October 03, 2011

This Weekend’s News: Dam’s Suspension May Signal New Developments in Burma-China Relationship

On Friday, the Burmese government announced that it would
halt the construction of a Chinese-backed dam on the Irrawaddy River, marking a
significant setback for China that has increasingly relied on Burma for access
to energy and natural resources to feed its growing economy.

(Note: I first saw the report on The
Wall Street Journal on Friday
but was glad to see it make it into the weekend news with a
report by The New York Times on
. Both reports are worth a read.)

As I noted on Twitter on Friday,
the Burmese government’s announcement is an interesting departure from its
close partners in Beijing, and may signal a growing rift between the two
states. “The
dam’s suspension was a blow to China, long considered a benefactor to the
government in Myanmar
,” The New York
reported. “China
Power Investment, a state-run Chinese company, was leading the construction of
the project, which would have delivered electricity to southern China. It is
unclear how the suspension will affect six other Chinese-led hydroelectric
projects in northern Myanmar

China has increasingly relied on close ties with the Burmese
government in order to secure access to natural resources and to gain rights to
develop overland energy pipelines to deliver natural gas and other fossil fuels
to southern China. Indeed, Burma has become a critical energy transit state for
China that is busily developing a portfolio of overland pipelines and access to
maritime resources as part of its overall energy strategy. For example, as the Times reported, “A
pipeline that would carry natural gas and oil from the Bay of Bengal to
southern China is currently under construction

But these close ties have aggravated anti-Chinese sentiment
among those worried about the environment and Chinese exploitation. “Chinese
businesses have rapidly spread throughout Myanmar in recent years, causing
friction in some areas
,” according to The
New York Times
. “Chinese
companies are sometimes blamed for deforestation and are resented for their
voracious appetite for Myanmar’s natural resources

According to a statement by the Burmese government, “To
fulfill the electricity need of the country, the government will continue to
implement other hydropower projects that are not harmful to the nation after
conducting systematic surveys
.” But it also added that “the
government would negotiate terms with China ‘without affecting the friendly
bilateral relations between the two countries

Despite the rhetoric, onlookers in Beijing must be worried
about Burma’s intentions. Indeed, China may have much more trouble gaining
concessions from Burma, a state with few diplomatic allies in the region that
had been a generally reliable partner. As the Times reported, “The [Burmese] government’s announcement
underscores the nascent stirrings of democracy” that are starting to develop,
which may signal that the state is approaching an inflection point (though that
may be too optimistic) that could further drive a wedge between Burma and
China. It is too early to tell, of course, but as policymakers watch the developments
unfold, the dam’s suspension is likely to mark the beginning of an interesting
foreign policy dilemma for China. How China will react is unclear. But with
other dam projects currently on the line, my guess is that in the near-term we’ll
see a rather conciliatory Beijing – for now.  

This Week’s Events

Starting at 8:30 AM this morning, the Bipartisan Policy Center
will host a discussion on Effective
Approaches for U.S. Participation in a More Secure Global Nuclear Market
. At
10 AM, head over to SAIS for Leading
the Way or Lights Out? Germany's Nuclear Exit and U.S. Energy Perspectives
At 6:30 PM, the World Affairs Council will have an event, Foreign
Policy Series: Share the Water --> Build the Peace

On Tuesday at 10AM, the Bipartisan Policy Center will host a
discussion on Geoengineering:
A National Strategic Plan for Research on Climate Remediation

On Wednesday at 8 AM, the National Journal will hold a
discussion on Lessons
From Japan: Global Implications of Nuclear Disaster

On Thursday at 9 AM, the Institute for National Strategic
Studies will explore Severe Space
Weather Threats to the US Electrical Grids
. At noon, head over to CSIS for Investing
in Africa's Energy Sector: Challenges & Opportunities
. At 5 PM, SAIS
will host China in Africa: What's
Really Going On

Finally on Friday, head to the Newseum for CNAS’ discussion
on the defense budget, Hard
Choices: Responsible Defense in an Age of Austerity
. At 10AM, check out
Brookings’ Conversations
about Climate Change Adaption: Displacement, Migration and Planned Relocation
At 12:30 PM, SAIS will explore The
Challenge of Feeding Nine Billion by Mid-Century