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Dragon on its Knees

Myanmar gets a Breather

Myanmar occupies a rather unique position in the Belt and Road pipedream. Most notably, Myanmar is seen as a link that connects both the Maritime Silk Road and the Silk Road Economic Belt, making it an integral component of both. Form a strategic perspective, Myanmar is one of the two direct access points to the Indian Ocean for China.

China Myanmar Relations viz Aung Suu Kyi

China’s relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi was largely suppressed under the military government. It was a decision of expediency and necessity given the political reality of  Myanmar between 1990 and 2011. When Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD won in the 1990 elections, the then Chinese ambassador was among the first to send her a letter of congratulations. The military government, which rejected the results of the election, allegedly did not take kindly to China’s initiative toward the NLD. This incident affected bilateral ties, leading China to recall its ambassador from Yangon from mid-1990 until July 1991. To avoid a similar situation during the 2010 elections, China left the ambassador position open from September to late December.

During the 20 years of military rule in Myanmar, Beijing minimized contact with Suu Kyi and the NLD out of consideration for the military government’s sensitivity. As a result, Chinese diplomats, officials, scholars, and businesses had almost no relationship with the democratic opposition. This policy was cost-free because the NLD and its leader Suu Kyi had little influence over Myanmar’s domestic and foreign policy decision process under the military government and China could pursue its political and economic agendas by working with the government alone.

Beijing’s effort at currying favour with Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD is borne partly of desperation and indicates how swiftly Beijing’s stock in Myanmar is falling. China was Myanmar’s main backer and largest investor during its years of international seclusion, supporting strategic infrastructure projects such as oil and gas pipelines, ports, and dams. Between 1988 and 2013, China accounted for a whopping 42 percent of the $33.67 billion in foreign investment that flowed into Myanmar. But the nature of these projects including concerns about forcibly-relocated populations, land confiscation, environmental hazards, and the inflow of cheap goods and labor made China unpopular with the Burmese public (the extent of such sentiments is impossible to determine, in the absence of reliable public-opinion surveys.)

Military Junta – China Affairs and Border Issues

Myanmar’s military was even more reliant on China: Almost 60 percent of the country’s arms imports during that same period came from the Middle Kingdom. And until recently, the military remained favorably disposed to their northern neighbor. Yet Beijing appears to have ruined the one good relationship it had going in the country. The suspension of the Chinese-backed Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River in 2011, a project initially agreed between Myanmar’s military junta and the Chinese state-owned China Power Investment Corp. in 2005, again showcased the divide. But it was the killing of five Chinese citizens by Myanmar’s air force in March while conducting raids on rebels along the border, and China’s response, that has significantly widened the rift with the military. Although Myanmar offered a groveling apology, Beijing’s provocative decision to stage live-fire military exercises along the border in early June further tarnished relations with Myanmar and highlighted the natural distrust between the neighbors.

Chinese involvement in northern Myanmar, especially in the regions controlled by ethnic armed organizations, has always been a thorny bilateral issue. Historically, the boundary treaty between the People’s Republic of China and the Union of Burma of 1960 ended with China’s de facto acceptance of the 1941 line imposed by Great Britain and the resolution of bilateral territorial disputes.1 However, the sense of grievance is significant among the local Chinese and ethnic population, interviewees in Yunnan indicated, that the communist government in Beijing abandoned China’s traditional territory in exchange for political recognition and friendship. Especially in northern Kachin and Shan states, according to interviewees there, many locals see the 1960 demarcation as recognition of the unfair and unjust 1941 line that exploited China’s weak negotiating position during World War II. The sense of being abandoned by China is strong, but so is that of ethnic affinity (in some cases of belonging).

Sino-Myanmar relations had deteriorated since 2011, when then-president Thein Sein suspended the Myitsone mega-dam, which activists and environmentalists saw as a victory. The project was never popular in Myanmar but the Chinese nevertheless saw themselves as the victim of a quasi-civilian government’s attempt to gain legitimacy, popularity, and support from both the Myanmar people and the West. China’s grievance was exacerbated by the Thein Sein government’s lukewarm attitude about Chinese economic ambitions(Taking shape in form of OBOR ) in the country, as manifested by the suspension of the Letpadaung copper mine, the abandonment of the Sino-Myanmar railway, and the difficulties it encountered in the bidding for the Kyaukpyu special economic zone. The sense of grievance peaked in 2015 when the major armed groups in northern Myanmar, including UWSA, KIA, and the Shan State Army-North refused to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in October along with the eight groups that did sign. Myanmar officials publicly accused China of undermining the peace process by blocking the participation of these groups in the NCA. The Chinese government, like everywhere, vehemently denies the accusation and alleged blatant arm twisting.

India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway

India’s unassailable footprint in the South East Asian Peninsular

The 1,360 km long trilateral highway will connect Moreh, India with Mae Sot, Thailand via Myanmar and is expected to boost trade and commerce in the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area. This is touted as India’s answer to the Chinese Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which will make this as more balanced, equitable and beneficial to participating countries, compared to Chinese backed RCEP.

What South East Asian Countries look it as an equal trading opportunity, compared to biased and offensive one-way Chinese RCEP.

East-West Economic Corridor between Thailand and Myanmar when operational, will give Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam access to the vast Indian market and reduce heavy reliance on China.

India has built a port at Sittwe in Myanmar, which will be linked to Mizoram state in the north via a multi-modal transport network. Besides, a highway connecting India with Thailand via Myanmar could become operational by 2020 and may be expanded to Vietnam. India and Thailand recently signed pacts for port connectivity, adding meat to the Act East Policy and the Indo-Pacific vision.
Besides, India is expediting a maritime connectivity link between the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Aceh in Indonesia, where it will build a port in Sabang. India has major plans to expand its presence in the Ganga Mekong region, which covers the five ASEAN states.

Viewpoint

Over the years, creeping fear that Beijing is creating debt traps across the developing world and monopolizing profits has compelled Myanmar officials to suspend or renegotiate hydropower and port deals.

In recent months, Myanmar has grown even more isolated globally. The reputation of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto civilian leader of Myanmar and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is in tatters for refusing to show compassion for the plight of the Rohingya.

Soon, the International Court of Justice will make an initial ruling related to a legal case accusing Myanmar of genocide. Myanmar has in China a backer, at a cost.

However, Myanmar has since 2018 decided to not be a pushover. In 2018, Myanmar renegotiated the terms of an agreement for a deep seaport in Rakhine State, which critics said ran the risk of ending up in Chinese hands because of a high debt load. This is in stark contrast to Hambantota port debacle that Sri Lanka is undergoing. However, Myanmar has come up as a first, to stand up to Chinese Mafia tactics in South East Asia.

China has not been able to start any new projects, however, it has been able to restart stalled projects, under new agreements suiting Myanmar. As a future trend also, there is unlikely to be a wholesale rejection of Chinese investment and assistance, however one that is based largely on the benefit of Myanmar’s populace, and rejecting China’s Debt Diplomacy.

This, though doesn’t suits China, however since Dragon is hanging by the thread, whatever may come by, is the present tune of China.

While India, which is positively poised with both public opinion as well as the government, will quietly inch their way into Myanmar, as perfect foil to the Chinese designs. This very much allays fear of Myanmar viz the Dragon’s forays, as Indian alignment now physically via the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral connectivity, shall always keep up the economic arm twisting by China, at bay.

21 Jan 20/Tuesday                                                                     Written By: Fayaz

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