China’s BRI Game Plan In Myanmar

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MAJOR GENERAL (RETD) S B ASTHANA

CHINESE President Xi Jinping visited Myanmar on January 18 at a time when it was struggling with global criticism over its treatment of the Rohingyas.

It is learned that the two countries signed 33 agreements, 13 of which were related to infrastructure, including special economic zone, industrial park and a strategically important Kyaukpyu port in the Indian Ocean, giving a push to China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.

President Xi called CMEC a “priority among priorities” for the Belt and Road Initiative, which reminds of him using similar words for China Pakistan Economic Corridor a few years back.

It must be noted that no new big-ticket deal has been signed, as Myanmar seems to be fairly cautious, learning from past bad experience of $3.6-billion proposed Myitsone Dam project, which got suspended nearly 10 years ago due to strong local opposition and doubts over Chinese infrastructure policy of leading the countries to debt trap, an issue which both countries avoided discussing during this visit.

China’s large-scale infrastructure projects in South Asia increases its presence in the Indian Ocean region. Myanmar and Pakistan are Chinese partners in BRI. Both CMEC and CPEC are part of BRI projects, aiming to give warm water access to China avoiding Malacca dilemma, deep-sea ports in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea respectively, for smooth flow of oil and trade commodities. Both provide ports which can be used as military bases, capable of positioning PLA naval assets. Interestingly both these ports are prone to blockade by Indian and friendly Navies.

Most importantly CMEC and CPEC are pushing Pakistan and Myanmar into the debt trap. India needs to be concerned about CMEC as it leads to Bay of Bengal threatening Andaman and Nicobar islands. To build the corridors for its economic interests, China chose to overlook the persecution of minorities and state-sponsored terrorism in Pakistan and sideline Rohingya issue in case of Myanmar.  If CMEC and CPEC are viewed together it will gives out Chinese attempt to strategically encircle India.

Unlike CPEC, which encroaches directly into the sovereign territory of India strengthening Sino-Pakistan nexus, CMEC does not affect Indian territory directly. Myanmar is a sovereign country, which maintains cordial relations with India, has no formal military alliance with China, but its genuine developmental needs necessitate Chinese help in infrastructure projects due to its fragile economy. Presently, India has no reason to believe the collusion of Myanmar with China will go against Indian interest.

Cancellation of the Myitsone hydropower dam project has resulted in a debt trap for Myanmar to repay the $800 million already invested by China, which is unviable for Myanmar. China has, thus, sealed the Kyaukpyu project deal to pump oil through 793-kilometre pipeline across Myanmar to southwest China through debt-trap diplomacy. The port is the entry point of a pipeline and is expected to carry oil from the Bay of Bengal to refineries in Yunnan, up to six percent of Chinese oil imports.

Gaining preferential access to the strategic deep port at Kyaukpyu, which is close to Indian-funded Sittwe port, and luring Myanmar with special economic zone is a worthwhile gain for China. The concern is that if Myanmar doesn’t receive sufficient revenue from the port, it will be taken over by Beijing like Gwadar port.

China’s investment in transportation infrastructure, particularly railways, roads, pipelines, airfields, waterways, and ports, gives China access to the Bay of Bengal, allows its strategic positioning along the critical global sea lanes.

China is also trying to hard sell the idea that these projects will bring stability to Rakhine, but locals appear unconvinced after observing the fate of promised SEZ in Balochistan, which helped nobody except Chinese. People in Rakhine province remain sceptical about promised job creation, as well as, pending land settlement cases related to these projects, and have been protesting even during the visit
of President XI.

Unlike CPEC, CMEC passes through Rakhine state bringing a refugee problem in Bangladesh and India, affecting internal social dynamics of India. Rohingya Issue has been one of the reasons for Myanmar being so amenable to China in recent times, due to the support it received from China, when it stood almost isolated, facing international criticism over its handling of the issue, which displaced an estimated half a million people.

China defended Myanmar internationally and posed the biggest obstacle to the prosecution of its leaders at an international war crimes tribunal. China in the post visit joint statement promised to help Myanmar to relocate refugees, while Myanmar reiterated that it would accept vetted refugees under an agreement with Bangladesh.

In Myanmar, China’s infrastructure overdrive gives it access to the Bay of Bengal and brings its connectivity in close proximity to Indian border with Myanmar, which is a strategic challenge in continental as well as maritime domain. China’s inroads in Myanmar and Pakistan are a growing cause of concern as it helps Beijing to encircle India from both sides, avoiding major choke points.

The silver lining is that it joins up with Indian plans of East-West Corridor (trilateral highway) proposing to connect South East Asian countries through multimodal transportation system, as part of India’s ‘Act East’ policy and may improve its outreach in trade flow of mutual interest.

Strategically India will have to continue with improving defence profile of its littorals in the Bay of Bengal, collaborate with other navies and observe the progress of CMEC and CPEC.

Any possible threat/strategic disadvantage and monitoring can be expected from China, by taking possession of the ports in Myanmar and the later finding itself helpless to take sides due to economic pressure
from China.