MANDALAY, Myanmar (Reuters) - Few people can claim justifiably to understand the relationship between Myanmar’s secretive military rulers and China, their key trading partner, arms supplier and diplomatic ally.
But if the man on the street in Mandalay is anything to go by, it will be one ranging from mistrust to resentment to outright loathing, suggesting Beijing’s much-vaunted “influence” over its pariah neighbor may be smaller than imagined.
Even though the former Burma’s second city is one of the few places where the economy appears to be going somewhere, thanks mainly to Chinese capital and enterprise, most locals feel they are on the wrong side of a deeply exploitative equation.
“The Chinese give us plastic, and they take our teak and gems,” one senior Buddhist monk in Sagaing, a town 20 km (12 miles) west of Mandalay, told Reuters. “They give us one thing, but then take two.”
Lu Maw, one of Mandalay’s famed “Moustache Brothers” comedy trio, reflects the views of many when he says the city, now home to as many nondescript Chinese hotels as ancient Buddhist monasteries, should be renamed “Capital of Yunnan,” China’s nearest province.
“I don’t want to discriminate against the Chinese, but...” he says, before launching into a series of jokes accusing businessmen from southwest China of making millions selling heroin or doing dodgy deals with even dodgier Burmese generals.
Whether street-level xenophobia translates into official outlook and policy is, of course, a moot point, especially when it comes to reading the minds of Myanmar’s military junta, one of the world’s most closed regimes.
The only clues are hearsay and anecdote, such as that of junta number two Maung Aye, who has spent much of his military career fighting Beijing-backed communists, ordering shop signs to be taken down if Chinese lettering appeared above the Burmese.
But the question of anti-Chinese sentiment is an important one, given the West’s almost total reliance on Beijing since September’s anti-junta protests to coax the generals towards political and economic reform after 46 years of military rule.
Beijing is also acutely aware of the issue as it tries to buy billions of dollars of Myanmar natural gas — gas that most of its 53 million people think should be used to address the chronic energy shortages that sat at the heart of last year’s protests.
An acquiescent and stable Myanmar is also strategically vital to Beijing’s plans for an oil pipeline running from the Andaman Sea via Mandalay to Yunnan to mitigate China’s reliance on crude shipments through the Strait of Malacca.
“Our policy is to encourage Chinese companies to ‘go out’, whether it’s to Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar or wherever,” Yunnan Communist Party chief Bai Enpei told Reuters on the sidelines of China’s annual parliament meeting this month.
“Historically in Southeast Asia there has been a problem in places where there are a lot of ethnic Chinese. But relations are gradually getting better,” he said.
“We cannot just go in and earn other people’s money, selling stuff and taking over projects. It must be win-win.”
At the height of September’s crackdown, Yangon-based diplomats say China did indeed pull out all the stops to get United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari into the country.
Beyond that, the amount of pressure Beijing can bring to bear on Myanmar’s recalcitrant generals is open to question.
China’s curious admission last May that it had been kept in the dark about the junta’s 2005 move to a new capital — and its distinctly unflattering account of the place — fuelled speculation that Beijing may not enjoy privileged access.
Some diplomats also dispute the argument that the generals should or could use the Chinese Communist Party’s establishment of a free market without ceding any political control as a blueprint for reform.
“The ability of China to influence the junta is way overplayed,” one Yangon-based diplomat said. “People say they should get the generals to ‘do a China or a Vietnam’ and relax their grip over the economy without ceding any political power.
“But they forget that it’s the junta’s stranglehold over every single money-making enterprise in the country which is their power,” said the diplomat, who asked not to be named.
“They control everything, right down to the number of cars imported each year.”
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Michael Battye