View: Ominous signs for India as China regains pole position in Myanmar

By Shyam Saran

The visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Myanmar on January 17-18 marks the return of China to a position of dominance in a country which has traditionally been wary of its powerful northern neighbour. From 1990 to 2010, China had taken full advantage of the international isolation of Myanmar and its interethnic conflicts to emerge as the most important influence in the country.

Since overturning the results of the elections which were won by the National League for Democracy (NLD) and its charismatic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the military junta which captured power, which it is still loathe to give up, had used China as its political shield. China, which had kept governments in Yangon off-balance by providing weapons and sanctuaries to ethnic groups inhabiting the border regions, provided relief by promoting ceasefire or arms for peace agreements with the military junta, in exchange for local autonomy.

For a now fast-growing China in need of resources, raw material and markets, political influence translated quickly into preferential trade access and opportunities for the exploitation of Myanmar’s virtually untapped resources. These included minerals, timber and agricultural products. China was also the main supplier of weapons to the military. Chinese penetration into Myanmar was secured through the building of major highways linking southern China with Myanmar. Border trade was promoted through several border trade points. In ethnic areas adjacent to China, regional autonomy was leveraged to establish close trade and economic relations over which the central government had tenuous control. Chinese investment in these ethnic areas led to their being more integrated with southern China than with the rest of Myanmar.

When I took up my assignment as India’s ambassador to Myanmar in 1997, I found that Chinese influence was overwhelming but, the military junta was deeply discomfited with this state of affairs. Joining ASEAN as a member that year was a means of diversifying relations away from China. Unfortunately, the Asian economic crisis belied the expectation of large inflow of capital and increased trade. Our own efforts to strengthen relations with the country were wellreceived by key military leaders. We were, over time, able to establish ourselves as a credible countervailing power in a country of significant strategic interest as a neighbour.

It may be worthwhile to spell out why Myanmar is important to India. Four of our most sensitive border states ––Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram –– are ranged across the border with Myanmar and the maintenance of security in these states requires a cooperative Myanmar which would not permit any power to use its territory for undertaking hostile activities against India.

Myanmar and India are littoral states of the Bay of Bengal and any hostile state entrenched on the Myanmar coast may undermine India’s security. As an ASEAN country, Myanmar is also India’s gateway to South-East Asia. No Act East policy is possible without Myanmar’s active participation. It is in this context that the return of China as a dominant power in Myanmar has ominous implications.

With political changes in Myanmar which began in 2010, Myanmar’s international isolation began to recede. The first sign was the suspension of a Chinese major hydro-electric project on the Irrawaddy river at Myintsone in 2011 by the then reformist Thein Sein-led military government in response to widespread popular opposition. Thereafter, the partial political rehabilitation of Suu Kyi enabled restoration of relations with the US, with President Obama himself visiting Yangon in 2012.

China had to compete with several other suitors. Its influence declined though it remained the most important partner for Myanmar, continuing to invest in infrastructure and the strategic oil and gas sector. The pipeline linking the port of Sittwe with Kunming in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan was completed in 2013.

However, Western courtship of Myanmar and Suu Kyi’s iconic international status began to evaporate when the Rohingya crisis broke out in 2017. Nearly half-a-million refugees poured across the border into Bangladesh, driven out by the Myanmar military which engaged in ethnic cleansing, burning entire villages and killing a large number of Muslim Bengali speaking people living in Rakhine. The crisis continues to simmer and Myanmar’s international isolation is now similar to its fate before 2010. It has been subjected to western sanctions and stands accused before the International Court of Justice of genocide against the Rohingyas.

It is this diplomatic isolation which has enabled China to re-emerge as an indispensable partner for Myanmar, providing the beleaguered regime a political shield at international fora and enabling it to withstand western sanctions. Xi Jinping’s visit reflects this altered situation. While Myanmar may be uncomfortable with its renewed dependence on China, it has few alternatives. India is unable to step up to the plate because its resources are limited and on the Rohingya issue, it is constrained by the equally compelling imperatives of its relations with Bangladesh and with Myanmar respectively.

An important project launched during Xi’s visit is the development of the Kyaukphu deep sea port on the Rakhine coast just opposite our eastern seaboard. According to reports, China will be constructing 10 terminals with port handling capacity for 7.8 million tonnes of freight each year. They can also handle 4.9 million containers per year. A pipeline will connect the port to Kunming, enabling oil and gas from the Gulf to be transported to China thus providing an alternative to the more vulnerable Malacca Straits and South China Sea route. It will be the terminal for the China-Myanmar Economic corridor. An industrial zone will be built at the port. Thus, on the two flanks of India, there is an Economic Corridor to the west, through Pakistan, and an economic corridor to the east through Myanmar, with major Chinese controlled ports at Gwadar (Pakistan) and Kyuakphyu (Myanmar). There is already a Chinese controlled port at Hambantota in Sri Lanka to the south. Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean, girding the Indian peninsula is now a reality.

As the decade of the 2020s unfolds, India’s neighbourhood first policy will be seriously tested.

(The writer, a former foreign secretary, was India’s ambassador to Myanmar from 1997 to 2001)

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