Through the sweltering summer of 1967, the cloying scent of hate had hung over Yangon, mixing with the familiar odours of sweat and decay. For months, as Chairman Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution reached its climax, ethnic-Chinese students had begun wearing Mao badges, and abandoned the traditional Burmese
longyi. Then, in June, the students at Yangon’s No. 3 National Elementary School clashed with their teachers. The fires began: the Chinese embassy was attacked, businesses looted, dozens killed.
Five decades after General Ne Win’s anti-Chinese pogrom, and the invasion that followed, Myanmar has emerged as Beijing’s most reliable partner in the region—giving it a strategically-vital back-door opening into the Indian Ocean that hacks at India’s interests.
President Xi Jinping visit to Myanmar this weekend past, the first by a Chinese premier in almost two decades, is, among other things, an education in the stark realities of geopolitics. It’s also evidence, though, of what patient, focussed diplomacy can achieve, even in the most adverse circumstances.
Beijing’s key gain from President Xi’s visit is the firming up of the Kyaukpyu port project, in the troubled Rakhine province—a port that will let China plug its growing hydrocarbon imports into a 793 kilometre network of oil and gas pipelines running to Kunming. In essence, the port gives China a back-door opening into the Indian ocean, allowing it to bypass the narrow Malacca Strait, which Beijing has long feared its regional adversaries’ navies could choke in the event of a strategic crisis.
Neither country has revealed details of the agreement so far, but an agreement Myanmar signed with Chinese state-owned Citic bank in 2015 had envisaged an $7.3 billion deep water port, and an $2.7 billion industrial park. In 2018, though, the ruling National League for Democracy slashed the budget to US$1.3 billion, concerned Myanmar wouldn’t be able to service the debt.
That rollback, its almost certain, has been substantially reversed. In his meeting with Myanmar’s state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Xi described the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor as the“priority among priorities” for the Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative, underlining the strategic value of Kyaukpyu to the superpower.
Ever since 2011, when nominal democracy was restored in Myanmar, Beijing’s durable relationship with its southern neighbour—cultivated by the military junta which ruled from Naypyidaw—had come under increasing stress. In the wake of improved relationships with the United States, for example, Myanmar suspended the controversial, $3.6 billion Myitsone hydroelectric dam, which was to have supplied electricity to southern China.
The strains in the relationship were several: China’s relationship with the Generals; allegations its companies were engaging in corruption; even tensions sparked off by cultural friction with the growing numbers of Chinese tourists. The key factor, though, was that Naypyidaw had many potential allies, including Europe and rising-power India, to turn to.
Beijing worked hard to recover lost ground. Through the decade, China reached out to interlocutors across Myanmar’s political spectrum, and even to civil society. Chinese corporations were brought to heel. Beijing-owned Wanbao undertook a voluntary cut in its profits from the Letpadaung mines, while the China National Petroleum Corporation dramatically increased spending on community healthcare and education.
Perhaps most important, Beijing quietly used its influence among insurgent groups along its borders with Myanmar, working to negotiate an end with violence to United Wa State Army and the Kachin Independence Army.
From 2014, when Myanmar’s relationship with the West began to fray in the wake of its state-sponsored violence against ethnic-Rohingya, Beijing was poised to step in. President Xi played the long game—and is now harvesting the fruits.
India's Myanmar Plan
Like China, India avoided isolating Myanmar in the wake of the Rohingya crisis. But unlike China, it just doesn’t have the resources to be an actor of influence without its Western partners. Trade has seen a steady uptick, approaching near $2 billion last year. That’s dwarfed, though, by Myanmar’s
$7.5 billion trade with China. India’s investments in Myanmar—notably, the $500 million Kaladan project, linking the Rakhine port of Sittwe with Kolkata by sea, road, and, eventually, rail—are small, compared to the $5.5 billion China’s pumped in after 2011.
In the same period, according to the
American Enterprise Institute, Pakistan has received $47.5 billion in investments, Sri Lanka $9.46 billion and Bangladesh $25.32 billion—numbers that tell Naypyidaw that there’s cash on the table for Indian Ocean rim states willing to dance with the dragon.
Pragmatism was a core part of Beijing’s playbook. Following 1967, it enhanced support to the Burmese Communist Party, and even sponsored an invasion to teach Myanmar’s Generals a lesson. Inside four years, though, it realised the strategy was counterproductive. Through the 1970s, China patiently rebuilt its relationship with Myanmar’s Generals, consolidating them further under Deng Xiaoping.
For all the talk of a multinational Indo-Pacific alliance to contain China, the case of Myanmar shows how little shared strategic vision there is between India and its partners in Europe, the United States or Australia. India is aware Myanmar’s assistance has been key to reining-in insurgents like National Socialist Council of Nagaland hardliners, whose camps have been dismantled and key actors
arrested. It’s also acutely aware of the threats the string of major Chinese ports in the Indian ocean pose.
New Delhi’s been unable to persuade its partners, though, that the principal beneficiary of isolating Myanmar hasn’t been Rohingya refugees—but Beijing. Indeed, China is now mediating between the two states most engaged with the fallout of the Rohingya crisis, Bangladesh and Myanmar, not India or the West.
Through 2019, the gap between India’s ambitions and influence have been brutally exposed. New Delhi’s hopes of limiting Pakistani influence in Afghanistan have been undermined by President Donald Trump’s pursuit of peace with the Taliban; Islamabad’s Generals have shown the United States they’re a vital ally; Bangladesh angered by the ill-informed railing of Indian ministers about its treatment of its minorities. Even Nepal, now signed on to a high-speed train link with China, is looking eastwards—and Bhutan could follow.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government isn’t to blame for all of these problems: the asymmetry in power between China and India is simply too large for the superpower not to exert influence in India’s periphery. But Beijing’s cause has also been helped by a succession of own-goals and carelessness. Through the region, India has developed a reputation for delivering late on its commitments, or not delivering at all.New Delhi needs to make its neighbourhood, not pie-in-the-sky alliance building, its principal priority—and learn carefully matching the ends it seeks with its often-anemic means.