China, Myanmar to build shared future. What’s there for India?

Chinese President Xi Jinping held talks with Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Nay Pyi Taw, Jan. 18, 2020.

The state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Myanmar on January 17-18, the first of its kind in nineteen years, has been a transformative event in regional politics from the perspective of China-Myanmar bilateral relations as well as regional security.

The “comprehensive strategic partnership” between the two countries is moving toward building a Myanmar-China Community with a Shared Future “based on the aims of mutual benefits, equality and win-win cooperation,” as the joint statement issued after Xi’s visit frames it.

Xi said in his banquet speech in Nay Pyi Taw that the reason why the “fraternal friendship between the two countries can last thousands of years” is that they have “stood together through thick and thin and adhered to mutual respect and mutual benefit.” He urged the two countries to be “good neighbours like passengers on the same boat” and create a more favourable environment for their economic and social development. 

Xi said the two countries should “push the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) into substantive construction” and as “good brothers to pass on their friendship from generation to generation.”             

Myanmar has accorded a grand reception for Xi. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi said that China has always been a good friend of Myanmar, and fate has bound the two sides closely. The two sides agreed to promote the construction of the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone, the New Yangon City and the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone, as well as roads, railways and power and energy infrastructures. Overall, the visit marks the transition of the CMEC from conceptual planning to substantive construction, as Chinese Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi assessed.  

Wang said Myanmar Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services Min Aung Hlaing pledged to Xi that the Myanmar military will firmly support and promote the joint construction of the Belt and Road. 

Significantly, Wang put the partnership in the international context characterised by profound changes unseen in a century, with injustice and inequality remaining prominent in international relations, and “protectionism, unilateralism as well as bullying actions… rising,” which pose new challenges in safeguarding the two countries’ sovereignty, security and development interests. 

The joint statement underscored that China “firmly supports Myanmar in its aim to adopt a development path that is in line with its national conditions, the safeguarding of its legitimate rights and interests, as well as national dignity, on the international stage, and to maintain the momentum of development and stability.” 

It said that the two countries agreed to continue to “enhance coordination and cooperation in regional and multilateral fora such as the United Nations, China- ASEAN cooperation and Lancang-Mekong cooperation platforms” and “render mutual support on issues concerning each other’s core interests and major concerns.” In particular, China voiced support for “the efforts of Myanmar to address the humanitarian situation and to promote peace, stability and development for all communities in Rakhine State.” 

Clearly, the three cornerstones of the emerging relationship are: the understanding and mutual commitments reached at the highest levels of leadership through sustained and intensive strategic communication (Xi received Suu Kyi six times between June 2015 and April 2019); the launch of the CMEC; and, China’s firm support for Myanmar’s core interests and major concerns and its help to ward off western bullying (the joint statement singled out that China “supports the efforts of Myanmar to address the humanitarian situation and to promote peace, stability and development for all communities in Rakhine State.”) 

China has become a stakeholder — even guarantor — in the resolution of the Rohingya issue, considering that the terminus of the 1600-kilometre long CMEC — Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone with a deep-water port opening into the Bay of Bengal — lies in the Rakhine State. The CMEC includes big cross-border oil and gas pipelines that have been operating already, while an industrial park and major railway are planned involving massive Chinese investments. A Xinhua report estimated that the port and industrial park combined will create more than 100,000 jobs each year for local residents and create tax revenues of $15 billon during the “initial franchise period of 50 years”.  

China-Myanmar Economic Corridor 

The CMEC allows China access to the Indian Ocean and to shorten the route for its oil and gas imports from the Persian Gulf and connects China’s relatively less developed southern  regions to the world market. A major goal of Chinese strategic planners is being realised, overcoming staunch opposition by the US. From an Indian perspective, CMEC signifies a major setback to its counterstrategy to discredit, debunk and derail the BRI projects in the region. 

Meanwhile, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has caused revulsion and anger in Bangladesh and a deepening of relations between Dhaka and Beijing can be expected. Clearly, India’s BIMSTEC agenda is spluttering. India has also lost the plot on regional connectivity. With Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar wading into the BRI, India stands badly isolated. Things didn’t have to come to such a sorry pass. 

Heavy maritime traffic will inevitably call for a much bigger Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean. It is entirely conceivable that Chinese Navy will at some point in a not too distant future seek access to the ports in the region which figure in its BRI matrix — Gwadar, Hambantota, Chittagong and Kyaukphyu. The geopolitical ramifications of the CMEC are most profound for the Bay of Bengal region. 

If the Strait of Malacca was supposed be the thermometer to measure the future balance of naval power between India and China, it may not hold good anymore. India has been advancing its positions towards the western mouth of the Strait with a view to challenge the expansion of Chinese maritime interests in the Indian Ocean but the CPEC and CMEC significantly rebalance the regional power in the Indian Ocean.   

Of course, it is far from fated that even economically, diplomatically and militarily ascendant China will steamroll India and ensconce itself as the predominant power in the Indian Ocean. An American analysts recently revelled at the prospect that “a Sino-Indian great game is afoot in the Andaman Sea. It will take years, if not decades, of gamesmanship to determine a victor.”

Most certainly, the Indian interests do not lie in entrapment in esoteric game theories. What the emergent situation signals is the urgency to deepen strategic communication between Delhi and Beijing. The political leadership must steamroll the institutional resistance to policy rethink.