Rohingya Crisis: an opportunity for China?

Navreet Kaur Kullar, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies,

The plight of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state has drawn considerable international attention. The attacks carried out by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on the security installations, sparked the Tatmadaw’s crackdown on the ethnic Rohingyas and thousands of them lost their lives and hundreds of thousands more got displaced. The bloodshed has smeared the international standing of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who led National League for Democracy to a victory in historic elections of 2015. Her supporters have realised that she is either unable or unwilling to take on the military, which is still considered to be the most powerful institution in the country, despite the recent democratic reforms. The criticism from abroad has been quite relentless. But China has exploited the turmoil to pursue its interests in the country. It has taken advantage of the situation to mend its bilateral relationship with Myanmar’s government.

The Rohingya Crisis

In November 2017, China recommended a three-point plan to address the Rohingya issue. It proposed for a ceasefire, an agreement between the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar on the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees, and for international endeavours to alleviate poverty in Rakhine. China has also been very forthcoming in providing humanitarian aid as well as security personnel to the government of Myanmar, in response to the crisis. For instance, in August and September 2017, after the violence, China provided about US$150,000 to the Ministry of Social Welfare and Resettlement, to help the government of Myanmar in its efforts to restore peace and stability in Rakhine. It also provided preassembled houses for the displaced refugees. Following the UN fact-finding report of August 2018 that called for senior generals of the Tatmadaw to be prodded for their potential involvement in the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas, China defended Naypyidaw government’s position in the International fora, and called for an understanding of its efforts to promote social stability. The Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi defended the Myanmar government by referring to Rohingya issue as a complicated matter. The Rohingya crisis has seemed to have given China testing ground for its international mediation through communication and persuasion between Myanmar and Bangladesh.

China’s security and economic interests in Myanmar

All these Chinese efforts do not come as a surprise given Myanmar’s strategic position and its role in Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative. A stable and friendly Myanmar would help China develop the land-locked Yunnan province and provide direct access to the Bay of Bengal. This would allow China to import part of its oil by circumventing the Malacca Strait, a chokepoint seen as a liability by some Chinese strategists, who fret that a potential enemy can block it in case of a conflict. China has completed a pipeline linking Myanmar’s western coast, on the Bay of Bengal, to Yunnan. A consortium led by China’s CITIC Group is also set to have a 70 per cent stake in a  US$7.2 billion deep-sea port in Kyaukphyu in Rakhine. A few of the Chinese projects have invited controversy in the country because of their detrimental impact on the environment and society. However, these investments have been welcomed by the civilian-led administration in the Naypyidaw, whose attitude toward China appeared warm from the moment it was sworn in three years ago. After the Thein Sein government’s opening to the West, the National League for Democracy (NLD) is swinging back to China for protection and support.

Although China might have a stronger pull in Myanmar under the NLD than it did under the Thein Sein’s administration, it certainly is not without limits. Tensions have surfaced occasionally over China’s associations with the ethnic insurgents in the northern part of Myanmar that have been demanding autonomy from the central government. In the 1960s and 70s, Beijing supported the Communist Party of Burma, the then most powerful rebellious fraction in the country. Suspicions are flailing around that Beijing is still in cahoots with the United Wa State Army, which is an ethnic armed group in Myanmar and the main splinter of the now-obsolete Communist Party of Burma. However, while analysing China-Myanmar relations, it becomes evident that China does want stability in the region, but at the same time, it wants to wield influence on the groups along the Chinese border. The Chinese authorities have looked for advantages where it can find them in a changing Myanmar.

Moreover, the conflicting perceptions of the Rohingya crisis have alienated Myanmar from the West. However, China is making different calculations and applying different philosophies to the crisis than the critical West. It has claimed to be helpful in shaping the agreement between the two sides on the repatriation of the Rohingyas, though the observers remain unconvinced of such an instrumental role. There are certain austere issues that exist between China and Myanmar, but both countries have reasons to cooperate; currying investments and support for Myanmar and strategic interest for China. In any case, China has incisively leveraged the Rohingya crisis, a humanitarian crisis into a diplomatic opportunity.

The views expressed here represent the author’s own opinions and not those of the employer or the Institute.



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