his last visit, in August 2016, he met with former dictator Than Shwe.


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The meeting, and the donation of the new hospital, implies that CPC is ready for a deeper party-to-party relationship with Myanmar’s NLD. After years of freezing out Suu Kyi’s party in favor of the country’s military rulers, China is now courting its lost friend again.

The China Friendship Foundation for Peace and Development (CFFPD), a Beijing-supported government-organized nongovernmental organization, has taken bold steps to warm up relations. Although a new kid in town, CFFPD associates with high profiles like the Yangon regional government and the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UNFCCI). Unlike its other western counterparts, CFFPD implements projects across Myanmar and, despite its low profile, is carving out the next chapter for China-Myanmar relations.

It’s too early to conclude whether Beijing has successfully turned the clock back. The reaction from the Naypyidaw is relatively positive, and the U.S. retraction and economic downturn has created a window of opportunity for Beijing to engage. However, Tatmadaw’s policy on looking west and strengthening ties with Western countries may counterbalance China’s efforts. Courting Myanmar works to an extent, but China may have to accept that the relationship may never be the same again.

(subscribe to the Economist magazine in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan)

December 24, 2016

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