Beijing beckons to embattled Myanmar - Myanmar is very important to China

  0 comments   |     by Larry Jagan on September 17 , 2018

Myanmar is very important to China. It is central to their national interest – involving both security and economic development – as part of ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative in which Myanmar plays a pivotal role.

Many have expressed their view that Myanmar was given a free hand in Rohingya ethnic cleansing as China and Russia stood by, India stayed neutral and non committal and UN as well as Western diplomacy has been too soft and virtually ineffective. The world remained a silent spectator to genocide of poor hapless Muslim Rohingya.

 Bangladesh did get a number of ineffective UN resolutions passed and HR agencies were loud in condemning Suu Kyi. But these were brushed aside by the Generals in charge of Myanmar and allies stood by. China did midwife an ‘MOU’ between Bangladesh and Myanmar for repatriation, heavily tilted in Myanmar’s favour but it never gained credibility as no solution appeared in sight.

China is increasingly bringing Myanmar into its geopolitical orbit. As international pressure mounts, over the treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority — with some even calling for the country’s leaders to be put on trial for ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘genocide’ — Beijing hovers behind the scenes making the most of this golden opportunity to leverage concessions from its embattled neighbour. Through its concerted efforts to court Myanmar – in this time of crisis — China is not only strengthening its relationship with the country’s civilian and military leaders, but is actively engaged in the country’s reconciliation process and directing its political landscape. This includes playing mediator between Myanmar and Bangladesh, supporting the peace process and bringing some of the rebel ethnic groups into the political fold and improving relations between the civilian government and the country’s military leaders.

Shortly after Wan Yi announced the plans for an economic corridor, Myanmar’s commerce minister, Dr. Than Myint told media that the offer would be reluctantly accepted as the country “had no other option”.

Of course, Beijing stands to gain enormously from these initiatives. There is a strategic and economic imperative behind China’s solid support for Myanmar. As Chinese diplomats told South Asian Monitor (SAM) recently, “Myanmar is now very, very important to China”. It is central to their national interest – involving both security and economic development – as part of the ‘One Belt One Road initiative’, in which Myanmar plays a pivotal role. Under this strategic plan, Myanmar will be central to China’s transport and economic links to the west – South Asia, the Middle East and Europe – and to the rest of South East Asia, both to the east and south.

Nevertheless, although this would certainly offer Beijing untold benefits – strategically and economically, Chinese political assistance offers Myanmar enormous advantages too. First – and part of the Chinese foreign minister’s shuttle diplomacy at the time of the announcement of the economic corridor – the repatriation deal between Bangladesh and Myanmar for the return of over 700,000 Rohingya refugees, was brokered by China, according to Myanmar government insiders.

This has been building for some time, but when the Chinese foreign minister, Wan Yi visited Myanmar last month he announced the plans for the economic corridor which was to run through Myanmar: linking Kunming in southern China to Mandalay; and from there to Yangon, Kyaukphu in the west, and Myawaddy in the east, which would link the whole network with Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. All these places are to be linked by roads, some of which are already being built or upgraded. And at Kyaukphu, a deep-sea port is to be built which would provide an important shipping lane to west — through Indian Ocean — primarily for imports from the Middle East. Shortly after Wan Yi announced the plans for an economic corridor, Myanmar’s commerce minister, Dr. Than Myint told SAM that the offer would be reluctantly accepted as the country “had no other option”. He bemoaned the fact that potential western investors – partly because of the violence against the Rohingya population in the western region of the country – were increasingly shunning the country, and said Myanmar had no alternative but to turn to China for both investment and development aid, especially for infrastructure expansion. However, he hinted that this option was not without its drawbacks. The key one is China’s desire to control its projects and almost exclusively use Chinese labour. Thousands of Chinese workers are already in the country, working on the oil pipeline from Made Island in Rakhine to Kunming and other infrastructure projects.

Nevertheless, although this would certainly offer Beijing untold benefits – strategically and economically, Chinese political assistance offers Myanmar enormous advantages too. First – and part of the Chinese foreign minister’s shuttle diplomacy at the time of the announcement of the economic corridor – the repatriation deal between Bangladesh and Myanmar for the return of over 700,000 Rohingya refugees, was brokered by China, according to Myanmar government insiders. They are also working behind the scenes to assist in any way necessary to make the implementation of the agreement proceed without any major hitches.

Secondly China has become the dominant force supporting the Myanmar government’s peace efforts, by also playing a key role as mediator with some of the ethnic rebel groups that are yet to sign the national ceasefire agreement (NCA) and become an integral part of the political discussions on creating a federal democratic state. Chinese leaders recently promised both the Myanmar army chief, Min Aung Hlaing and Aung San Suu Kyi separately that they will get the northern alliance – a loose coalition of seven ethnic groups, including the powerful Kachin Independence Organistion, based along the Chinese border – led by the Wa, who are closely aligned with China, to accept Myanmar’s conditions for participation. They have been dragging their feet on signing the NCA and participating in the next peace conference or the third session of Panglong, now scheduled for late January. In the course of the next few weeks a series of meetings are planned to iron out the procedures and agenda for the meeting. The northern alliance have been a thorn in the side of the peace process – especially for those who signed the NCA in October 2015, when Thein Sein was President – insisting they wanted to sign the agreement collectively, while the civilian government, and especially the military, want them to sign individually. But recent developments may have led to a breakthrough, a senior member of the signature group told SAM, on condition of anonymity. “If China insists they sign, and participate in Panglong, they’ll have no option but to concede,” he said. But this is also in China’s interests. Beijing primarily wants peace and stability along their borders with Myanmar, according to Chinese diplomats. So, they also want the northern alliance to acquiesce, lay down their arms and be integrated into a federal union, otherwise they might pose security risks for any infrastructure projects, including the already built pipeline. Instability and fighting in Rakhine could also pose a danger for the development of Kyaukphu – so resolving the inter-communal violence in Arakan is also in their longer-term interests.

This last meeting – post-Beijing – was far more significant, according to military sources. At this meeting they discussed succession within the army. In fact, many in the military now believe Min Aung Hlaing will retire soon and enter politics. This move would have to have Aung San Kyi’s approval.

The other area where China has intervened – in the interests of political stability – is to act as a mediator between Aung San Suu Kyi and the army commander. Sources close to the State Counsellor and Min Aung Hlaing described their relationship as “rock bottom” a few months ago. They both mistrust each other though they both know they need each other and must work together. Both of them have recently visited Beijing and their Chinese hosts are understood to have acted as ‘go-betweens’, a former senior military officer told SAM, confidentially. Since their separate trips to China, they have held an important meeting. This is only the second time they have actually faced each other since the violence in Rakhine erupted for the first time in October last year. They met in late October to discuss the peace process, according to government insiders. This last meeting – post-Beijing – was far more significant, according to military sources. At this meeting they discussed succession within the army a former senior officer told SAM. In fact, many in the military now believe Min Aung Hlaing will retire soon and enter politics. This move would have to have Aung San Kyi’s approval. The army commander was due to retire in early 2016, after he turned 60 – the compulsory retirement age for military officers – but was extended: Aung San Suu Kyi agreed to a two-year extension, according to government insiders; while the military defied this and nominally extended it for 5 years – till early 2021. This has been a bone of contention between them ever since. So, Beijing is again playing peacemaker – this time between the military and the civilian government. For China the benefits are obvious: they do not want political tensions within Myanmar’s polity let alone political schisms that lead to disruption and a possible coup on the part of the army. Having good relations with both leaders, they are well positioned to mediate. They do not want to have to deal with a divided government and military.

With Min Aung Hlaing, they have the extra weapon to wield in that any UN sanctions and moves to refer him to the International Criminal Court (ICC) though would have to at least abstain in any Security Council vote. For Aung San Suu Kyi, it is the economic incentives and concluding a successful peace process that are attractive.

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