NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (AP) — China's President Xi Jinping was heading to Myanmar on Friday for a state visit likely to deepen the countries' already close bilateral relations at a critical time.
While the visit nominally marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Myanmar, it comes with the prospect of significantly boosting China's profile and investments in the future.
China's ambassador to Myanmar Chen Hai told Chinese journalists last week that during Xi's two-day visit, the two countries would sign agreements "covering politics, economy, livelihoods and regional cooperation." Some of these are expected to expedite major infrastructure projects that will extend Beijing's strategic presence all the way to the Indian Ocean.
A complicating factor is Myanmar's general election, scheduled for late 2020, since too much wheeling and dealing with China could leave Aung San Suu Kyi's government vulnerable to accusations by political opponents that it is selling out the country.
The trip will be Xi 's first to Myanmar and his first foreign visit this year. Jiang Zemin was the last Chinese president to visit Myanmar, when he signed several economic and border agreements in 2001.
Ambassador Chen said that Xi will meet with Myanmar's President Win Myint, State Counselor Suu Kyi, who is the country's de facto leader, and military chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, as well as legislators and other opinion-makers.
Myanmar is a linchpin of China's geopolitical ambitions, offering access to the Indian Ocean that would allow its sizable oil and gas imports from the Gulf to bypass going through the Strait of Malacca, and serving as a bridge to South Asia and beyond in Beijing's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative to build railroads, highways, ports and other infrastructure connecting China with other points in Asia and into Europe and Africa.
China serves as a no-questions-asked ally to Myanmar, giving it diplomatic cover as the country faces widespread condemnation over its human rights record. The reaction to its brutal counterinsurgency campaign that drove more than 700,000 members of the country's Muslim Rohingya minority to flee for safety in neighboring Bangladesh threatens it with economic sanctions from Western nations.
Last month a case charging Myanmar with genocide came before the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands, virtually ratifying the Southeast Asian country's near-pariah status.
China for years has defended Myanmar in forums such as the United Nations, and Myanmar has returned the favor by following Beijing's positions on issue such as China's claims over territory in the South China Sea.
More importantly, China as a top investor and trade partner with Myanmar offers economic insurance if Western nations do impose sanctions.
Just days before Suu Kyi went to The Hague in December to lead her country's delegation at the initial hearings of the International Court of Justice, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with her for talks. The court holds another hearing next week.
“Xi is visiting Myanmar at the very right time. And Myanmar wants to show the Western world that China is backing them. Just before the ICJ hearings in December 2019, China's FM visited and now before issuance of provisional measures, Xi is going to visit,” Germany-based Rohingya activist Nay San Lwin told The Associated Press. "I think it is not a coincidence. Myanmar wanted to say to the West to be careful if you impose any sanctions."
Beijing in recent years has waged a strong battle with Washington for influence in Southeast Asia.
China also uses it influence with various Myanmar ethnic rebel groups based along the countries' border who are battling battle for autonomy from the central government.
While China has promoted peace talks between the the rebels and Myanmar's government, its close ties with some of the rebel groups allows it to retain the option of threatening violence by using ethnic guerrillas as proxies.
What appears to be a mutually beneficial quid pro quo with China won't necessarily play well domestically, a worry for Suu Kyi and her ruling National League for Democracy party as it faces new elections. There has always been a strong undercurrent of anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar, and it is boosted by sometimes heavy-handed implementation of Chinese-backed projects that run roughshod over local communities, provoking allegations of land-grabbing, environmental damage and selling out the country's resources.
Even Myanmar's previous military-backed government was forced by popular demand to suspend plans for the massive $3.6 billion Myitsone hydroelectric dam project in 2011, but it has not been canceled. Activists plan a protest against the project on Saturday outside the Chinese Embassy in Yangon.
Hurdles may be cleared during Xi's visit to give the go-ahead to another project arguably more important to Beijing, the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone on the Bay of Bengal. With a deep-water port, it serves as one end of a 1,700-kilometer- (1,055-mile-) long China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, a major link in the Belt and Road Initiative whose other end is in China's Yunnan province.
It includes cross-border oil and gas pipelines that have been operating for years, and a major railway is planned, though its projected high cost has given pause.
Amnesty International is among the critics of the Chinese-assisted projects.
"With major economic and infrastructure agreements expected to be signed during President Xi's visit, the absolute lack of transparency over such agreements is deeply disturbing," the human rights group said in a statement Thursday. “Investment in infrastructure can help raise living standards and realize human rights through improved access to basic services and employment.”
“But these benefits are not delivered if those who bear the heaviest cost — the women, men, and children whose homes, health, livelihoods are be affected — are not adequately consulted before construction starts and protected from potential harm. Human rights, transparency, and consultation with communities should be at the heart of these projects.”
Associated Press writer Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.