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.
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.
That pattern seems to hold on this trip too. Last month, Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi defended the Myanmar government’s action at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague on the issue of violence against the Rohingya minority. The ICJ is expected to deliver its verdict on possible emergency measures on January 23. Given the difficult situation that Myanmar is in, Xi picked the right time to extract its pound of flesh from Myanmar in return for China’s support.
China has also been attempting to play the role of an “honest broker” between Myanmar and Bangladesh in repatriating the refugees. The joint statement issued during the visit stated that “The Chinese side supports the efforts of Myanmar to address the humanitarian situation and to promote peace, stability and development for all communities in Rakhine State.” For Beijing’s support on the Rohingya issue, Naypyidaw has reconsidered some of the earlier tough positions it had taken on stalled projects.
New Delhi can only hope that Myanmar may not want to tilt too much to one side, and there are indications of some discomfort in the country about China. For instance, many commentators have criticized the title of Xi’s recent article in local newspapers in Myanmar, which used the phrase “pauk-phaw.” It means fraternal or “siblings from the same mother,” but Myanmar analysts don’t seem to like the characterization. In an opinion piece in The Irrawady, Kyaw Zwa Moe, a local analyst commented that “The countries are close geopolitically, but distant in many ways.”
Also, there are certain projects that were not given any play during the visit although they were big on China’s agenda. For instance, the stalled $3.6 billion Myitsone dam project was not mentioned during the meetings in Myanmar, possibly sensing the opposition in Myanmar, from northern Kachin state to the deep south. There were reportedly about 40 civil society groups calling for a permanent cancellation of the project.
Therefore, for all the gains China it is making, which may worry India, Beijing will have to be careful in Myanmar. Despite the unfavorable international situation for Myanmar, Naypyidaw does not want to give into all of China’s demands yet, and if Beijing pushes too hard, it may only accelerate Myanmar’s quest for more diversification where New Delhi may gain. Though China keeps reiterating that it conducts its diplomacy with mutual respect and reciprocity as the guiding principle, smaller countries in Asia have found China’s projects have significant downsides. India, lacking China’s economic muscle or infrastructure-building capacity, can only hope that Myanmar’s caution will limit China’s influence.