Entertainer Linn Linn sings about love, the environment and freedom. But his fans keep asking for a different song—the one about Chinese immigrants taking over his hometown.“Who are they in this city? / Neighbors that arrive from northeast,” he sings over a gentle folk-rock melody on an acoustic guitar. “I close both my ears in utter shame / Messed up with strangers / The death of our dear Mandalay.”

Over the past decade, Mr. Linn Linn says, he has seen a wave of Chinese traders pouring into Mandalay, buying up businesses and pushing residents out of town. His song “The Death of Mandalay” attracted tens of thousands of views after a fan filmed a performance and posted it online.

“Whenever I play anywhere…they request that I play the song,” the pony-tailed singer said as he sipped coffee one recent afternoon. He said he respects Chinese culture and many of its hardworking citizens, but he complained that the Chinese “give less than they take.”

His tough words and his song’s following are among signs of growing resentment in Myanmar and a number of Asian countries over their giant neighbor’s rising economic, military and political power. Concerns range from the commercial, such as natural-resource extraction and Chinese merchants selling cheap imports, to the geopolitical, seen in Beijing’s offshore territorial claims and the unveiling of its first aircraft carrier.

“The sense of unhappiness with China among ordinary people in some countries has been getting more acute by the day,” wrote Guo Jiguang, an expert on Southeast Asian politics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in a recent report on China’s regional security environment. “They feel unhappy at the role China is playing in their country. If we ignore local people’s views, in the long term we will pay a big price.”

To some extent China already pays a price, as animosity complicates an agenda of securing both more resources and more respect and allies abroad.

At the same time, neighbors’ wariness of China is creating opportunities for the U.S. to rebuild alliances in Asia, as Washington expands military-to-military exchanges with Vietnam and the Philippines and increases aid across Southeast Asia.

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Unease with China’s heavy footprint helps explain why the U.S. was able to draw Myanmar closer to the Western world in the past two years. That shift has helped seed a degree of democracy in a land where there was none, and it has opened doors in Myanmar for Western businesses that can begin to compete with China’s state-owned behemoths.

Dr. Guo, the Chinese scholar, said Myanmar’s sharp shift not only affected China’s relations with that country but “rang the alarm bell” for Chinese foreign policy more broadly.

China’s foreign ministry said China and Myanmar had a comprehensive strategic partnership based on principles of “peaceful coexistence…equality and mutual benefit,” contributing to stability and development of the region.

“China does not want to be [hegemonic] as it is growing stronger,” the foreign ministry said. “We aim at safeguarding national sovereignty and maintaining peace and stability…We are not aimed at challenging anyone or threatening any country.”

In the past, Chinese officials have dismissed the idea of a backlash against Chinese policy and have blamed the U.S. for stirring up opposition while bolstering defense ties in Asia, as part of a strategic pivot designed to “contain” China.

China remains popular among residents of some neighboring countries, notably Pakistan, which is banking on military, nuclear and economic aid from Beijing at a time when the U.S. is moving closer to India. In addition, attitudes toward the regional giant have risen and fallen over the years and could rebound where they now are fraying.

Still, reactions in several countries appear to reveal the limits to a multibillion-dollar, decadelong effort by Beijing to win allies through aid and investment. During this charm offensive, China’s reported economic aid and related investments in Southeast Asia soared to $6.7 billion in the year 2007 alone, from just $36 million in 2002, a study by New York University’s Wagner School estimated in 2008.

Some countries began to see Beijing as a source of relative stability after the turmoil of the 1997 Asian economic crisis and later the global financial crisis. And as China’s economic power grew, analysts believed smaller nations in the region would have no choice but to go along with Chinese imperatives.

Foreign-policy experts say much of the goodwill Beijing generated over a decade has eroded in the past two years amid an increasingly assertive Chinese stance in territorial disputes. Some add that China’s diplomatic approach of working mainly with foreign government and business elites, while declining to engage with the political opposition in other countries, has left it out of step with popular sentiment in countries such as Myanmar.

In Vietnam, friction over Chinese territorial claims has led to demonstrations such as one in July that featured cries of “Down with China!” The dispute flared again late last year when a Vietnamese oil company charged that a ship doing seismic work in the South China Sea had its cables cut by Chinese fishing vessels. China’s foreign ministry rejected the claim and accused Vietnam’s navy of disturbing Chinese fishing boats.

In Cambodia, some locals accuse Chinese businesses of forcing villagers off their land for agricultural investments. In Mongolia, a recent foreign-investment law demands that state-owned companies—like those that dominate parts of China’s economy—get special permission before acquiring most natural-resource assets.

In Japan, the share of residents who report amicable feelings toward China fell to a 34-year low of 18% in a survey released in November. A survey in the Philippines, another country embroiled in a territorial dispute with China, found the highest percentage of people with “little trust” in China since the poll began in the mid-1990s. Majorities in South Korea and Indonesia recently said they were worried about China’s military rise.

Ill feelings have even flared in Hong Kong, where tens of thousands demonstrated against a plan, later dropped, for mandatory Chinese patriotism lessons in schools. In tightly controlled Singapore, meanwhile, a spate of anti-Chinese messages spread across websites when Chinese migrants working as bus drivers went on strike and snarled transportation.

Myanmar became one of China’s closest allies starting about two decades ago, after ruling generals in the country formerly called Burma reopened a Chinese border to trade. It then soared to over $6 billion a year.

Chinese support for a Myanmar military regime widely accused of human-rights abuses helped cushion it from Western sanctions. China, along with Russia, in 2007 vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for democratic change in Myanmar.

In return for its support, China obtained access to Myanmar’s mineral, timber and hydropower resources, plus another export outlet. Chinese companies began building a Myanmar pipeline important to China’s energy security. A subsidiary of Chinese arms maker China North Industries Corp. acquired a stake in a large Myanmar mine. China Power Investment Corp. and other companies got rights to develop hydroelectric dams.

Over the past year and a half, the marriage of convenience has started to unravel. Myanmar residents, freer to speak than before, are expressing widespread anger over what some see as Chinese exploitation of their country’s workers and resources. Many blame China for having helped keep the generals in power all those years.

The tensions culminated in a surprise move in September 2011 by Myanmar President Thein Sein to suspend construction of a $3.6 billion Chinese-backed dam that would have flooded an area the size of San Francisco to provide power mainly for China.

Myanmar said it was following the will of its people. China’s foreign ministry called on Myanmar to “protect Chinese enterprises’ legal and legitimate rights.” The Chinese dam builder’s president told Chinese media he was “totally astonished” by the rebuff.

Animosity festers in Mandalay, a city of about a million connected to China by a bumpy mountain road. Home to Myanmar’s last monarch in the 1880s and the site of many glittering pagodas, the city has more recently become a trading hub for teak, jade and other resources for China. Its downtown is a dusty grid of shop houses, gold dealers and businesses with names like the Great Wall shopping mall.

Chinese nationals have scooped up 70% of Mandalay property, one long-established real-estate broker estimates. “I’m a businessman, so I try to make money from wherever,” he said. “But I’m proud,” he added, and unhappy about Chinese activities such as the harvesting of Myanmar natural resources.

Sein Win, a merchant with a clothing stall at a Mandalay market, complains of low-cost Chinese goods flooding in and undercutting local businesses, which he says “collapse all the time.”

Tensions also are evident in the hinterlands. Wanbao Mining Ltd., a subsidiary of China North Industries Corp., jointly owns a copper mine with Myanmar’s military and is looking to expand. Local residents say the plan will uproot many villages and have organized protests, including one in which activists and monks occupied the mine for several days before police routed them with tear gas and water cannons. Officials of Wanbao Mining, which has offered compensation including new homes, said the company has followed all necessary legal procedures.

Myanmar’s reliance on the Chinese has long limited its ability to pursue policies that might upset Beijing, such as reining in armed minority groups that control border-area territory.

Strains over that issue flared in 2009 when Myanmar launched a crackdown. Clashes with a group called the Kokang got out of hand and led to tens of thousands of Kokang fleeing to China, creating a refugee and security problem for Beijing. A Chinese official, in a rare rebuke, called on Myanmar to do a better job of resolving its domestic problems.

Beneath the surface, tensions were greater, analysts say. As word of the friction with China spread, U.S. leaders began calling for more talks between the U.S. and Myanmar.

After an election in 2010 ushered in a Myanmar government that was nominally civilian, although led by ex-military officers, Myanmar began sending signals that it, too, wanted to improve ties with the West. The new government freed some political prisoners, loosened constraints on the media and began modernizing the economy to attract Western investors.

Washington drew encouragement from Myanmar dissidents who opined that China was becoming a bigger threat to the country than the Myanmar military, with its record of abuses.

The U.S. put together a list of demands for Myanmar to prove it was changing, including a call for its leaders to expand dialogue with dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, which they did. By mid-2012, Washington was on its way to lifting most of its sanctions, and U.S. businesses were moving in.

“China intentionally ignored public opposition to Chinese projects and the anti-China sentiment on the ground,” convinced that Myanmar couldn’t afford to alienate Beijing, wrote Yun Sun, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, in a recent paper on Myanmar.

Now, she wrote, Chinese leaders face the possibility of sharply increased competition from Western companies in Myanmar and “potentially unfriendly rules” as the Myanmar government overhauls its economic system with Western input.

Myanmar has downplayed the report of friction. “China is our neighbor. We cannot choose our neighbors. So we will maintain good relations,” said Zaw Htay, an official with President Thein Sein’s office.

But times are also changing, he said, as Myanmar residents complain about Chinese influence and Myanmar moves to build up its ties with Western nations as well. “The government is trying to create a level playing field,” he said. Now, “Chinese investors must compete with the Western investors.”

—Jeremy Page, Carlos Tejada and Kersten Zhang in Beijing; Minh Zaw in Yangon; Sun Narin in Phnom Penh; and Celine Fernandez in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this article.
Write to Patrick Barta at patrick.barta@wsj.com

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