The recent upsurge of media interest in Myanmar brings to light the importance of Southeast Asia as a potential battleground for major powers such as China and the United States. Admittedly, this facet of the struggle for greater global dominance is less glamorous than the space race or the arms race, but no less important for the future of the U.S. Instead of bullets, words and (mostly) money will be exchanged in hopes of winning the ultimate prize: unfettered access to this region. As a country rich in virtually untapped natural resources such as natural gas and crude oil, Myanmar realizes that to set itself on the path of rapid economic development, it must open its doors to foreign investors in the West. Now a more democratic Myanmar wants to lessen its dependence on China by appealing to economic powerhouses such as the U.S. and the EU, countries that have imposed strict economic sanctions on Myanmar for its brutally oppressive government.
This shift in the relative China relationship reflects a Myanmar that is more receptive to its citizens' opinions, which has impeded Chinese development in the region. In September 2011, the civilian government suspended the Myitsone dam project financed by China Power Investment, a Chinese state-owned company. The multi-billion dollar project was intended to provide the Chinese citizens of Yunnan province with power, while less than 20% of the people in Myanmar even have electricity. Coupled with the fact that the dam was to be constructed on the near mythical Irrawaddy River, anger swelled among natives, scientists, political dissidents and cultural luminaries. Now attention has turned to the crude oil and natural gas pipelines being constructed by China National Petroleum Corporation to run through Myanmar into landlocked western China, with annual billion dollar compensations to the Burmese government. Local grievances against the pipelines include environmental destruction, forced relocations and the poor treatment of local workers.
These problems have generated resentment not only against China, but against ethnic Chinese locals as well. In Mandalay, the demographic makeup has shifted due to large numbers of immigrants coming to the city from the nearby Chinese province of Yunnan. The government responded to this overwhelming foreign influence by disallowing Chinese schools and recently banning Chinese signage in shops and restaurants. Realizing that it cannot risk open confrontation, China has tried to mitigate anti-Chinese sentiment by giving money to build schools, health centers, and other local infrastructure. However, this method of appeasement may not be enough for the long-term well-being of Myanmar because the country risks losing its much needed energy sources during its nascent economic development.
Despite a rocky relationship, Myanmar still relies on China as an important economic partner. Local businessmen prefer to sell Chinese goods because they are cheap compared to local products. After decades of trading and commerce with China, the two countries have a complex infrastructure that will be difficult to alter even if Western nations decide to resume economic relations in the future. However, even as Myanmar tries to shirk away from the omnipresent reach of China, it is eager to shake hands with the West.
As a worker notes when asked why his Burmese company also comes under the ban of using Chinese characters in its advertising, he responds, "It seems a little silly. I suppose the government wants to limit foreign influence, but then why leave the English?"