China Myanmar Friendship: Implications on India

Priyanka Madia, Research Intern, ICS

Myanmar is one of India’s most important neighbors, four of our sensitive Northeastern states share a border with Myanmar, and it is India’s land gateway to Southeast Asia. Myanmar is a country enriched with abundant natural resources with an economy complementary to India. India and Myanmar share a long land border of over 1600kms and a maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. India shares the strategically important ocean space of the Bay of Bengal with Myanmar. China’s dominant presence at the port of Myanmar, which gives open access to the Indian Ocean to China, could become a significant security concern for India. The blog argues that India must be far more focused on strengthening its relations with this neighbor than is evident today.

Myanmar is located on the eastern flank of India. It is shaped like a large kite, with a mountainous crescent to the north, alluvial plains at the center, and a long and narrow isthmus stretching into the Andaman Sea to the south. From east to west, it is watered by the Chindwin, Irrawaddy and Salween rivers all of which run north to south. This makes north-south communication links much more comfortable than the east-west links, which have to cross the deep river valleys and also the lines of hills. Myanmar is a multi-ethnic country. The 18 major ethnic groups occupy the rugged mountains on its borders with India, China, and Thailand, with the majority, the Burman population, inhabiting the flat plains at the center and along the coast. Myanmar has a history of ethnic conflict, which is a constant preoccupation for the central government. The ethnic groups also spill-over into neighboring countries, with India, for example, the Nagas and the Mizos (known as Chins in Myanmar) straddle the border. Just as the country enables access to Southeast Asia for India, it is also a corridor for China to the Bay of Bengal and a partial answer to its so-called Malacca Dilemma, or the need for most of its energy supplies and cargo from across the Indian Ocean to pass through the narrow confines of the Malacca Straits. Hence, Myanmar plays a crucial role in China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative(BRI).

Myanmar-China Relations

Throughout history, Myanmar has tried to balance its relations with its two giant neighbors, India, and China. However, Myanmar has had a higher threat perception from China because of the latter’s use of ethnic groups to keep the central government off-balance. This had continued though, in different forms, Chinese influence in Myanmar began to see a significant rise since the 1990s when the military junta staged a coup and prevented the democratically elected National League for Democracy(NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi from taking office. The military regime faced international criticism and sanctions. India, too, opposed the government and supported the National League for Democracy. China stepped in to help the Myanmar military with arms and economic and commercial links and soon became an essential partner. It assisted the regime by brokering arms for peace or ceasefire agreements with the various ethnic groups under its influence for several years. Despite the political changes that have taken place in Myanmar in recent years with Aung San Suu Kyi and her party sharing power with the deeply entrenched military, China has maintained enough levers of influence to continue its dominance country.

Myanmar has never been comfortable with its over-dependence on China. Even the military regime tried to balance Chinese influence by becoming a member of the ASEAN in 1997 and later of the BIMSTEC. It responded positively to India’s overtures in the 1990s and encouraged Indian support to infrastructure building, including cross-border links. Chinese involvement in infrastructure projects was slowed down, with the Myitsone hydro project suspension on the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy River. There was also a degree of caution in its participation in the BRI to avoid high debt levels. However, in other respects, China has probably emerged as an even more powerful influence in the country than a decade ago. Some of the key projects are the oil and gas pipeline from Myanmar’s Rakhine coast to Yunnan province, the development of the Kyaukphu deep water port, and the proposed rail and road links connect to Southeast Asia through Myanmar.

There are two significant projects between China and Myanmar in terms of the Belt and Road initiative. The Kyaukphyu special economic zone is one of China’s crucial projects at the Bay of Bengal coast on the western Rakhine state, giving China direct access to the Indian Ocean and allowing its oil imports to bypass the Strait of Malacca. It also serves the terminus for the twin cross border oil and gas pipelines between the two countries. The framework agreement was signed between the Myanmar government and the China International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC)in November 2018. The project investment in the initial phase was US$1.3 billion, with 70 per cent from CITIC and 30 per cent from the Myanmar government. The concession period is said to be 50 years, during which the Myanmar government will earn US$7.8 billion in revenue from the SEZ and US$6.5 billion from the deep seaports. The project covers a combined 1000 hectares, including an industrial park and deep seaports on Made and Yanbye islands. 

Muse Mandalay railway project travels from China’s Kunming through Myanmar’s Muse on the Chinese border in northern Shan state to Mandalay in Central Myanmar. It’s a part of Beijing’s plan to build a parallel expressway and railway line from Ruili (across the border from Muse in China’s Yunan province) to Kyakphyu. The 431kms electric railway passes through armed conflict areas in Shan state; the estimated investment cost is US$8.9 billion. 

During President Xi Jinping’s two days, visit Myanmar on 17-18 January 2020, which was the first visit by a Chinese leader in 19 years. There were talks held, and dozens of agreements were signed, paving the way for implementing various projects underway the Belt and Road initiative. However, Myanmar is not a passive bystander and has managed to negotiate better conditions regarding BRI projects. In 2017, the CITIC group decided to reduce its stake in the project from 85 to 70 per cent. Also, the Myanmar government effectively scaled the project down from $7.3 billion to $1.3 billion in 2018, realizing that the project was taking on too much debt.

India-Myanmar Relations

Since the 1990s, it has been an objective of Indian policy to become a significant countervailing presence to China in Myanmar. This has been moved by the need to elicit Myanmar’s cooperation in dealing with the Northeast insurgencies and promote India’s Look East policy. There are two significant projects in Myanmar led by India, which focuses on improving connectivity with Myanmar and enable to counterbalance China’s BRI in the Indo Pacific region. Still, its efforts have paled in comparison to China.

The India-Myanmar-Thailand highway project will boost trade and commerce in the ASEAN, India Free Trade Area, and the rest of Southeast Asia. It is a part of India’s Look East Policy that will cultivate and strengthen economic and strategic relations with the nations of Southeast Asian countries to solidify its standing as a regional power. The project helps the Indian position as a counterweight to the People’s Republic of China’s strategic influence in the region.

Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Project is set to promote neighborly ties, trade, and tourism under the government’s Look-East or Act-East policy. But unfortunately, it hasn’t traveled much, the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Project is designed to connect Kolkata with Myanmar’s port of Sittwe by sea and to move northwards by the Kaladan river to Paletwa, and a long stretch of road from to Mizoram in India’s Northeast. This project is seeking an extension till June 2021. The fundamental goal of construction of Sittwe Port is to create a multi-modal sea, river, and road transport corridor for shipment of cargo from the eastern ports of India to Myanmar through Sittwe port and to the Northeastern part of India via Myanmar. The approved construction cost is US$68 million. But the projects are consistently facing delays.

India has failed to emerge as a credible countervailing power balancing China’s formidable presence in Myanmar. An entrenched Chinese presence along the Rakhine coast across the Bay of Bengal is particularly worrisome. With Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar wading into the BRI, India stands badly isolated, and this is something India needs to work upon. Since 2012, India has been trying to modernize and extend its navy to counter China’s increasing challenge, but finances are scarce, and projects are yet to materialize. That makes it harder to maintain India’s ambition to become the Indian Ocean’s security provider.

To knit the Indian Ocean into existing defense plans for the Pacific, India should coordinate with the Quad, including countries in the United States, Japan, and Australia. Myanmar is desperate for financing to help build roads, ports, power plants, and other massive infrastructure to drive economic growth. Since the world is well aware that Chinese loans come with a deadly debt trap, expanding China’s geopolitical and military reach and failure to be transparent creates a vast opportunity for India to compete with China and blunt some of its recent gains. India should be focusing on the project that helps the Indian position as a counterweight to the People’s Republic of China’s strategic influence in the region.

Chinese Commitments in Afghanistan: A Strategic Calculus

Aadil Sud, Research Intern, ICS

Afghanistan has long been a country on the periphery of Chinese policy due to its inherent instabilities, the presence of foreign coalition forces and the influence of the West acting as a buffer against overt Chinese involvement. Well aware of Afghanistan’s reputation as a ‘graveyard of empires’, China has refrained from serious involvement with the country, supporting the Afghan-led, Afghan-owned policy propagated by the West instead. However, with the imminent withdrawal of coalition troops, China has found a security and diplomatic void it is suited to fill, adding to its pre-existing investments in the country.

Since 2014, the National Unity Government has lobbied China for their assistance on issues of security, economic and regional integration. The prospects of peace in Afghanistan has since motivated China to ramp up its commitment to the nation. China’s Central Asian policy has the possibility of replication here, with economic commitments under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), military aid through arms sales and training, and reciprocal security assistance – with China aiding in dealing with the Taliban, and the Afghani government working to mitigate cross-border Islamist influence in Xinjiang, helping them combat their ‘three evils’ of terrorism, separatism and extremism. These commitments have led many to question the future role of China in Afghanistan’s post-coalition future. Namely, can China effectively integrate their relations with Afghanistan, in line with their own goals in the region?

Economic Integration with Afghanistan

Over the past few years, China has initiated numerous projects in Afghanistan’s key sectors – mining, transportation infrastructure, and agriculture. While the country is seen as geographically strategic, the BRI initially bypassed it. However, since 2016, both countries have jointly promoted this cooperation. Afghanistan acts as a link between China and Southern, Central and Western Asia, with the countries being connected in north by the Sino-Afghan special railway transportation project and the Five Nations Railway Project, which aim to connect to southern Afghanistan via the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Afghanistan is also home to massive resource deposits, such as rare earth metals and lithium, which have the capacity to reduce the dependence of Afghanistan on foreign aid if exploited properly.

China, Afghanistan’s largest foreign investor, is using this position effectively to increase their influence in the region. According to Arif Sahar, an Afghan security expert based in London, these resources can only be effectively exploited by close neighbours, because of geopolitics and logistics. Aware that their manufacturing sector would benefit massively from this access to resources, ‘China is signalling that it is the only country in the region with the financial and economic capabilities that can be relied on as a trustworthy partner’.

This takes on more weight due to China’s interactions with Afghanistan’s neighbours. While China and Pakistan are perennial, all-weather allies, and remain economically and politically integrated, the recent push in Iran has provided Afghanistan further incentive to remain aligned with China, that of coastal access through Iran. Pakistan has consistently blocked Afghanistan from using their territory; and being aligned with Iran through China and the BRI remains a position that the Afghanistan government could be willing to accept.

Political-Strategic Integration: Indifference to Engagement

Over the years, China’s regional policy has gone from a calculated indifference to active engagement, with China realising the best chance to achieve their goals is a strong, stable Afghanistan. As such, China has pushed to reconcile with, and build contacts with both the Taliban and the Afghan government. It also strives for greater cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan, by pushing for greater opportunities for trade and investment.

Chinese motivations in Afghanistan vary. They remain wary of the country being used as a launching ground for Uyghur separatism (such as the East Turkestan Independence Movement), which it often claims could radicalise Uyghurs in Xinjiang province. It also aims to portray itself as an important regional and global player, with the potential to solve one of the world’s longest running insurgencies . China has hence embarked on numerous policies aimed at achieving these. It has portrayed itself as a point of contact between the government and the Taliban, acting as a facilitator in the Afghan peace process. It had also initiated a joint training operation with India for Afghan diplomats, as a gesture of goodwill. However, the future of this collaboration remains to be seen, due to renewed tensions with India following the Galwan incident. It has also aided Afghanistan militarily, helping build the military mountain brigade in the Wakhan corridor, with the primary goal of preventing infiltration by the Islamic State into China.

Afghanistan also hopes to use China as leverage against Pakistan. Quetta is widely believed to be the base of the Afghanistan Taliban leadership, and Pakistan has historically held some sway over the Taliban. Hamid Karzai was quoted as saying that ‘China is a close and strategic friend of Pakistan, and Chinese words with the Pakistani government carry weight… we believe that China can use that asset in a way that brings good relations between us and Pakistan and also leads to peace in Afghanistan’,  laying the groundwork for cooperation between the three countries. Preferring multilateralism over unilateralism in the region, China has also been examining using institutions like the UN to ensure regional peace and stability. Rightly so, any unilateral action in the region will face blowback from Afghanistan’s regional partners, as well as the international community.

The Way Forward

Over the past few years, China has steadily increased its involvement in Afghanistan, taking the form of military, economic and diplomatic commitments. However, these acts have not been without pushback, with China’s policy perceptions as giving pre-eminence to their own geopolitical and security concerns being the concern of many in the international community. As such, while the Afghani government views China as an important partner in Afghani stability, their impact so far has remained limited.

One last factor to consider is the influence of Russia. While not one to disrupt the coalition withdrawal, Russia under Putin has been steadily increasing its reputation as a great power with an international reach, as seen also in Libya and Syria. Additionally, Afghanistan is part of the erstwhile Russian sphere of influence, and any attempts by foreign powers to increase their influence in these regions have often been met by opposition. Some recent examples stem from accusations of Russian support to the Taliban, and allegations of state-sponsored bounties on US soldiers.

The force withdrawal provides China with an immense opportunity to increase their influence in the region – unilaterally through the BRI and its associated investments, or multilaterally through organisations like the UN. However, the viability of these projects largely depends on the confidence the international community and Afghanistan’s partners have in the Chinese leadership, which has taken a hit in the aftermath of the pandemic and China’s belligerent ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy. China’s engagement in Afghanistan had started to take shape before this crisis, but the efficacy of such policies now remains to be seen, especially with increasing diplomatic challenges, such as with the USA, UK, Canada, and India. Without the support of the countries involved with Afghanistan, the expansion of Chinese policy remains a distant dream, which shall face numerous hurdles in implementation.

China’s Infrastructure Development Projects in Bangladesh

Sayantan Haldar, Research Intern, ICS

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, with Chinese President Xi in Beijing, on 5 July, 2019.Image Source: AP Photo

On 14 October, 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping created history by being the first Chinese leader to visit Bangladesh in 30 years. This visit bears great importance for the deepening of Sino-Bangladesh relations as well as China’s increasing outreach towards South Asia. Bangladesh is situated at the heart of the Bay of Bengal which makes it a strategically indispensible country in China’s growing network along the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route and the New Silk Road. China-Bangladesh relations dates back to 1976 when Beijing began diplomatic relations with Dhaka. However, President Xi’s visit to Dhaka in 2016 has been seen as an important development in the Sino-Bangladesh relations, especially after the onset of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Bangladesh has responded positively to the BRI drawing some criticism from India which is a dominating factor in Bangladesh’s foreign policy, particularly in the neighborhood. Bangladesh is a developing country with major demand for infrastructure development which has largely inspired its engagement with China, while its strategic location has significantly shaped China’s outreach. Therefore, it is important to take stock of China’s infrastructure development projects in Bangladesh.

President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina signed twenty-seven agreements worth billions of dollars and also elevated their relationship from ‘a comprehensive partnership of cooperation’ to a ‘strategic partnership of cooperation’ during the Chinese President’s visit to Dhaka in 2016. Earlier in 2015, China emerged as the top trade partner of Bangladesh replacing India. China’s growing engagement with Bangladesh has been based on steady economic linkages along with infrastructural assistance by China in Bangladesh. As a small country with a growing economy, Dhaka has positively embraced Beijing’s engagement. Even during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to China in July, 2019, the two sides agreed to enhance cooperation on trade, defense and infrastructure projects, which have further deepened China-Bangladesh ties.

The Padma Bridge Rail Link Project is one of the flagship projects undertaken by China in Bangladesh which aims to connect Dhaka with Jessore through the Padma Bridge. The estimated budget of the project is approximately BDT 40, 000 Crores jointly sponsored by the Exim Bank of China and Bangladesh government. The project began in 2016 and is aimed to be completed by 2024. The Padma rail project has been divided into three phases connecting Dhaka to Mawa, Mawa to Bhanga and Bhanga to Jessore. Rail connectivity is an important instrument for the bourgeoning market of Bangladesh. The Padma Bridge Rail project in particular is important to Bangladesh as it improve accessibility to Dhaka with central and south-western regions of the country and provides a shorter alternative to the Dhaka-Jessore-Khulna railway connectivity. It is also important to Bangladesh as it is expected to ensure socio-economic development and minimize regional disparity. China’s involvement in this project pertains to funding it. China is funding 85% of the project while the rest is funded by local contractors in Bangladesh. Interestingly the project was elevated to the ‘fast track’ status in Aril, 2016, emphasizing on China’s commitment of timely progress and delivery. This can be seen as an attempt by China to establish itself as a better alternative to India in the region, because one of the major issues flagged off by most countries in India’s neighborhood concerns New Delhi’s delivery deficiency. Infrastructure development in Bangladesh is also a strategically important sector for China to establish itself in, as it would increase greater dependence of Dhaka on Beijing. The biggest hindrance to the project so far has been the operational discontinuity caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Bangladesh’s Road Transport and Bridges Minister’s briefing, the infrastructural progress of the project is 24.43% and the financial progress is at 30.52% until May.     

Another important project undertaken by China in Bangladesh is the Payra Deep Sea Port. The Payra shipping port is situated at the Patuakhali region of Bangladesh on the banks of the Bay of Bengal. This project will be given shape by China Harbor Engineering Company (CHEC) and China State Engineering and Construction Company (CSCEC). China’s interest in this project is not a matter of surprise as it is strategically situated and falls in line with China’s string of maritime bases across the Indian Ocean region. The total cost of the port is expected to be between USD 11 billion to 15 billion. For long, China has expressed its interest in building port projects in Bangladesh. The Payra port project was inaugurated in November, 2013, and started operating in 2016. This project holds great significance for Bangladesh as it is expected to facilitate internal development. The deep-sea port is vital for reinvigorating Bangladesh’s internal connectivity which will boost its booming economy. Bangladesh has however made it very clear that it is not meant to be developed as a Chinese naval base, as has been the experience with Gwadar and Hambantota in the past. Interestingly, China’s involvement in this project has not aroused suspicion in India as well, primarily because it does not follow the ‘field of dreams’ approach. The Payra port will also be complemented by the Padma Rail Link project, as the latter is expected to create opportunity to construct a second line in this route and connect Barisal & Payra Deep Sea Port. Even though there have been questions about the feasibility of this project, from China’s perspective, projects like this help Beijing engage its bloated state-owned enterprises and increase dependence of other countries on China.

While Bangladesh’s ties with China have been steadily growing, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has also maintained a balanced relationship with India. Notably, she described Bangladesh’s relations with India as ‘organic’ and ‘beyond a few billions of dollars of trade’ at the World Economic Forum in Dalian in 2019, reiterating her bonhomie with India. Towards this end, New Delhi and Dhaka have made progress in strengthening their connectivity linkages which have, for instance, manifested in terms of the shipment of the cargo vessel from Kolkata to Agartala via Chittagong for the first time in fifty-five years. However, participating in the BRI has been a strongly felt need in the Dhaka making China emerge as the seemingly perfect fit to alter Bangladesh’s infrastructure deficit. The two countries have increasingly shared more comfort in jointly developing infrastructure projects which have been beneficial to both. While Dhaka benefits with assistance in infrastructure development, Beijing also views this as an opportunity to expand its geo-strategic footprint in South Asia. It is important for Dhaka to draw lessons from fellow South Asian small-states like Sri Lanka and cautiously engage with China. However, Bangladesh has been firm on its view of engaging with China at a level that is mutually beneficial to both. Infrastructure development has been at the heart of this relationship, and is expected to strengthen further in light of the current Covid-19 pandemic. While the crisis has been a hindrance to the existing projects which were under progress, it has also opened a new avenue for both the countries to cooperate on health infrastructure. Bangladesh-s recent demand of priority for cooperation from China reaffirms their willingness to cooperate. Towards this end, Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh, Li Jinming has reassured Bangladesh that China will remain its ‘most reliable’ partner.