China, India Vie for Myanmar’s Affections

Xi visit to Naypyidaw sends frisson through Delhi

By: Neeta Lal

China’s growing strategic ties with Myanmar, evident from Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping’s recent sojourn to the administrative capital of Naypyidaw, are causing consternation in New Delhi.

Not only is Beijing’s outreach to Myanmar challenging India’s Neighborhood First policy, which seeks vigorous engagement with Myanmar and other South Asian neighbors, it is also an attempt to gain a back door to the Indian Ocean, foreign policy analysts say, describing it as ominous for geopolitical landscape of the Indian Ocean, apart from the ramifications for the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy, which seeks to keep China’s regional ambitions in check.

The US administration of President Donald Trump has simply ignored the country along with much of the rest of Asia after overtures by Barack Obama, who initiated diplomatic relations, suspended economic sanctions and laid on high-level visits in the wake of then-President Thein Sein’s attempt to build on the 2010 constitution with reforms and open the country to global investment. With Myanmar facing international sanctions over its near genocide against minority Rohingya Muslims and other countries backing away, China has stepped into the vacuum.

Although Xi’s trip to Myanmar was described as a “goodwill visit” to mark the 70th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two countries, pretty much like all things Chinese, there was a considerable agenda.

“I think there are numerous expectations for Xi’s visit, but there is also trepidation that the high-level visit is predicated on China cashing in on its diplomatic support for Myanmar over the Rakhine crisis, and unsticking stalled China Myanmar Economic Corridor] projects,” said David Mathieson, an analyst based in Yangon, in an interview with the South China Morning Post. “The Western opprobrium heaped on Myanmar was not mirrored by China, which balanced its strategic interests with shoring up support for the NLD government, and now it’s time for China to use that support to get its trade and infrastructure projects moving faster,”

Predictably, Beijing’s aims became clear as Xi’s two-day visit unfurled. He pushed Myanmar’s leaders to expedite the construction of projects within the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor as well as the Belt and Road Initiative, some of which stalled as the government in Myanmar began to understand the costs.

Xi’s meetings with the country’s top military and political brass resulted in the signing of “dozens” of agreements in culture, politics and the economy. More ominously for India, another important project discussed was the development of the stalled US$1.3 billion Kyaukphu deep sea port on the Rakhine coast, just opposite India’s eastern seaboard. The Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone connected to the port is Beijing’s strategic window to the Indian Ocean.

According to reports, China will construct 10 terminals with port handling capacity for 7.8 million tonnes of freight each year at the port. They can also handle 4.9 million containers per year. A pipeline connects the port to Kunming, enabling oil and gas from the gulf to be transported to China without the long sea voyage through the Strait of Malacca.

Myanmar’s effusive welcome to the Chinese leader was along expected lines. The former needs capital inflows to bolster its economy ahead of upcoming elections.

“There’s another strong reason for Naypyidaw’s display of affection towards China,” said Suvir Ananad, a Mumbai-based foreign policy expert. “It is the only major world power to endorse Myanmar’s handling of the Rohingya crisis, which invited global opprobrium for Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Xi has even sought to mediate in the Rohingya crisis.”

Given this backdrop, Delhi may well like to think about sharpening its own engagement with Myanmar’s National League for Democracy government. Myanmar is important to Delhi for many reasons. No less than four most sensitive border states ––Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram –– touch the border with Myanmar. The maintenance of security in these states requires Delhi to work closely with Naypyidaw.

Through its “Look East” policy India has attempted to reach out to Myanmar, given its strategic and economic value. Defense has been another area of cooperation. Apart from training officers from Myanmar at its various military establishments, India now also regularly holds exercises, coordinated naval patrols and service-to-service staff talks with the country. It has also supplied military hardware and software including artillery guns, mortars, grenade-launchers and rifles.

Delhi also has stakes in Myanmar’s energy sector. Indian state-owned companies such as OVL and GAIL having invested almost US$1.33 billion in the China-Myanmar gas pipeline project, which runs 2,400 km across Myanmar to Yunnan, the west China border state. After the rise to power of the National Democratic Alliance government in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, visited Myanmar soon after.

However, while New Delhi has always hoped it could draw Myanmar over to its own sphere of influence, its chances have been somewhat hobbled by its limited economic might. On the contrary, as Myanmar’s largest trading partner, trade volume between China and Myanmar has far outstripped India’s. According to official statistics, while China-Myanmar trade accounts for 87 percent of Myanmar’s border trade, India’s accounts for a trifling 0.8 percent.

Be that as it may, a Shanghai-based think-tank has observed that India has fewer barriers in building its relations with Myanmar as compared to China, which had strongly backed its erstwhile military junta.

“Compared with Beijing, New Delhi currently enjoys an advantage in strengthening its ties with Myanmar. Previously, China strongly backed military rule in Myanmar while the West vigorously ostracized it,” said Zhao Gancheng, director of Center for Asia-Pacific Studies, Shanghai Institute for International Studies.

Given Myanmar’s strategic and economic value for both China and India, not to mention a fraught global geo-economic situation, both nations will contest keenly for its affections. However, it is unlikely that Myanmar’s leaders will choose a favorite. They will astutely maintain neutrality to extract maximum benefits from both.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based editor and journalist; She is a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel