What Xi can do to take Myanmar ties beyond economics

Published on January 16, 2020

The Rohingya crisis and ethnic insurgencies offer opportunities for China to show leadership

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen

The Straits Times – January 16, 2020

Chinese President Xi Jinping will make a two-day visit to Myanmar from tomorrow. This will be the first state visit to the country by a Chinese president since Mr Jiang Zemin’s trip in 2001.

Mr Xi will meet State Counsellor- cum-Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi and military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, while in Myanmar. The visit by the Chinese leader is significant for a number of reasons.

First, this is Mr Xi’s first visit as head of state to Myanmar, as well as his first overseas trip this year. He first visited the country in 2009 as vice-president. During his first visit, the two countries signed 16 memorandums of understanding (MOUs) on technical cooperation, the implementation of hydropower projects, the China-Myanmar oil and gas twin pipeline project and the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ).

Second, this year is the 70th anniversary of the two countries’ “Paukphaw” (fraternal) friendship since diplomatic relations were established in 1950. Preparations for Mr Xi’s visit have been under way for some time, including a meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Ms Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw last month.

Third, the two countries will sign at least three MOUs paving the way for the construction of the Kyaukphyu SEZ in Rakhine state and for promoting economic cooperation in border areas. The Kyaukphyu deep-sea port project alone is worth US$1.3 billion (S$1.8 billion).

Myanmar signed up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2018 with a 15-point MOU establishing the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). The 1,700km CMEC will run from Kunming in China’s Yunnan province through Shan state’s Muse to Mandalay in central Myanmar, and then branch out to Yangon and the Kyaukphyu SEZ in western Rakhine state.

In discussions on China-Myanmar ties, it is natural to talk mostly about economic issues and what China has to offer. But there is more to the two-way relationship than that.

It is evident that Myanmar is of geopolitical importance to China as it seeks to establish a strategic presence in the Indian Ocean and balance slow-moving India’s Act East policy in South-east Asia and East Asia; the same goes for Beijing’s interest in countering the United States in the South China Sea and the larger Indo-Pacific region.

But given the rising stature of China in the region and in global politics, Mr Xi needs to demonstrate Beijing’s leadership not only in economic initiatives but also in other areas; this is where the protracted ethnic conflict in Myanmar and the Rohingya crisis come in.

Some of China’s major investments in Myanmar are situated in areas occupied by the country’s ethnic minorities. The states of Rakhine, Shan and Kachin have witnessed some of the most intense conflicts between Myanmar’s security forces and the country’s ethnic armed groups in recent times.

If no peace and stability is established in these regions, the governments of both countries are likely to face considerable challenges with their infrastructural and developmental projects. This is particularly significant following the Arakan Army’s (AA) announcement last month that it is setting up a Rakhine Peoples’ Authority to collect taxes from businesses in its controlled areas of the state to fund its operations and the armed group’s political wing, the United League of Arakan.

The AA was set up in 2009 to fight for greater autonomy from the central government. Clashes between the group and Myanmar security forces displaced thousands of villagers from Rakhine and neighbouring Chin state last year. If no amicable solution is reached between the two sides, the hostile environment will hurt all developmental projects in the state, including the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port. If only for its own interests, Beijing can do more to help end hostilities, given its economic and political leverage in Myanmar.

Another sensitive issue of international significance is the Rohingya crisis. On Dec 11, Ms Suu Kyi stood at the podium of the International Court of Justice at The Hague and defended her country against accusations of genocide in connection with the military’s clearance operations in northern Rakhine state that led to more than 700,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh.

A United Nations fact-finding mission has recommended that the Security Council impose sanctions on Myanmar and top military officials. But China, along with Russia, has resisted increasing pressure on Myanmar’s government.

China has said in the past that the Rohingya issue should be settled between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Beijing has taken a cautious approach on this issue in order not to offend either of the two countries, which are both important economic partners.

In November 2017, the Chinese government proposed a three-stage approach to address the Rohingya crisis. The first was to effect a ceasefire to restore order and stability; the second was for all parties to support Myanmar and Bangladesh to find an amicable solution; the third was for the international community to help develop Rakhine state.

Two years later, the Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh Li Jiming proposed a way to assuage the fears of Rohingya about their safety should they decide to return home from the refugee camps in Bangladesh.

The idea was that each Rohingya family in Bangladesh would choose a representative who would return to Myanmar. China would provide two phones – one to the representative and the other to the family in the refugee camp. The Rohingya representatives would then call and inform their families of the situation inside Myanmar and then decide whether to go back or not.

However, both proposals have not made any headway in resolving the Rohingya crisis.

At the moment, both Myanmar and Bangladesh blame each other for failing to push through a repatriation agreement signed in 2017. Beijing can do more by putting pressure on both Myanmar and Bangladesh to speed up the repatriation process. In tandem with seeking a political solution, China can also work with other countries to provide financial, logistical and infrastructure aid to assist in the repatriation of refugees.

Progress on the Rakhine issue benefits Beijing not just because of its investment projects in Myanmar. If Beijing is able to successfully resolve or at least mitigate the Rohingya crisis, it stands to chalk up points with the international community and blunt criticism of its human rights record.

To be sure, there are bumps in bilateral ties. Chinese investments in Myanmar have also run into problems, notably the suspension of the Myitsone dam project in 2011. There are also concerns about the budget of the Kyaukphyu deep-water port project. But these concerns are being set aside in the wider interests of improved ties.

For Ms Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy government, there is another reason to ensure a successful visit by Mr Xi – this year is an election year in Myanmar and it is to their benefit to be able to capitalise on the outcome for political and economic advantage.

While economic issues will dominate the visit, there is room for Mr Xi to do more to help ease the Rohingya crisis and the debilitating toll of the multiple ethnic insurgencies that Myanmar suffers from. The 30,000-strong United Wa Army, for instance, has links to China, which gives Beijing leverage in any effort to bring about a ceasefire.

Positive efforts on these non-economic fronts will burnish China’s credentials as it forges ahead to lay claim to regional leadership.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is an associate professor, assistant dean and executive director at the Centre for South-east Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University.

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