As Myanmar Looks West, Relations With China Cool

At the border between Myanmar and China
At the border between Myanmar and China
Wang Ling

BEIJING — Relations between Myanmar and China remain tense after a bomb from a Burmese military plane fell in the Chinese border province of Yunnan last week. The bomb killed four people and injured another nine and also prompted a good number of Burmese to taking refuge on the Chinese side.

China responded to the incident by quickly summoning Myanmar's ambassador to make its displeasure known and severely condemn the incident. It also urged the Burmese government to undertake a thorough investigation and take effective measures to prevent a similar incident from happening again.

In an emergency call one day after the bombing, Chinese Central Military Commission Vice Commander Fan Changlong told the Myanmar defense forces commander to rein in the Burmese military. He also warned that "China will take decisive action to protect its people's lives and property."

The Burmese government, which has promised to cooperate with China in the investigation of the incident, blames the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), a rebel army if the northeastern minority Kokang region led by Pheung Kya-shin. It accuses the MNDAA of trying to sabotage Sino-Myanmar relations.

This isn't the first time the situation in northern Burma has spilled over into China. Over the past two decades, China has acted to a certain extent as a mediator in the conflicts between the Kachin Independence Army, another rebel group in northern Burma, and Myanmar government forces, trying earnestly to safeguard peace and stability along the border.

The two neighbors also maintain important economic and trade ties. Before Myanmar's first generally elected government came to power in 2011, China was undoubtedly Myanmar's longest and closest friend in the eyes of the West. Relations were particularly close during the nearly 20 years of sanctions that the West (except Japan) imposed starting in the mid-1990s as a way to protest Myanmar's then military-led government, which repressed the country's democratic movements.

When Thein Sein, Myanmar's first civilian-elected president, was interviewed by Chinese newspapers in 2012, he noted that his country owed its thanks to China because when the country suffered an economic blockade it was China that provided timely loans.

As Burmese government data shows, before the new government took power in July 2011, more than 40% of the country's foreign capital came from China. During the 2011-2012 fiscal year (April 2011- March 2012), China was Myanmar's biggest trade partner with bilateral trade of about $5 billion, which is three times more than its combined trade with Japan and South Korea.

Branching out

Now, though, the once-close trade link is undergoing changes. As the Myanmar government embarks on a series of economic and political reforms, diversifying its diplomatic relations and trade by increasingly looking West, Sino-Myanmar relations appear to be heading towards a "new normal stage."

Vice Chairman of CITIC construction company Yuan Shaobin and Burmese Minister of Agriculture U Ohn Myint in Myanmar on Feb. 4 — Photo: U Aung/Xinhua/ZUMA

It's not difficult to detect the signs of change. For instance, Thein Sein, upon being elected president, said that in order to respect public opinion the Irrawaddy River Myitsone dam project valued at nearly $4 billion and funded by China was to be suspended. It was a shrewd action directed at public opinion and is deemed a milestone in Myanmar reform as well as an indication of souring relations between the two partners.

Since then, the press has reported problems with numerous Chinese projects. And overall Chinese investment has plummeted.

Europe and the United States, in the meantime, are boosting their relationships with the country as well as exploring business opportunities there. In 2011, U.S.-Myanmar trade explanded for the first time in a decade, up to $300 million. Even though the United States hasn't totally lifted all sanctions against Myanmar, it is gradually easing them back. The EU, for its part, decided in 2013 to permanently abandon, except for a military embargo, all sanctions against Myanmar and its officials.

On top of all that, U.S. President Barack Obama has so far visited Myanmar twice. Thein Sein, in turn, has made trips to the West, including to the United States and Germany, to attract investment.

The Burmese press reports that the country, since halting the Chinese dam project, has switched towards the UK, France and Norway, seeking cooperation with renowned multinational firms with good quality equipment and strong capital for its new hydropower projects.

Economic ties have also improved with Japan. Some Burmese officials even predict that in the 2014-2015 fiscal year Japan will hopefully to become the country's largest investor. David I. Steinberg, a Myanmar expert, doesn't agree. He says Japan is unlikely to break even with China, which is still Myanmar's top investor and trade partner. Steinberg also believes that rapproachment with India and the West will help Myanmar return to a more neutral stance instead of living under China's shadow.

Lasting loyalties

Before the bombing incident took place, China had already foreseen the transition in relations and the challenges implied between the two countries. When Thein Sein attended the 2013 Boao Forum held in China, Chinese Ambassador to Myanmar Yang Houlan pointed out that an increasing number of multinational companies would soon enter the country and that competition would grow much more fierce.

Myanmar, nevertheless, continues to prioritize its ties with China, even if domestically there has been some anti-Chinese sentiment in recent years. Last year, Myanmar took the rotating chair of the ASEAN summit. When interviewed by the press, a Burmese diplomat said that the country wouldn't change its active, independent and non-aligned foreign policy and that it wished to maintain peaceful relations with all countries, China in particular.

Myanmar will hold a presidential election this year. There have been rumors recently that possible candidate Aung San Suu Kyi, the charismatic leader of the National League for Democracy as well as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, will visit China. No matter how the bilateral Sino-Myanmar relations develop, the imperative is that Chinese people's lives and safety must be guaranteed.

Chen Lixiong, Caixin's special correspondent to Singapore, also contributed to this report.  

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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