By James M. Dorsey
As a result, increasing Chinese pressure on Myanmar to revive the suspended Myitsone dam project in ethnic Kachin state is putting the government between a rock and a hard place.
The government is being forced to choose between ignoring popular concerns that the dam would disrupt the traditional economy of the Kachin in a region wracked by ethnic insurgency and cost Myanmar control of the Irrawaddy River, its most important waterway, or risk the ire of China on which it depends politically and economically.
Former Myanmar President Thein Sein in 2011 suspended the US$3.6 billion dam project in response to a campaign that brought together conservationists, scholars, and political activists including Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Activists assert the dam, if built as previously designed, would flood 600 square kilometres of forestland in northern Kachin state and export 90 % of the power produced to China.
Myanmar is not the only country that has recently experienced Chinese attempts to force it to act in ways that could have unintended consequences.
Kazakh police, despite widespread public criticism of the crackdown in Xinjiang, last weekend raided the office of Atajurt Eriktileri, a group that has reportedly documented more than 10,000 cases of ethnic Kazakhs interned in China and arrested activist Serikzhan Bilash.
Activists suspect that the raid was the result of Chinese pressure aimed at squashing criticism of the crackdown in Xinjiang.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi sought to put a good face on differences with China
over his country’s demand that the focus of the China Pakistan Economic Project (CPEC), a US$45 billion plus crown jewel of the Belt and Road, be shifted from infrastructure and energy, to poverty alleviation, job creation and agriculture.
China has acknowledged Pakistan’s demand but suggested that the refocussing would happen in good time.
Mr. Qureishi asserted this week had CPEC had entered its second phase but provided few details. The minister said agreements on the second phase that would involve the creation of four economic zones would be concluded at some unspecified date in the future.
Pakistani and Chinese officials have gone out of their way in recent months to deny any dent in what they have described as an all-weather friendship.
“There is no threat to CPEC. Our government considers it a game changer,” M. Qureishi insisted this week.
China’s deputy chief of mission in Islamabad, Lijian Zhao, insisted in an interview
last year and in a series of tweets
that China “always supported & stood behind @Pakistan, helping #develop it’s #infrastructure & raise #living standards while creating #job.”
Ultimately, the proof will be in the pudding. Indications so far are that China is digging in its heels on the assumption that its political and economic clout will allow it to get its way. Its an approach that ignores potential black swans and does little to garner soft power.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom