“China’s gas pipeline will be burned,” chanted a group of protesters in Myanmar this week on the route of a Chinese pipeline.
Hailed by China as a symbol of “mutually beneficial cooperation,” the pipeline has become a target for public anger over perceptions Beijing is backing the junta that seized power in a Feb. 1 coup.
The rise in anti-China sentiment has raised questions in Myanmar business circles and in China, not only over the surge of Chinese investment in recent years but for billions of dollars earmarked for a strategic neighbor on Beijing’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure plan.
“Chinese business, Out! Out!,” the dozen or so protesters shouted in Mandalay city, a staging point on pipelines across Myanmar from the Indian Ocean to China. Social media carried many more threats.
The gas pipeline, which carries gas from Myanmar’s offshore fields, opened in 2013, as Myanmar’s military was starting democratic reforms. The $1.5-billion, 770-km (480 mile) oil pipe alongside, bringing crude mainly from the Middle East, started in 2017 under the government of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now detained and facing an array of charges.
A PetroChina official who declined to be identified said there had been no problems with the operation of the oil pipeline—the only source of crude for the state energy giant’s refinery in Kunming, Yunnan province.
Protests over the pipeline flared after a Myanmar government document leaked from a Feb. 24 meeting showed Chinese officials had asked Myanmar’s junta to provide better security—and intelligence on ethnic minority armed groups on the pipeline route.
Reuters was unable to reach officials in Myanmar for comment on the document.
“Safeguarding the security of bilateral cooperation projects is the common responsibility of both China and Myanmar,” China’s foreign ministry said in response to questions on the document, reiterating its call for “all sides in Myanmar to exercise calm and restraint” and to resolve their differences.
“This would also benefit the secure operations of bilateral cooperation projects,” it said.
China did not immediately respond to a question on anti-China sentiment.
Billions of dollars had been earmarked for such projects, including an economic corridor ending at a $1.3 billion deepwater port, industrial zones, a new city next to the commercial hub of Yangon and a railway to the border.
“Hostile public opinion will inflict long-term threats and damage to China’s plan,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Washington-based Stimson Center.
She pointed in particular to the damage done to Beijing’s reputation over the Myitsone Dam project, which was shelved in 2011 amid a local outcry – prompting a concerted effort by China to cultivate the public as well as political leaders.
“Public opinion has been treated as a priority for China’s policy in Myanmar,” she said.