ISSN 2330-717X

Myanmar In Tight Grip Of China – OpEd

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By Dr. S. Chandrasekharan 

It is an open secret that Myanmar politically, economically and in the ongoing ethnic conflicts is totally beholden to China. This is understood not only by the Civilian Government and the Army but also by the people from all walks of life in Myanmar. 

Just recently, the Army Chief of Myanmar while reiterating that Myanmar will continue to support the implementation of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor that primarily takes care of China’s strategic interests expected China to reciprocate by supporting the peace process and development.   

A few days ago, the FPNCC (Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee) led by United Wa, a proxy of China declared that it will not attend the forthcoming fourth round of the 21st Century Panglong Conference. 

This decision must have been taken by the seven Party alliance ( UWSA, AA, TNLA,KIA, MNDAA and SSP/SSA) with prior approval of China whose main interlocutor Sun Guoxiang is stationed in Yunnan only to guide these ethnic armed outfits of Myanmar to keep the “pot boiling.” 

Big Investments will necessarily bring “Big” influence and this is particularly so in the case of China. It is in this context, the recent editorial in the Irrawady Times on the need for experts on China brings out the problems faced by Myanmar in dealing with China.  It is almost certain that  Suu Kyi and the Army Chief of Myanmar would agree with what is stated in the editorial though they cannot express in such direct terms as the Irrawady Editor had done. 

“Irrawady” is certainly not the Myanmar Government’s mouth piece but this would need courage and objectivity which Irrawady possesses in great measure.   

The editorial runs as follows: 

China Experts Wanted:

By The Irrawaddy

Please don’t let the headline give you the wrong impression: This is not a job advertisement. It is merely intended to point out something Myanmar urgently needs: independent institutions and think tanks specializing in China issues and studies.

Why?

China has always been Myanmar’s big neighbor to the north. But today it is a rising regional power with ambitions to compete with the US. Some media pundits are even calling the 21st century the “Chinese century”.

China’s emergence as a player in global affairs should be of concern to all of us, but Myanmar in particular has a special place in China’s grand plan.

Myanmar’s previously ruling military junta gave away major economic projects to China. The NLD government, too, has allowed China to advance its economic interests here, reflecting in part the fact that in the aftermath of the 2017 Rakhine conflict, Myanmar needed China’s help on the UN Security Council. In addition to the Yangon New City project, China has signed agreements to open three cross-border cooperation zones in Shan and Kachin states.

The Myitsone Dam hydropower project remains suspended by the Myanmar side, though Beijing does not appear to have given up on it. The fact remains, however, that local people in Myanmar will simply never accept this project.

The Kyaukphyu deep-sea port and Special Economic Zone project was initially expected to cost more than US$9 billion (12.29 trillion kyats), but was renegotiated under the current government and the cost estimate brought down to a bit above $1 billion. This was a positive step by the NLD government.

But we can’t speak of China without discussing the armed groups in ethnic areas along the Sino-Myanmar border. Almost all these organizations have come under Chinese influence. China is the main source of political aid to ethnic armed groups in northern Myanmar. It cannot be a coincidence that armed conflict has escalated in the north since the abrupt suspension of the Myitsone project.

In recent years we have seen the Arakan Army (AA) come to the fore—a development that could not have occurred without China’s backing. When a portion of the Indian-backed Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project was attacked by Rakhine militants, questions immediately arose as to who was behind it.

During a recent visit to Russia, Myanmar military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said the violence in Myanmar was fueled by the strong support being provided to various players by big powers. The consensus among observers was that the commander-in-chief’s comments were aimed at China.

Experience shows that relations between China and Myanmar are never straightforward. The Chinese government’s commitment to help bring peace to Myanmar has disappeared amid the sounds of gunfire and the battles that continue to rage in northern Rakhine and northeastern Shan State. It only goes to show that China cannot be viewed as an honest peace broker.

No experts believe China will allow Myanmar to drift out of its orbit. China has made clear its intention to secure a foothold in the Indian Ocean through the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port project. Looking at China’s game plan, some experts even worry that Myanmar will disappear off the map in the next 20 years.

China has been exerting its influence in Myanmar in various ways for decades. In the parliamentary democracy era under U Nu, and later during U Ne Win’s Socialist regime, it did so through the Burmese Communist Party. Today, Chinese weapons and economic influence are both spreading in Myanmar; the day is not far off when China’s shadow will become so big that it will completely engulf Myanmar.

But how much has Myanmar really learned about China, about its interests in Myanmar, its geopolitical game plan, its economic goals, etc.?

Myanmar needs independent research institutes and centers to study China’s geopolitical strategy and aims. They must be financially and politically independent institutions. Research papers on the Chinese economy should be written at universities.

We need to educate ourselves about China, a country that has always reserved the right to interfere in Myanmar’s sovereignty and internal peace and stability.

Experts and think tanks on China studies tend to emerge slowly over time. But it’s time for the state to raise the bar and promote their development.

This editorial was first published in Burmese by The Irrawaddy Burmese edition.

These are my observations: 

There is no dearth of specialists or Chinese linguists in Myanmar.  Everyone knew about Chinese predatory moves.  They were helpless when the West imposed sanctions on Myanmar and China stepped in a big way. 

In 2018 China voted against the UN Human Rights Commission’s move to establish a body to investigate the claims of alleged genocide in Rakhine State.  It has been playing a mediatory role between Myanmar and Bangladesh since 2017. It is not enough to have Specialists who can foresee short term and long goals of China. 

From our Indian experience, there is no dearth of Specialists but there was no will on the part of the Government to stand up to the Bully.  For the first time we see after the Galwan incident that we see  India planning a long haul in confronting China. 

Incidentally it is felt though not specifically said that India can no longer depend on its own strategic independence. But Myanmar as yet is in no position to get out of the orbit of China though it is aware of China’s geo political strategy. For this, the western Countries themselves are responsible for pushing Myanmar- into the lap of the Chinese.  

What is not clear is why both the Civilian Government and the Myanmar Army are going  Hammer and tongs against the Arakan Army. The Arakan Army is operating in one area that has no border with China and yet China cannot ignore the fact that their major project for an outlet to the Indian Ocean relating to Kyakphyu Port and the SEZ would need the goodwill of the AA.  

Incidentally, the Kyaukphyu Port is of greater strategic significance to China than the Gwadar Port of the CPEC. The Gwadar Port will service only Xinjiang and other sparsely populated regions of China while the Kyakphyu would give an opening to the highly populated regions in Southern China like Yunnan that is too far removed from the Chinese Coast. 

It is not clear either, why there cannot be a cease-fire between the ethnic outfit and the Government to be followed by talks.  If the attempt is to isolate the Arakan Army be declaring them as a terrorist outfit it may not work and has not worked so far. There have also been some irresponsible media reports in India of possible of a tie up between the ARSA and the Arakan Army which do not appear to be true. I entirely agree with the suggestion that Myanmar should have independent institutions and trustworthy think tanks who can be consulted. 

I recall having a discussion with the Chief of the Government funded Strategic Institute a few years ago and all I got was repeated wholesome praise of China.

This editorial should be an eye opener for the policy makers of our neighbouring countries, especially Nepal.

SAAG

SAAG

SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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