By David I. Steinberg
Kachin, Myanmar, February 22, 2016
In September 2011, Myanmar President Thein Sein announced that construction of China’s largest hydroelectric project in Southeast Asia — the $3.6 billion-plus Myitsone dam in northern Myanmar — would be suspended for the duration of his term.
This came as a shock to China, which had believed that Myanmar was securely within the Sinocentric orbit, if not quite a “client state.” After all, China was Myanmar’s largest investor. The first trip the newly elected Myanmar president made was to Beijing in May 2011, where he signed his country’s first comprehensive strategic economic partnership. In a muted response to the Myitsone decision, Beijing blamed the U.S. for sabotaging Chinese interests, with some officials pointing out that several civil society groups, partly financed from the U.S., had campaigned against the dam.
The critical word here, however, is “suspended.” The question remains whether the new government led by Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, which will succeed Thein Sein’s administration at the end of March, will stick with the decision. Both the Chinese and Myanmar sides may have earlier assumed that a new military-oriented government would succeed Thein Sein and revive the project.
David I. Steinberg is distinguished professor of Asian studies emeritus, Georgetown University, and visiting scholar, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.
Read more at Nikkei Asian Review