At the end of September 2011, after Burma’s President announced that construction on a huge dam on the Irrawaddy River would be suspended indefinitely, the head of the Chinese company in charge of the project told a newspaper reporter that he was “totally astonished” by the news. Canceling construction on the dam was the most eyebrow-raising event in Burma’s nascent political liberalization movement and an unmistakeable sign that Beijing was no longer lord of its smaller neighbor, and to this day Chinese officials are struggling to figure out what went wrong.
At the recent World Economic Forum in Naypyidaw, Burma’s capital, the small number of Chinese businesspeople in attendance was striking, especially in contrast to the hordes of Americans, Japanese, and Europeans who were there, chomping at the bit to invest in this soon-to-be booming new market. “We said thank you very much to the Chinese for their help and then we asked them to leave,” one adviser to a Burmese Minister told the Financial Times.
“As President Thein Sein gave the opening address to the forum, the word in the halls of the Chinese-built convention centre was that he personally despises Beijing’s influence over its smaller, poorer neighbour,” the FT reports. “In Beijing and Naypyidaw there is recognition that China handled the bilateral relationship badly thanks to a toxic mix of arrogance, neglect and meddling by elements of China’s People’s Liberation Army.”
Indeed, an article in the nationalist, Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper that appeared a year after Burma canceled construction on the dam blamed Chinese arrogance and ignorance for the loss of its client state:
The reason why Chinese enterprises often become a target of criticism in Myanmar is that they lack a clear understanding of the national situation of Myanmar, especially the complicated interest pattern in the country….Chinese enterprises haven’t given enough attention to other interest groups besides the Myanmar government and its local partners. And they haven’t communicated well with the local NGOs and communities.
As officials in Beijing seek to understand what went wrong in the relationship with Burma, one thing on their minds will be North Korea. Though there have been signs that China is pressuring Pyongyang to calm down, the last thing anyone in Beijing wants is for North Korea to go the way of Burma. So far, that doesn’t appear to be happening. But the Burma experience was a lesson on how not to wield power over weaker neighbors.
[Image of the sun rising over Burma courtesy of Shutterstock]