What Does Xi’s Myanmar Visit Mean for India’s China Anxieties?

Last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping concluded a two-day visit to Myanmar, the first for Xi in his current capacity and his first overseas visit of 2020. Viewed from the perspective of growing Chinese inroads in the Indian Ocean, Xi’s trip spotlighted Beijing’s continued efforts to make geopolitical gains in line with its broader regional interests, which will be of concern to India.

While there may have been some surprise about Xi’s choice of Myanmar for his trip, it is in fact in line with China’s continued interest in making inroads with respect to the Indian Ocean. With the Myanmar visit, Xi has effectively completed his key neighborhood trips, having traveled through the Maldives and Sri Lanka in 2014, Pakistan in 2015, Bangladesh in 2016, and Nepal in 2019.

From India’s perspective, New Delhi can be none too pleased with China’s constant forays into the wider Indian Ocean region. But at least for now, India appears to be letting Myanmar’s natural caution limit China’s influence.

The significance of Xi’s trip ought not to be understated. It has been nearly two decades since a Chinese leader has traveled to Myanmar. While consolidating political and strategic ties are important for China, like in Nepal, there has been skepticism in Myanmar about partnering with China on the Belt and Road projects. But at the same time, given the difficult times that Myanmar is faced with internationally, clearly Myanmar is looking for support from China, which comes at a price.

Consolidation and implementation of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor was an important item in Xi’s Myanmar agenda and China has been quite successful on that front as the joint statement clearly outlined. China has other security interests as well, seeing Myanmar as a potential gateway to the Indian Ocean.

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From New Delhi’s perspective, both are problematic. India has taken a strong position against Belt and Road and it worries about the strategic implications of any Chinese bases in the Bay of Bengal under guise of infrastructural projects.

India’s worries are only likely to grow. During Xi’s visit, China and Myanmar have signed a total of 33 agreements, memoranda of understanding (MoU), protocols, and exchanges of letters on areas including major infrastructure projects, railways, industrial and power projects, trade and investment. Giving a big boost to China’s efforts at seeking greater presence in the Indian Ocean, the two countries signed a concession agreement and shareholders’ agreement for the Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) deep seaport project.

The Kyaukpyu deep seaport is particularly critical for China as it would provide it with an alternative to Straits of Malacca, which is currently their lifeline for energy transportation as well as a trade corridor. Making progress on the Kyaukpyu port is important also because it is linked to the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and therefore the China-Myanmar agreement on the port is touted as a big success for the BRI.

Yun Sun, a China specialist, was earlier quoted as saying that “It’s all part and parcel of Beijing’s projection of soft power, with the intention of winning the hearts and minds of the whole of Myanmar, without whom their strategic Belt and Road Initiative southwestwards will stall.”

The two countries have also agreed on MoUs to undertake a feasibility study on the Myanmar-China Power Interconnection Project in addition to conducting feasibility studies for the Yangon River Estuary West Bank Protection, Mandalay-Bagan Railway Line, and Watalone Tunnel projects. Clearly, the Myanmar government has tried to accommodate some of the Chinese demands, but much like in Nepal, Myanmar’s response has also been to stall the process by agreeing to feasibility studies rather than undertaking these projects right away.

In an opinion survey conducted by the Myanmar local newspaper, The Irrawady, analysts were skeptical about these projects, saying there are no significant benefits for Myanmar. On many of the projects, the analysts pointed out that “China views our country as a transit country. It has plans to export its products via Myanmar to the Indian Ocean. So, let’s see if Myanmar has any strategic thinking beyond that.” They are not overly optimistic: “According to our [ISP Myanmar’s] study, Myanmar barely ever thinks strategically. Usually, Myanmar makes decisions ad hoc, only aiming to solve immediate problems.”

K Yhome, a close watcher of Myanmar, notes certain similarities in China’s timing for some of these trips. He wrote in a recent essay that these visits seem to take place when leaders of small countries are under enormous international scrutiny and pressure on issues such as treatment of religious and ethnic minorities and human rights violations.

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Source : The Diplomat

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