President Xi Jinping has just concluded a two-day visit to Myanmar. The event will have enormous regional, indeed, global implications. It reflected a very assertive side of China's foreign policy, bending all actions to an ultimate geo-strategic objective. In this case, the objective was obviously to buttress the Road and Belt Initiative (RBI), the cornerstone of China's foreign policy. There were three components of this objective contained in this particular trip. One was the gaining of China's access to the Indian Ocean. A second was the embrace of Myanmar into the Chinese fold after generations of diplomacy that were fraught and third, a step forward towards consolidating Chinese power in India's periphery. Xi did not seem to allow for India's obvious apprehensions, Bangladesh's possible misgivings, and the West's apparent opprobrium to stand in the way of the fruition of what he has often spoken of as Zhang Guomeng, or 'china dream'.
'Pauk-Phaw', a Burmese term, usually means 'fraternal'. It is often used to describe relations between siblings. In Myanmar it has often been used to refer to its Chinese connections. Most recently, and significantly, it was a political vocabulary that no less a person than President Xi Jinping relied on, when he penned an article published in a Myanmarese newspaper just on the eve of his recent visit to Yangon. Somewhat grandiosely, the piece was entitled, "Writing a New Chapter in our Millenia-old Pauk-Phaw Friendship". Xi went on to state that it was an apt description of the fraternal sentiments between our two peoples, whose ties date back to ancient times.
That could be an exaggeration. The bilateral relations in the past have not been as smooth as the article makes out. Historically Communist groups within that country had sought and obtained solace and succour from such militants. Indeed, just prior to the visit, a Chinese senior emissary, Sun Guoxiang had met such groups near the border. One result of the meeting was statements of welcome to the Chinese President issued by the ethnic insurgents. This also signalled the kind of power Beijing still wields over those who can be potential trouble makers for the Myanmar regime.
However, for Beijing, the visit was well timed. Myanmar was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. The leadership is reeling from the criticisms faced particularly from western countries with regard to the conduct of the military in the Rakhine state mainly with regard to the Rohingya refugees who have fled to Bangladesh. The fall from grace in western eyes of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the most senior elected leader in recent times has been striking. Many senior generals are under sanction. The government had been dragged to the international court in the Hague on allegations of severe human rights violations. For Naypidaw, the window of manoeuvrability vis-à-vis Beijing had shrunk. China was the alternative source of support it could scarcely ignore.
Xi was also careful to pander to Myanmarese sensibilities. In his article he had listed three main subjects that would be central to the discussions during his two-day visit to Myanmar in the third week of January. These would be: One, the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone; two, the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone; and three, the New Yangon City Project. These three are key to the now much- touted China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), perhaps the second major flagship economic intervention of China in the region, after the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in a country that is clearly China's most trusted global ally.
All these are a part of China's massive global strategy, known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) linking peoples, countries and continents in a gargantuan development scheme. Xi made no mention of the controversial Myitsone Dam, which had been an apple of discord between Myanmarese public opinion and China. The project, meant to produce 6000MW of power, signed during Xi's previous visit a decade ago, was eventually all-but cancelled in 2011 due to the huge public protests from the mass population. If Xi saw it as a personal affront, he appeared to conceal it very effectively. There were other more lucrative prizes to be gained.
These lay in the 33 agreements the two sides inked. These spanned across the spectrum of infrastructure, energy and trade. Nothing was stated as to how the two planned to speed up the slow negotiations with the several armed ethnic groups. Though a concession agreement and a shareholders' agreement were signed on the Kyaukphyu port in the Rakhine State it was unclear if the final green signal was given by Naypidaw. But even if the ultimate consent was awaited, there was no doubt as to what the outcome would be! It is too critical to China's interests. It would greatly enhance China's presence in the Indian Ocean, also allowing its oil imports to by-pass Malacca.
Single- country visits by Xi Jinping as the one to Myanmar was, are a rare phenomenon. China's need for access, to the Indian Ocean through the CMEC was too central to its strategy to be derailed in any way by any possible wariness of India, for which ample causes existed. Nor did it allow any unhappiness on the part of Bangladesh, in adversarial relationship with Myanmar over the Rohingya issues, but nevertheless a friend of China, to stand in the way. In its difficult times in global politics, Myanmar would need China in the Security Council. In his public remarks Xi Jinping appeared to assure China of this. That was reward enough for Aung San Suu Kyi. However, to the dispassionate observer the 'pauk-phau' relationship, in Myanmar now fully in Chinese bind, might appear woefully asymmetric. But China seemed to message the region and the world that in its strivings to rise China will not 'bide its time and hide its capabilities' as Deng Xiao ping had urged in the previous generation , but forge ahead inexorably.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at ISAS, National University of Singapore, former Foreign Advisor and President of Cosmos Foundation Bangladesh.
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