On 17th January 2020, Xi Jinping made his maiden visit to Myanmar, signing 33 new pacts based on the Chinese vision of “21st-century silk road”. Myanmar is one of the nations interested in this Chinese vision and China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which is a subset project of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
One of the important talks during the visit included a new city project in Yangoon, which China is interested to invest in. This visit is very much alarming for India, which is emerging as a strong rival to China in the Indo-Pacific region. Rajiv Bhatia, former ambassador of India to Myanmar, asked the visit “to be taken very seriously by the (Indian) government.”
In recent times, China has been forging new relations. Prior to 2017, China-Myanmar relations were not cordial, as people recognised that China is increasing and trying to dominate a country such as Myanmar. A $3.6 billion megaproject, the Beijing-backed dam is still on hold due to a 2011 controversy, due to which the dam was suspended over environmental concerns. However, due to two major reasons, relations between both the nations are taking a new turn.
Post 2014, China has been flexing its muscles by dominating South Asian nations. A perfect example is when China deceived Sri Lanka by pursuing the country to take a loan from China in order to build a Hambantota port. Sri Lanka had hoped that the port will help its economy grow, whereas reality contradicted this dream. The port did not turn out the way it was hoped to be.
Instead of repaying the loan to China, Beijing offered to give the port to China on lease. Further, China is taking up different moves – from sanctioning huge line of credits to developing infrastructure in countries like Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and more – in order to promote its BRI project and increase its soft power.
In November 2019, the Republic of Gambia, an African country, filed a case against Myanmar over the Rohingya issue at ICJ. Myanmar has been under constant pressure from the Western and Islamic countries over the Rohingya crisis. In these conditions, China offered a helping hand to Myanmar. China is also facing criticism over the condition of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province. It is a very common tactic of China to draw countries that are facing International criticism closer.
For example, Iran faced sanctions by the USA, prohibiting any nation from purchasing crude oil from Iran. While all the nations (including India, Iran’s trusted ally) started abiding the the US sanction, China continued its purchases from Iran. Not only this, but in the next few decades, China will invest $400 billion in Iran in various sectors. In such a situation, when Iran’s economy is in turmoil, China’s help will surely change the regional geopolitics.
The second reason for China to increase its influence in Myanmar is the BRI (Belt and Road initiative) itself. China’s vision is to re-establish the lost old silk road, which used to connect China to the Roman Empire. If this project brings even partial success, the Chinese economy and trade will boost like never before, with the ‘absolute free trade’ policy.
In a nutshell, China backs Myanmar’s United DWA State Army (UDSA), whereas India supports the country’s democratic camp. The democratic camp came forward in 1988 when Aung San Suu Kyi led the uprising for democracy. After a long tussle, democracy was established and Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party won the elections. But, Myanmar’s military-led SLOC party, with China’s support, put Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. Things eased out post 1992, but today, despite Aung San Suu Kyi being the country’s leader, the military holds some power.
In order to contain China’s increasing influence, India, Japan, Australia, and the USA formed a group by the name Quad. Moreover, ASEAN’s tussle with China continues due to the South China Sea dispute. Despite Myanmar being an ASEAN member, countries like itself and Cambodia remain aligned towards China.
India, on the other hand, is pushing forward in the Indian sub-continent, not letting its allies slip away. In case of Myanmar only, in 2017, Bangladesh purchased two 035G type submarines worth $203 million from China; India correctly analysed the situation where Myanmar was rushed and, in response to Bangladesh’s purchase, wanted to keep itself afloat.
This was when Myanmar decided to purchase Indian-made Sindhuvir submarine. In 2019, India got the charge of Sittwe Port in Myanmar, which could be very beneficial for their bilateral relations, as well as the Indo-Myanmar Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project.
A common enemy of both countries is the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which is suspected to be funded by China. KIA is a threat to Myanmar, and was also found supporting the Arakan army, which is an insurgent group found to threaten the Kaladan Project. Kaladan is an essential river for the connectivity of Sittwe port to Myanmar. In order to safeguard the project, Myanmar’s and India’s military commenced ‘Operation Sunrise’, aimed to push the Arakan army back.
China’s ambitious BRI project is full of opportunities, but adversaries do fear it. For a country such as India, many experts believe that India should set the past aside and think of the future. However, given that both the countries are proud nations and currently have nationalist governments in power, border disputes (the primary reason for tensions between both the nations) are hard to be negotiated.
Note: This article was originally published on the author’s blog here.
Featured image has been sourced from here.