Xi Jinping Turns On the Charm in Myanmar


China’s President

Xi Jinping

visited Myanmar and made a push to rev up big infrastructure projects under his Belt and Road initiative, seeking to cement Beijing’s role as the country’s closest international partner while Western governments hold back over human-rights violations.

Mr. Xi’s two-day visit—the first by a Chinese head of state in almost two decades—comes as Myanmar is facing allegations at the International Court of Justice that its security forces committed genocide against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. Last month, Washington imposed sanctions against four military officials, including the commander-in-chief.

China has backed Myanmar through the crisis and is now stepping up efforts to secure the strategically located nation as a major partner in the region.

Mr. Xi held talks with Myanmar’s main civilian leader,

Aung San Suu Kyi,

in the country’s capital Naypyitaw on Saturday. The two sides signed a raft of agreements to advance the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor—a multibillion-dollar package of infrastructure, trade and energy projects designed to link landlocked southwestern China to the Indian Ocean.

“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,” Mr. Xi said in a speech Friday.

The planned corridor includes a deep-sea port and a special economic zone in Kyaukpyu on Myanmar’s western coast, and a railway line from China’s Yunnan province. The Kyaukpyu port has been significantly scaled down from what was originally envisioned as a more-than $7 billion development, but it remains a key investment. A new urban development close to Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, is also in the cards.

The Southeast Asian nation has so far moved cautiously in embracing Chinese investments, which have long been viewed with skepticism in the country. Following local opposition over the displacement of residents and environmental impacts, Myanmar suspended a major China-backed dam project in 2011, which became a symbol of fraying ties between the two neighbors.

In remarks on Friday, Ms. Suu Kyi emphasized the need to prevent environmental degradation and consider development for the people in implementing new projects.

People lined the streets in Myanmar’s capital to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday.


Photo:

Du Yu/Zuma Press

Myanmar held democratic elections in 2015, ending decades of military rule that had led to diplomatic and economic isolation. Ms. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, led her party to victory in those polls, though the military kept a grip on key levers of power.

The initial transition ushered in rapprochement with Western governments that lifted economic sanctions, paving the way for trade and investment. President

Barack Obama

visited the country twice during his presidency, and hosted Ms. Suu Kyi at the White House in 2016 shortly before sanctions were eased.

Then the military launched brutal operations in 2017 that forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee across the border into Bangladesh. Refugees shared stories of mass killings, rape and the destruction of villages by security forces. Amid a global outcry, the U.S. urged Myanmar to hold the perpetrators accountable and relations grew strained.

Myanmar says it was conducting counterterrorism operations and its security forces didn’t systematically use excessive force.

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“It was Beijing’s opportunity to save the day and restart its moribund economic corridor in exchange for diplomatic protection,”

David Mathieson,

an independent analyst based in Yangon, said. “In effect the West won, then lost, Myanmar, and the major factor is the Rohingya crisis.”

Policy uncertainty and complex due diligence requirements also make Myanmar a difficult place to do business, analysts and business representatives said.

“Myanmar’s investment environment is not really attractive to Western investors,” said

Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee,

head of the China desk at the Institute for Strategy and Policy in Myanmar. “After the rapprochement began, people hoped investment would come in, but it just didn’t materialize.”

Beijing meanwhile took a “multilayered” approach to courting Myanmar, ramping up sponsored visits for business leaders, politicians and civil society representatives to improve perceptions of China’s political and economic model, Ms. Khin Kyee said. But Chinese megaprojects still face pushback, particularly when they cut across the country’s many conflict zones where the army is battling ethnic rebel groups seeking greater autonomy.

Write to Feliz Solomon at feliz.solomon@wsj.com

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