Looming north of Myanmar (also known as Burma), booming China is its biggest investor and ally. Beijing has regularly protected its neighbor from condemnations and sanctions attempts by the United Nations Security Council.
As evidence of the close ties, Myanmar’s military government proposed a $3.6 billion dam project to China in 2006 and signed a contract in 2009 with China Power to build it.
The mammoth Myitsone dam in Kachin State in the north, close to southwest China, was controversial from the beginning with locals, as it was slated to flood an area the size of Singapore but send 90 percent of the power generated to China. Still, it didn’t seem to budge Myanmar.
Anger culminated in 2011 when citizens campaigned against a dam that would, they say, undermine the ecology of the Irrawaddy River, the country’s main waterway.
Then, Mr. Thein Sein shocked China – and many Burmese citizens skeptical that the government would undertake real reform – by suspending the deal last September.
And just as the US has been cozying up to Vietnam after Hanoi took umbrage at China’s muscle-flexing on the disputed South China Sea, Myanmar’s reforms give Washington, which has been eyeing resource-rich Myanmar, a reason to scale back sanctions and become friendly.
If Myanmar complies with the list of reforms the West has requested, then the US will allow its companies to invest in Myanmar, broadening its footprint in Asia, to China’s chagrin.
But there may be limits to a greater US presence in Myanmar. China has put $14 billion into Myanmar in recent years and is well placed to counter what it sees as US encirclement in Asia. Aung San Suu Kyi has said that Myanmar needs friendly relations with China, no matter how ties with the West change.