President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is up against a huge challenge in Myanmar which Beijing considers its backyard. And neighbour India, whose Myanmar policy in the last two decades have been largely driven by the ‘China factor’, has a few lessons to pick up from China’s current troubles in the south-east Asian country.
Pro-democracy protestors, who see China as the main backer of the military junta that seized power on Feb 1, have serially started attacking Chinese business interests. Nearly forty factories financed by the Chinese have been burnt down so far.
The anti-Chinese violence is reminiscent of the one that swept across Myanmar in 1967-68. But there is a difference. In the 1960s, it was orchestrated by the Ne Win-led military regime, which resented Chinese backing for Myanmar’s Communist insurrection, especially after the 1968 Mong Ko offensive by the now-defunct Burmese Communist Party.
This time, the violence is spearheaded by people’s resistance groups opposed to the Feb 1 military takeover. They hope to drive home to Beijing that there is a huge cost to pay for supporting the Burmese military and blocking UN resolutions critical of the coup. With the West opposing the coup and India expressing ‘serious concern’ over the bloodletting that has led to more than 700 deaths, the Burmese military junta heavily relies on China and Russia to deflect the global angst over the coup and the massacre of protestors.
After the Ne Win years, China regained the trust of the Burmese military Tatmadaw by backing its ruthless suppression of the 1988 uprising. That helped China turn Myanmar into a satellite, whose considerable resources were up for grabs and whose territory could be strategically used for alternative sea access.
The first jolt to the Chinese resource extraction ploy came into 2008-09 when Kachin tribesmen successfully opposed the $ 6bn Myitsone hydel project, triggering a spiraling reaction by Burmese civil society and democratic parties. Aided by the global human rights and anti-big dam environmentalist groups, the Burmese people finally forced the quasi-military regime of General Thein Sein to stop the China-funded power project. Despite a decade of intense lobbying, Beijing is nowhere near the resumption of the mega project. But now Beijing, seen as the main backer of the military junta, is having to bargain for something much worse.
Pro-democracy protestors, mowed down by military gunfire on the streets of Myanmar’s towns, are attacking Chinese-financed factories and businesses, setting them on fire and even attacking managers and workers.
Much thought has gone into adopting this course of action. The 1988 protestors suffered huge casualties, in thousands, actually, without hitting back. This time on, the hardliners in the neighbourhood resistance groups have formed the ‘Federal Army’ in a secret meeting in Northern Yangon with the avowed aim of ‘raising the cost’ of Burmese military repression and Chinese support for it.
The protestors who want the restoration of parliamentary democracy and curbing of the military’s influence, feel attacking Chinese business interests will force Beijing to pressurize the Burmese military to back down, hand back power to the elected lawmakers and allow Nobel laureate Aung Saan Suu Kyi to form a government a second time.
The Chinese were upset with the Suu Kyi government because it not only refused to resume the Myitsone Dam project but also cut down the investment size of the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port project and drew in other foreign partners for the Yangon City Mega project in July last year, refusing to hand over the monopoly of executing the project to the China Communication and Construction Company.
This Chinese firm was accused of corruption in as many as 10 Asian and African countries where it is undertaking infrastructure development projects.
37 China-sponsored factories have been burnt down so far with protestors risking their lives against Burmese military action to set fire to these factories. Chinese businessmen are complaining of huge difficulties in doing business from sourcing jade in the Mandalay wholesale market to running the Lepetdaung copper project in Sagaing.
Interestingly the Chinese joint ventures are mostly with Burmese military-backed companies — so hitting one impacts the other. Protestors are also threatening to blow up the Kyaukphyu-Yunnan oil-gas pipeline linking a China-financed deep-sea port on Myanmar’s Rakhine coast to its Yunnan province.
If the military repression does not stop and the peaceful protestors turn violent leading to the emergence of armed urban insurgency in the Burmese heartland, terror attacks on key China-funded infrastructure is a distinct possibility. That would seriously threaten the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, one of the two key BRI growth corridors along with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
The CPEC is also under attack with a surge of deadly attacks by Baloch separatists who resent the exploitation of their mineral and hydrocarbon resources by Chinese companies who arms twist the Imran Khan government into granting huge concessions. Security risks add to the cost of the $ 60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), amid a resurgence of the deadly attacks by separatists in the troubled Balochistan province but the CPEC projects are also upsetting the Shias of Gilgit and Baltistan where the CPEC starts.
Scores of China-funded huge infrastructure projects have been cancelled or are on hold in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines. Bangladesh torpedoed the Chinese deepsea port project at Sonadia and handed over a similar project to Japan on its southern coast.
In Sri Lanka, the long leasing of the Hambantota port to China after the government realised its inability to service the unsustainable debt, has created not only much angst against Beijing and its friends in the island nation but send out a global alarm on Chinese- funded project, raising serious doubts about Beijing’s motives in driving up the project scale and then bargaining for outright long-term control over national assets — the ‘debt burden strategy for economic and political control’, as some Western geo-strategists have described it.
But in keeping with Newton’s law of every action generating equal and opposite reaction, China , seen as the global tormentor for its handling of the Covid pandemic, is now seen as the world’s leading ‘neo-colonial power, hungry for resources and determined to extract them, unmindful of the adverse impact on countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe.
For India which seeks to provide a benign alternative to China in south-east Asia, the lesson from China’s growing woes in Myanmar are too obvious to be missed.
One, India has no reason to pursue a China-driven Myanmar policy, perpetually fearing of pushing Myanmar totally into China’s lap if one were critical of Burmese military repression. Not only will the growing attack on Chinese business interests by otherwise peaceful protestors force Beijing into a rethink to protect its huge investments in the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, but that would also provide India business and economic opportunities it should not miss out on.
Two, if India wants to assert itself as a regional power, it will have to push for a pro-active mediatory role in tandem with Japan that leverages Delhi’s close relations with both the Tatmadaw and the democratic parties . In Zoramthamga, a former rebel leader and now chief minister of India’s northeastern state of Mizoram, India has a potential mediator who has close links with all stakeholders in Myanmar, including Tatmadaw and Aung Saan Suu Kyi’s NLD.
Three, the Tatmadaw needs the Indian army to curb the Arakan Army rebels as much as India needs the Burmese military to deny the Sagaing jungle bases to Northeast Indian rebel groups. So there is no reason for Delhi to be carried away by a limited counter-insurgency imperative and miss the big picture. India stands to gain much in the long term by reverting to the Indira-Rajiv policy of support for Burmese democracy than by pursuing the tunnel vision ‘China-driven’ Myanmar policy.