How a historical border treaty between China and Myanmar could keep both countries out of troubled waters when it comes to the controversial and stalled project.  

After taking power in April 2016 some specialists expected that Myanmar’s NLD government would quickly determine the fate of the China-backed and controversial Myitsone dam.

Amid a wave of popular, protest construction on the Chinese-backed project was halted by the Thein Sein government in 2011. Aung San Suu Kyi’s assurances in August that there will be a solution to the stalled dam may be welcome news in Beijing.

As it  turns out though,  both sides still need to go through a hard, if not time-consuming, bargaining process in order to solve this bilateral issue — a problem further complicated by the fact that it cuts across Kachin localism, Burmese nationalism, and cultural symbolism.

But a solution is not impossible – and both countries only need to turn back the clock and look to the Sino-Burmese Boundary Treaty for a potential way forward.

Today’s leaders in Myanmar and China have inherited a shared legacy of successful bargaining from the 1950s on one of the most significant and controversial issues in the history of Sino-Burmese relations—boundary settlement.

According to the final treaty signed in 1960, the Chinese government recognised and respected the status quo of the then China-Burma boundary, and gave up previous claims on territories by accepting the “McMahon Line” and the “1941 Line”. In return Beijing got back Hpimaw(片马), Gawlum(古浪), and Kangfang (岗房)villages, and the Panhuang(班洪)-Panlao(班老) tribal area.

For China, the treaty relinquished previous claims over unsettled territory and represented a tough decision that was initially strongly opposed by the Chinese embassy in Burma, by the government of Yunnan province, and by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. It is still  criticised by nationalists, and on occasion by researchers, today.

For Myanmar, the treaty conceded 132 square miles to China in exchange for 85 square miles. Sacrificing a small portion of territory in order to prevent a major misunderstanding and anxiety was more than worthwhile.

The Sino-Burmese boundary treaty  was part of a national strategy designed by then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, and a clear demonstration of his pragmatism.  In 1956 he told Burmese Prime Minister U Ba Swe  “we have to concede to you in order to solve, once and for all, all China’s border disputes with neighboring countries. We will make every effort to overcome the difficulties to fulfill the scheme.”

Thanks to Premier Zhou’s forward-looking spirit and diplomatic pragmatism,  an an initiator of the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence”, the boundary settlement has made a great contribution to the mutual benefit of Myanmar and China.

That’s why today, China should respect the status quo of Myitsone dam. Learning from history, Beijing must recognise and accept the decision to halt the Myitsone dam project  rather than pushing the NLD government to reauthorise construction.

This is a priority for three reasons.

First, Myitsone dam is quite unpopular in Kachin State which has been in revolt against Myanmar’s central government since 2011. Any kind of revival of the project will jeopardise Myanmar’s peace process and any eventual peace agreements with the Kachin Independent Army (KIA) that, to a large extend, represents one fourth  of the over 1.6 million people in the state.

Second, Myitsone dam has already become one of the main targets of Burmese patriotism and environmental activist movements. If Aung San Suu Kyi were to accept generous Chinese terms to restart the dam, it seems most likely that her public reputation would suffer, or worse, it could be an act of ‘political suicide’.

 Third, any decision on Myitsone dam should not be judged as an indication of Myanmar’s ‘flirtation’ with the West, nor should it be seen as an example of the special Paukphaw friendship shared with China. It should be seen for what it is – a decision about a dam. Neutralism in this contentious issue is still in the national interest for both China and Myanmar.

The final agreement on the Myitsone dam controversy must result from modest concessions by both sides. China and Myanmar need to reach a mutually respected deal to break the impasse and move Sino-Myanmar relations forward.

Liu Yun is an independent analyst based in China and writes on Myanmar regularly.