China Bounces Back in Myanmar as West Retreats

The year 2017 was a momentous one for China in so far as regaining its ground in Myanmar is concerned. China not only leveraged its salience in the ongoing peace and reconciliation process but also took advantage of Myanmar’s difficulties with the UN and the Western countries on the Rohingya crisis. Further, Beijing was able to push Aung San Suu Kyi-led government to be part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.
Donald Trump’s unpredictable and transactional approach, which is in direct contrast to erstwhile Obama administration’s approach, did not help the US and its Western allies in balancing China’s economic and military clout in Myanmar.

China’s Myitsone dam project had been suspended by the Myanmar government in 2011; Letpadaung copper mining project undertaken by China was also suspended because of objections by the locals, which led to the perceptions that China was losing ground in Myanmar. China has also become a broker in the peace and reconciliation talks between the Myanmar government and the ethnic armed organisations (EAO) led by the United Wa State Army (UWSA) who have not signed the National Ceasefire Agreement. It is well known that China continues to arm and support powerful ethnic armed groups like the UWSA and others. Chinese leadership has been using EAOs as a policy tool to achieve their strategic and economic interests.

Multiple attacks by Rohingya militants on Myanmar security forces at the end of August and the ensuing heavy response by Tatmadaw resulted in exodus of Rohingyas to Bangladesh. While the UN and many other nations condemned the human rights violations, the Chinese extended their support to Myanmar.

While the UN general assembly asked Myanmar to end a military campaign against Rohingyas and called for the appointment of a UN special envoy, China opposed the resolution. Close and warm relationship of Suu Kyi with the US and the western countries has been under stress for some time now.

Both the EU and US have suspended their military contacts with the Myanmar armed forces and they are reviewing all practical defence cooperation as a result of what they have termed disproportionate use of force against Rohingyas.

Moreover, China also emerged as a viable mediator between Myanmar and Bangladesh on the question of return of Rohingya refugees. Apparently, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar in November and suggested a three-stage path for Myanmar and Bangladesh to work out the Rohingya crisis – ensuring a ceasefire and restoring stability, talks between the two countries for return of Rohingyas, and humanitarian aid and development of Rakhine. Repatriation of refugees is on the anvil, which may start in January, though details are not yet very clear. China also made it known that it was willing to give up the suspended Myitsone dam project provided it could get strategic opportunities elsewhere in Myanmar. Therefore, Beijing has been pushing for getting other strategic projects in Myanmar. In September China was able to obtain 70 per cent equity for the development of Kyaukphyu deep sea port on Arakan coast that provides strategic access to Bay of Bengal. This was despite the fact that the locals have been objecting to the project. There have also been concerns about lack of transparency in arriving at the deal.

Kyaukphyu deep sea port will be the key project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Myanmar. As a mark of support Aung San Suu Kyi had attended the BRI Forum meeting held in mid-May 2017.

While China has been consolidating its presence, India, on its part, continued its efforts to strengthen its engagement with Myanmar, with PM Modi visiting Myanmar in September 2017. During foreign secretary S Jaishankar’s visit to Myanmar in December India earmarked funds for socio-economic development and livelihood initiatives in Rakhine state.

Undoubtedly, in order to balance China’s presence India needs to speedily execute existing developmental projects and undertake additional infrastructure and connectivity projects in Myanmar as part of its Act East and Neighbourhood First policies. India also needs to promote joint developmental projects in collaboration with countries like Japan.


Source: The Economic Times


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