China, of late, has been pitching to increase its influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) through Myanmar. As an emerging maritime power in the Indo-Pacific, China is seeking a legitimate presence in the IOR. However, it faces connectivity dilemma in its approach to the India Ocean, as without a direct connectivity to the IOR, Beijing will not be able to exert its influence in the region. With the new democratic government coming to power in Myanmar under Htin Kyaw of National League for Democracy’s (NLD) which got thumping majority in the general elections held in November 2015, China wants to ensure that Myanamr becomes an important strategic partner for China in the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road strategy.
China faces same kind of geographical disadvantage in the IOR much the way of US in the western Pacific. As a distant power, China cannot spare large numbers of its naval assets to the Indian Ocean because western Pacific accounts top strategic priority. Similarly, the geographical condition of the Southeast Asia, with narrow straits that connect the South China Sea with the Indian Ocean, also prohibits quick and fast deployment of Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean.
China initially sought to establish “bases and assets” in the IOR, but had to reduce its presence as it were openly touted as “string of pearls” to project power in the IOR, and also to contain India. However, China continued its strategic-cum economic engagement with ‘all-weather’ friend Pakistan especially in the case of Gwadar port, which Beijing received management control to operate the port for 40 years in 2015. Beijing further mooted China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) with $46 billion investment in May 2013, when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Islamabad.
Now the Gwadar port, very much a part of the ‘string of pearl’ strategy, proved unworthy for China because: firstly, Western China is already connected to the oil-rich Central Asia and is very much part of the ‘One Belt One Road’ land connectivity extending to the western Europe, so it doesn’t necessarily require another connectivity to Gwadar; secondly, the Gilgit-Baltistan region, where the CPEC passing through, is a disputed territory concerning India.
A senior Chinese official recently told the Pakistani media that “China cannot afford to invest billions of dollars on a road that passes through a disputed territory”;t hirdly, it is doubtful whether Gwadar is economically feasible as there are other major ports in the region such as Dubai, Salalah and at Bandar Abbas including Chabahar, the one which is coming up in Iran with Indian investment; and finally, both India and the US can effectively create a naval blockade against Chinese assets in the Gwadar Port as the American Fifth Fleet is based in Manama and India’s Western Naval Command is not that far, too. In a way, Gwadar port cannot be fit into the much needed connectivity for China into the Indian Ocean. Keeping this in view, China has developed a parallel connectivity through the west coast of Southeast Asia and identified Myanmar as a focal point in the MSR strategy, which would provide a “safe” connectivity for China to the Indian Ocean.
China is now strengthening economic engagement with Myanmar by building a deep-water port at Kyaukphyu in the troubled southwestern Rakhine Province at the cost of US$280 million. The project is coming up in 1708 hectares, which includes a special economic zone, two deep-sea ports of 148 hectares and 95 hectares, and a 978-hectare industrial zone. The project was awarded to a six-member international consortium headed by one of China’s biggest conglomerates, Citic Group, through a “fair and open bid” in December 2015.
The consortium has promised that 90 percent of the project managers would be Myanmar citizens, so that it can avoid Myitsone Dam kind problem. Importantly, Kyaukphyu project is adjacent to the landing point of the dual pipeline that transports gas and crude oil to Kunming of China. Beijing had even invited Aung Suu Kyi to China in June 2015 where she met President Xi Jinping, an unusual event as opposition leaders wouldn’t get to meet the president. The military regime has legally barred Aung Suu Kyi from taking the top post of the government, but Aung Suu Kyi has now decided to become part of the Htin Kyaw government with a ministerial portfolio and she will be the power centre of the new government.
Earlier China sought to establish ‘Dual Use Logistic Facility Model’ in the island nations of Maldives and Seychelles, but the countries retracted from the offer due to the deft diplomacy by India. Beijing now considers Myanmar as a major strategic partner in the Indian Ocean and Kyaukphyu project could well become part of dual-use asset of China in the region. However, an early fruition of the connectivity will depend on how the NLD regime balances its relations with both China and the West, including India.