(Bloomberg) -- An op-ed by a U.S. diplomat accusing China of eroding Myanmar’s sovereignty led to the two superpowers sparring online over who had the Southeast Asian nation’s best interests in mind.

China is exploiting its smaller neighbor’s commodity industries and labor force, George N. Sibley, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Myanmar, wrote on Saturday. The Chinese embassy there responded in a statement almost twice as long, saying American efforts to stigmatize the relationship between it and Myanmar are doomed to fail.

Diplomats representing the world’s two largest economies are getting into more public spats, trading barbs over issues such as human rights and economic and security policies. U.S. President Donald Trump has blamed China for covering up the coronavirus pandemic, accused Beijing of “illicit espionage to steal our industrial secrets” and threatened the U.S. could pursue a “complete decoupling” from the country.

China has repeatedly rejected U.S. accusations over its handling of the pandemic, Uighurs, Hong Kong and trade, and it has fired back at the Trump administration for undermining global cooperation and seeking to start a “new cold war.”

Sibley said China’s new security law in Hong Kong and its actions in the South China Sea should not be seen as disputes that are “far away” from Myanmar.

‘Driving a Wedge’

“Instead of demarcating fisheries, it takes the shape of unregulated banana plantations in Kachin State that thrive on forced labor and damage the environment,” Sibley wrote. “Instead of spurious maritime claims, it takes the shape of unregulated investment and corruption in the mining and forestry sectors. Instead of island building, it takes the shape of infrastructure projects and special economic zones that pile on debt and cede regulatory control, and benefit China far more than they do the people of Myanmar.”

Hours later, the Chinese embassy in Myanmar refuted Sibley’s statement on its website and Facebook page in both English and Burmese, saying he is “deliberately driving a wedge” between the neighbors. It is “selfish, hypocritical, contemptible and ugly,” the embassy’s spokesperson said.

“Over the years, the U.S. has imposed sanctions on Myanmar in political, economic, military and other fields, which not only seriously hindered Myanmar’s economic and social development, but also greatly affected Myanmar’s exchanges with other countries,” according to the Chinese statement.

China is Myanmar’s most important trading partner, accounting for about $11 billion in trade in 2018, almost double the next nearest nation, Thailand.


But there have been conflicts and disagreements as well. In 2018, Myanmar scaled down a Chinese-led deep-water port project along the coast of the Bay of Bengal for fear of falling into debt. Relations were strained in 2015 by a flare-up in fighting between Myanmar’s military and an ethnic Chinese rebel group, with civilians killed by bombs falling on China’s side of the border.

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Myanmar in January, during which the two sides signed a total of 33 agreements including projects under the Belt and Road Initiative.

“When negotiating energy, communications, or transportation infrastructure projects, Myanmar benefits when it is not burdened by unnecessary debt or exploited for strategic gain,” Sibley said.

China had a different view.

“The two sides are strengthening cooperation in the fields such as transportation, energy and production capacity, which Myanmar needs urgently for its development,” the Chinese embassy spokesperson said. “China is committed to promoting practical cooperation with Myanmar on the basis of mutual respect and mutual benefit.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.