China and Myanmar sign raft of deals as Xi Jinping courts an isolated Aung San Suu Kyi

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China has come to Myanmar’s defence over alleged genocide against Rohingya Muslims.

China and Myanmar have inked dozens of deals to speed up infrastructure projects in the South-East Asian nation, as Beijing seeks to cement its hold over a neighbour increasingly isolated by the West.

Key points:

  • Xi Jinping has declared a “new era” of ties between China and Myanmar
  • Both countries have been accused of genocide against Muslims, with China defending Myanmar on the global stage
  • Chinese investment in the South-East Asian nation remains contentious locally

But no major new projects were agreed during the two-day visit by President Xi Jinping, the first of any Chinese leader in 19 years.

Analysts said Myanmar was generally cautious of investments by Beijing and was also being careful ahead of elections later this year.

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Still, Mr Xi and Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi signed 33 agreements shoring up key projects that are part of the flagship Belt and Road Initiative, China’s vision of new trade routes described as a “21st-century silk road”.

They agreed to hasten the implementation of the China Myanmar Economic Corridor, a giant infrastructure scheme worth billions of dollars, with agreements on railways linking south-western China to the Indian Ocean, a deep sea-port in conflict-riven Rakhine state, a special economic zone on the border and a new city project in the commercial capital of Yangon.

“While a large number of different agreements have been signed, there is no Big Bang here,” said Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.

“The overall impression is that Myanmar is being cautious about Chinese investment, especially ahead of elections planned later in the year.

“China will be hoping that this is an incremental step towards realising its mega-infrastructure goals and that further progress can be locked in over the coming months.”

Municipal workers sweep on a road near a welcoming billboard for Chinese President Xi Jinping.

‘Derailed’ by the West

At a welcoming ceremony, Mr Xi hailed a “new era” of relations between the countries.

“We are drawing a future road map that will bring to life bilateral relations based on brotherly and sisterly closeness in order to overcome hardships together and provide assistance to each other,” Xi said.

Ms Suu Kyi called China “a great country playing an important role in the international affairs and the world economy” but urged for economic projects that avoid environmental degradation and benefit locals.

Soldiers cross the river armed with guns in Rakhine region of Myanmar.

What happened to Aung San Suu Kyi?

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A few short years ago, Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi was an international human rights icon. This week, she returns to Europe to defend her country against accusations of genocide.

Mr Xi also met leaders from political parties in ethnic areas riven with civil conflict where Chinese infrastructure projects are underway.

Sai Kyaw Nyunt, joint-secretary of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, one of the ethnic politicians invited to meet Mr Xi, said it was only a handshake.

“Our country is very small and powerless,” he said, “So they treat us that way.”

The two countries have historically had a fraught relationship, but have moved closer since 2017, when Myanmar was internationally condemned for its treatment of minority Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state.

A woman, clutching a child, looks desperate in a crowd waiting for aid.

More than 730,000 Rohingya were forced to flee western Myanmar after a military crackdown that the United Nations has said was executed with “genocidal intent”.

China has defended the country on the global stage and is viewed as the biggest obstacle to the prosecution of its leaders at an international war crimes tribunal.

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Beijing itself has come under fire for its treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region, deemed by some observers a “cultural genocide”.

An article in Chinese state media ahead of the state visit said Myanmar had been “derailed” by its engagement with the West and only China was willing to “pull Myanmar from the sludge”.

“But after some turbulence, Myanmar realised there were double standards in the approach Western countries had taken on human rights issues and began to turn to China for diplomatic and economic help,” the article in the Global Times said.