China’s intention to make inroads into the Bay of Bengal has become clearer with President Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar from January 17 to January 18, 2020. It will not only boost infrastructure projects in Myanmar but also increase China’s influence in the region. Among the 33 agreements signed during the visit, the development of a deep-sea port in Kyaukphyu on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, a railway project to connect Chinese province of Yunnan to Myanmar’s coastal cities, an inland-waterway through the Irrawaddy river and a mega-hydropower dam project are the most prominent. These projects are expected to re-energise the rather stale progress made under the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) so far.
Xi’s visit to Myanmar, the first by a Chinese president in almost two decades, has the potential to drastically alter regional geopolitics in the Bay of Bengal. Several domestic and geopolitical reasons underline Beijing’s outreach to Myanmar and its strategy to use it as a conduit to the Bay of Bengal. It will boost China’s presence in the Indian subcontinent. The deep-sea port project is intended to cement China’s geostrategic footprint in the Bay of Bengal. China’s dependence on oil has been increasing by 6.7 per cent each year and the demand is set to increase further, given the trade war with the US. Therefore, the Bay of Bengal will be an alternative route for China’s Malacca.
Being the conduit between the Western Indian Ocean and South China, the Bay of Bengal enjoys immense geostrategic influence in strategies of Asia’s rising powers. It is also a lynchpin of any successful Indo-Pacific strategy. If the Quad countries – the US, India, Japan and Australia – continue to push for a loose alliance against China’s increasing maritime power both in the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, China’s maritime ambitions could be easily thwarted. Beijing would like to pre-empt any such attempt by the Quad countries. Establishing its presence in the Bay of Bengal is, therefore, fundamental to sustain China’s inroads in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Cultivating Myanmar as a strategic partner serves three major objectives in China’s Indian Ocean strategy.
First, China’s development of Kyaukpyu port will further entrench its naval presence in the IOR. On the pretext of developing infrastructure and connectivity under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing has developed a myriad of naval posts across IOR – from Gwadar port in Pakistan to Djibouti in Africa and the most recent naval outpost in Cambodia. However, the militarisation of the Kyaukpyu port will be a game-changer as China will get a military foothold in the Bay of Bengal. Though the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy is highly active in the waters of the Bay of Bengal, it still lacks military infrastructure and logistics support in the region.
Second, the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal are fast becoming a new flashpoint in Sino-Indian strategic maritime competition. In the last two years, PLA Navy entered the Bay of Bengal on several occasions with the most recent incident in December 2019 when a Chinese vessel entered India’s special economic zone without permission. The frequency of Chinese submarine patrols in the IOR has almost tripled in the last two years. Although the past interventions were criticised under violations of United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea, China will now have a legitimate reason to be present in the Bay of Bengal because of its presence in Myanmar.
Third, Myanmar is a key influencer for China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean. It is not only a gateway to the Bay of Bengal but is also a strong member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). While the Western nations continue to isolate Myanmar on its human rights track record, China’s policy of non-intervention in Myanmar’s domestic politics has helped it to cultivate goodwill in Naypyitaw. China also provided military support to Myanmar. By keeping Myanmar on its side and by building such economic dependencies, Beijing hopes not only to keep India on its toes but also create enough influence within ASEAN.
For New Delhi, securing the Indian waters is of utmost priority which otherwise would intensify maritime security dilemma. India’s first largest naval exercise, Milan, in the Indian Ocean later this year (excluding China) is highly significant to reiterate its importance in the Bay of Bengal. Yet, India has been complacent in confronting this new geostrategic reality – lack of economic might.
Recognising this, New Delhi is partnering the Quad countries to boost maritime security in the Bay of Bengal. Japan has been funding infrastructure projects, including port development in Myanmar and Bangladesh with India. The US and India jointly held the Malabar naval exercise in the Indian Ocean in 2019. Washington laid out a clear military roadmap in the Indo-Pacific to not only boost military activities in the IOR but also to build India’s maritime security capabilities.
Additionally, New Delhi could rekindle maritime ties with ASEAN. This will reduce the collective concerns regarding the security of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Recently, India, Singapore and Thailand held a joint trilateral maritime exercise for the first time to cooperate on the security and maritime issues in the Bay of Bengal. However, ASEAN and India can do more by partnering with Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines.
While the governments of Myanmar and China hailed the Xi visit as a tremendous success, many other key stakeholders issued statements expressing reservations. More than 50 civil society groups published an open letter to Xi, urging him to permanently cancel the controversial Myitsone Dam project. The Myanmar government in 2011-halted construction of this mega-dam, located at the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River, after environmental, social and national security concerns sparked nationwide protests.
Key political parties, including the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, voiced similar perspectives, urging the CMEC to respect traditional land rights and demanding that all CMEC projects receive approval directly from communities in addition to the Union government.
Representatives of Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups voiced some of the most serious objections. The Arakan Army (AA), which has clashed more than 40 times with the Myanmar army in Rakhine state since the beginning of 2020, released a statement the day before Xi’s visit asserting that it would “recover land and resources taken from the Rakhine people … and wage a war for the liberation of the Rakhine nation.”
China’s leaders recognize that they need to do more to win broad-based support for their various initiatives, and they have placed greater emphasis on public relations. For example, in advance of Xi’s visit, the operator of the Sino-Myanmar Pipeline, the China National Petroleum Company, released a new “Corporate Social Responsibility” report, noting that it has delivered $500 million of benefits to Myanmar. And in his open letter, Xi stressed China’s commitment to projects that will improve the livelihood of the Myanmar people.
Two possible initiatives stand out as potential solutions: In China, leaders have promised to greatly enhance transparency, accountability, and environmental sustainability of future BRI projects. Instruments such as the Beijing Initiative for the Clean Silk Road were released in April of 2019, but it remains unclear how these principles have been implemented on the ground in a BRI host country like Myanmar. Going forward, China is trying its best to cater for the needs of opposition parties, ethnic non-state authorities and civil society by making a good-faith attempt to fulfill the promises it made last year.
The Myanmar government, for its part, has made efforts to subject projects to a strict review process incorporating social and environmental impacts assessments. Dubbed the “Project Bank,” this plan has not yet been implemented, due largely to a lack of donor support. With the proper resources, political will and emphasis on how various projects might affect the causes of conflict, Myanmar’s government can respond more robustly to the needs of other stakeholders and renew efforts to build peace in the country.
In order to counter China’s efforts in augmenting its presence in the Indian Ocean, India is making all efforts to nullify Chinese move. The Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General MM Naravane along with Foreign Secretary (FS) Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Myanmar, post a series of virtual Foreign Office Consultations addressing bilateral cooperation. While congratulating the eastern neighbour for successfully hosting the Fourth meeting of the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference India assured them its support to assist Myanmar in its democratic transition.
Agreeing on strengthening their partnership on varied fronts, both sides discussed connectivity projects, capacity building, power and energy sector, deepening economic and trade ties, facilitating people to people and cultural exchanges, and broadening the base for defence exchanges across all the three services. They also discussed the progress made by the Indian invested projects: the Trilateral Highway and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project. New projects and initiatives like the up-gradation of Yamethin Women’s Police Academy, Basic Technical Training School and measures to provide long-term sustainability to projects such as the Myanmar Institute of Information Technology were also discussed.
In these unprecedented times, New Delhi has depicted its commitment towards deepening cooperation to overcome challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic by presenting 3000 vials of Remdesivir to its eastern neighbour. Foreign Secretary Shringla also mentioned India’s willingness to prioritize Myanmar while sharing vaccines as and when they become available. While appreciating Myanmar for handing over of 22 cadres of Indian Insurgent Groups to India, the duo discussed mutual commitment in terms of security and stability in their borders.
India has also announced a grant worth $2 million for the construction of the border Haat Bridge at Byanyu/Sarsichauk in Chin State, which will facilitate economic connectivity between Mizoram and Myanmar. It has also notified the intake of 150,000 lakh tonnes of Urad (Vignamungo) for import from Myanmar. Addressing the issue of conservation and repair of Bagan pagodas that had been damaged in the 2016 earthquake, both sides deliberated plans on installing a bust of Lokmanya Tilak in Mandalay to commemorate his 100th death anniversary. Discussions on cultural co-operation also included the translation of Indian epics into the Burmese language.
While agreeing to operationalise the Sittwe Port in the Rakhine State in the first quarter of 2021, Delhi and Nay Pyi Taw took note of the developments made under the Rakhine State Development Programme (RSDP). They decided on finalizing projects under Phase – III of the Programme alongside upgrading the agricultural mechanization under the project. The Foreign Secretary ensured India’s support for safe, sustainable and speedy return of displaced persons to the Rakhine State.
Bordering Myanmar and Bangladesh, India has its role to play in balancing out the conflicts pertaining in the region with respect to the Rakhine State. As a friend and a neighbour to both the states, Delhi has great interest in stabilising the situation by ensuring timely repatriation of the Rohingya refugees and providing support to Myanmar while dealing with the refugees.
Displaced by Citizenship Act of 1982, the Rohingyas who are an ethnic Muslim minority living in the townships of Rakhine state in Myanmar became officially stateless. After operations like the: Naga Min (King Dragon) in 1978 and Pyi Thar Ya in 1991, to oust the Rohingyas, the persistent discrimination escalated to communal violence and alleged abuse which forced them to flee to neighbouring regions, Cox’s Bazar district in Bangladesh. Ever since thenblaming each other for the Rohingya crisisthere have been a series of rebuttals between Dhaka and Nay Pyi Taw.
Ever since then, India has been trying to play mediator and stabilise if not de-escalate the issue between its neighbours. Committed towards facilitating an early return of the displaced and aiding humanitarian help, India has pledged to provide relief supplies worth $25 million to develop the impoverished region. The Rakhine State Development Programme is undertaken by India strongly aims at improving the socio-economic status of the people in Rakhine State by providing them support in terms of education, health, agriculture, and allied activities which will help the development of the Rakhine State through a grant-in-aid of $5 million per annum.
During the visit of the Army Chief and the Foreign Secretary, India agreed to provide artillery guns, ammunition for T-72 tanks, radars, sonars and 500 bulletproof jackets to Myanmar’s military. The move, reports say, is aimed at countering Chinese influence in Myanmar.
This is not India’s first effort towards reducing Myanmar’s military dependence on China. India is currently in the process of transferring one of its Russian-origin conventional submarines to the Myanmar Navy. The boat has been refurbished in India by the Visakhapatnam-based Hindustan Shipyard Limited. India’s decision to supply a submarine to Myanmar despite facing a shortage of under sea platforms itself points towards its willingness and the necessity to prevent China from gaining a foothold in the Indian Ocean Region.