Sharing diplomatic ties since 1950, the relationship between China and Myanmar has seen rapid breakthroughs during the 1980s and thereafter. Xi’s visit to Myanmar at the time of a global economic slowdown has many implications for the region and the article delves into this factor.

Image source: Associated Press

Manas Kakumanu

On January 17, 2020, President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping paid a state visit to Myanmar to strengthen the bilateral relationship between the two countries. The visit was significant because it not only marked 70 years of diplomatic relationship between the two nations but was also the first time in 19 years a Chinese President paid a state visit to Myanmar.What are the implications of the visit and how does it impact its largest democratic neighbour India?

China’s friendship with Myanmar is not instantaneous. Myanmar was the first non-communist country to recognise Communist-led China. Both countries share diplomatic ties since 1950. During the 1980s when the international community isolated Myanmar, China was the only country happened to have ties with Myanmar and from then on the relationship and influence of China strengthened and peaked at the time of Deng Xiaoping. Modern time’s relationship has always been positive. Myanmar backed China on issues such as the detention of Uighur Muslims and growing influence of China in the South China Sea. It is one of the first countries to sign and set up an office to deal with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Xi Jinping’s Myanmar visit comes at a time when China is struggling with crippling economy, trade war, falling global economy and trust in BRI, etc. Thus, the visit can be a seen as a perfect redressal to these problems. Myanmar, with its strategic location and strong economy, is a participant of China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) and common linguistic ties favour China’s global ambitions. With the upcoming general elections in Myanmar in 2020, bolstering economic and strategic ties with China can enhance the public opinion towards National League for Democracy (NLD).

Economic cooperation seemed the primary objective of the meeting, particularly boosting the CMEC under the BRI initiative. The international community may view the agreements negotiated during the visit as an intent to revive the multi-billion Kyaukpyu port acting as Chinese effort to counterbalance the backlash experienced due to its expansion in the South China Sea. According to local sources, the two countries have endorsed 33 memorandums of understanding, agreements, exchange letters and protocols; 13 of which are specifically related to infrastructure. Further, the prospect of developing the CMEC has received notable attention by the two sides seeking to push forward its implementation. Although details of the latest agreement are yet to be released, Xi’s consideration of the CMEC before his meeting with Suu Kyi as “priority among priorities” for the BRI highlights how the global infrastructure drive serves as a cornerstone for Beijing’s foreign policy. The project is also likely to include road and railway arrangements, tying the 793 km oil and gas pipeline which began supplying China in 2013. The recent meetings have turned out to be a win-win for both sides; increasing Chinese presence and influence in the country while simultaneously offering a timely boost to Myanmar experiencing increased isolation from the West for its treatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority.

The meeting also raised security concerns for India as it shares a border length of 1,624 kilometres with Myanmar which acts as a hub of insurgents to cross border into nation territories. China’s close engagement with Myanmar raises risk to India’s outreach to its eastern neighbourhood. India has maintained close ties with Myanmar under Act East Policy. It is the fifth largest trading partner of Myanmar. It even played safe regarding the Rohingya crisis while western nations condemned and imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar. India would be closely following the developments and clearly will not repeat the mistake of 1980s, when the whole international community had isolated Myanmar. China was the only nation that had opened the doors of trade and cooperation to Myanmar, which helped it to spread its influence in the country. Both China and India have projects in Myanmar such as India-funded Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project designed to link sea, river and land and Chinese projects including Kyaukpyu port and others. Both countries are contesting for economic and strategic influence in Myanmar.

After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s victory in Indian general elections of 2014, the relationship between the two nations has seen tremendous shift through ‘Act East Policy’ and ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’ coupled with frequent bilateral engagements. In 2017, Modi became the second prime minister to visit and hold bilateral meeting with Myanmar in 30 years. Both countries agreed on various issues, most importantly security and counter terrorism. In 2018, India conducted its first bilateral maritime military exercise in Bay of Bengal (IMNEX-18) and both nations participated in various multilateral exercises.

India and China have remained silent on the Rohingya crisis in various forums. China, backed by Russia, opposed the bill introduced by the UK against Myanmar in the UNSC. India too did not raise the issue in sub-regional groupings such as BIMSTEC.

India along with western nations closely monitored President Xi Jinping’s Maynamar visit that was seen aimed at strengthening Chinese presence in the region. Other players such as Japan and Singapore who also have heavily invested in Myanmar in various sectors such as infrastructure and logistics would have closely followed Xi Jinping’s historic meet with Myanmar state head Win Myint. One thing is certain, the outcome of the meeting entangles countries such as India for more FDI and bilateral engagement with Myanmar, making it one of the important countries in the region. 

Manas Kakumanu is Research Intern at CPPR-Centre for Strategic Studies. Views expressed by the author is personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research

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