Chinese President Xi Jinping touched down in Myanmar’s capital Friday on a state visit aimed at buttressing the embattled government of Aung San Suu Kyi and driving through multi-billion-dollar infrastructure deals.
The wide highways and manicured lawns of Naypyidaw, purpose-built by generals under Myanmar’s junta, were dotted with red banners bearing Xi’s face and greetings in Burmese and Mandarin.
Xi will sign a series of mammoth infrastructure deals as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative — a global trade plan that promises to change the face of Myanmar.
The centrepiece of the so-called China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) is a $1.3 billion deep-sea port at Kyaukphyu in central Rakhine state, giving Beijing a gateway to the Indian Ocean.
A high-speed rail link is on the cards to connect the port and nearby planned industrial zone with the countries’ shared border.
China is an economic lifeline for Myanmar, a country where wariness lingers over the increasing influence of its giant neighbour.
Bilateral trade was worth $16.8 billion last year and Beijing holds the largest share — around $4 billion or 40 percent — of Myanmar’s foreign debt.
Billions of cubic metres of gas and millions of barrels of oil from offshore rigs are pumped each year across the country into China.
“The next one, two, three decades will be defined by Myanmar’s relationship with China,” said Yangon-based analyst Richard Horsey.
After a welcome ceremony and dinner Friday, Xi will sit down with Suu Kyi and army chief Min Aung Hlaing in separate meetings Saturday.
Suu Kyi made a rare visit to Kachin state on the border with China ahead of Xi’s visit.
Kachin is the site of a planned Chinese-backed $3.6 billion, 6,000 megawatt dam that was mothballed in 2011 in the face of vociferous criticism across the country.
This is thought to have been a personal slight to Xi, who signed off on the Myitsone dam with Myanmar’s then-military junta as vice-president in 2009.
Activists are expected to protest in the commercial hub Yangon on Saturday against any reinstatement of the project.
Economic interests aside, Myanmar’s relationship with the superpower has other benefits.
In an op-ed in Myanmar’s state-run media this week, Xi said China supports Myanmar in “safeguarding its legitimate rights and interests and national dignity”.
China shields Myanmar at the United Nations, where pressure is mounting for accountability over the Rohingya crisis.
Suu Kyi personally defended her nation against accusations of genocide at the UN’s top court last month after a 2017 military crackdown forced 740,000 people over the border into Bangladesh.
The alleged atrocities took place in Rakhine state — an area that has since descended into a civil war between the military and an ethnic Rakhine rebel group.
Myanmar has nonetheless declared the state open for business.
While many Western investors are staying clear, China — competing against other regional giants — has few such qualms.
Suu Kyi needs economic wins as well as diplomatic support as she heads towards elections due at the end of this year.
Rakhine locals, meanwhile, fear they will again be overlooked after previous Beijing-backed infrastructure projects left many without land or livelihoods.
“They didn’t bring any benefits for us, not even any jobs,” Moe Moe Aye from Kyaukphyu SEZ Watch Group told AFP.