Recent Chinese moves seeking to forestall India-sponsored projects in Myanmar may hurt both Delhi and Dhaka, especially on the contentious Rohingya crisis.
Myanmar authorities have just announced a go-slow on proposed road connectivity schemes that form part of the ambitious Asian Highway Development Project. Running 141,000km from Tokyo to European destinations through Asia, the Asian Highway will link South Asia with Southeast Asia. And Myanmar is where South and Southeast Asia come together.
However, regional road connectivity also forms an important component of the South Asia Sub-regional Economic Co-operation (SASEC) initiative announced in 2001. One of its now-running schemes is the Bangladesh Bhutan India Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicle Agreement.
Japan and South Korea figure in a major way in the ADB-backed Asian Highway Development Project. Japan recently discussed with India a joint new road connectivity project running through Asia up to Africa.
Authorities in Beijing fear that Japan and India, aligned against China in the Asia-Pacific region on the question of sea routes, are planning to undermine the prospects of its proposed One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative.
As part of the Asian Highway project, India has embarked on the construction of a 65km-long highway (involving widening and upgrading the existing road) from Imphal, the capital of Manipur in India, to Moreh on the Myanmar border. The cost is an estimated Rs1630 crore. From Moreh, through Myanmar, the highway is to proceed to a destination in Thailand.
The latest announcement from Myanmar would certainly slow down work on the Asian Highway project.
Myanmar officials say that they need to study the benefits and prospects of these projects in more detail before arriving at a decision. This has caught the Indian government off-balance.
It is generally known that Myanmar’s move has been made under Chinese pressure. China is keener than ever to implement its OBOR schemes in the South and Southeast Asian region, following the recent hiccups it suffered over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in the West. With India not participating in the CPEC, progress has been slow, coupled with continuing political uncertainties and major security issues in Pakistan.
In part, the rivalry between China and India has suddenly emerged as a major factor in internal developments of, and official decisions within, Myanmar. India cannot match China’s clout or resources in the extended Asian region, let alone compete with it in terms of the speed of project implementation.
To date, India’s investments in a slew of projects in Myanmar total around $730 million. China has spent at least four times as much and more.
The fresh assertion of Chinese power in Myanmar may negatively impact more than regional connectivity projects and economic development.
What causes concern in India (as well as Bangladesh) is China’s near total support to Myanmar on the Rohingya issue.
While the rest of the world has strongly condemned Naypyidaw’s brutally repressive policies against the minority Muslim Rohingyas in the Rakhine State, resulting in genocide and mass exodus of people to Bangladesh, China has stood by Myanmar.
“Ironically, in 2018, it seems Myanmar has almost reverted to its pre-sanction days, when the army was ruling for a long period. Then too, only China had shored up the country’s extremely backward economy, in defiance of all international sanctions. Now history is repeating itself in Myanmar over the Rohingya issue, apparently,”Kolkata-based analyst Col Sabyasachi Bagchi said.
While most major countries had strongly urged upon Myanmar to take back hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees flocking to Bangladesh – some even proposing a revival of economic sanctions – China had refused, commenting on what it described as an internal matter for its neighbour.
However, to save face with Bangladesh, it had proposed to act as an honest mediator between Bangladesh and Myanmar and settle the issue through trilateral talks.
Despite the relative calm currently prevailing in Rakhine and areas close to the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, with the majority of the Rohingya population driven out of their homes in Rakhine, Indian authorities fear that the situation could change for the worse. Given present indications and the slow pace of dialogue between its two neighbours, it may be years before even a small number of Rohingyas make it back to their homeland, according to one think tank expert.
Both India and Bangladesh favour a speedy return of the persecuted people to Myanmar as early as possible. Myanmar has stalled by insisting it will only accept Rohingyas who produce valid Myanmar citizenship documents.
Considering the Myanmar authorities left them unlisted as citizens since the 80s, this is a condition impossible to fulfil.
There are concerns over this in Bangladesh, but Indians are equally perturbed whether Myanmar will impose the same condition with Delhi as well, when the time comes to discuss the repatriation of 40,000 Rohingyas currently on Indian soil.
India has been castigated strongly in the UN, by international HR groups and other bodies especially in the West, over its position that the Rohingyas must be taken back by Myanmar.
To keep Myanmar authorities in good humour, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not even refer to the matter in a joint declaration during his last visit to the country. Delhi also tried to rev up its road development and other projects there. However, all these seem to have meant nothing to Myanmar.
There is no doubt that the pace of India-sponsored projects cannot match that of China-aided ventures either in terms of financial resources or speed of work. Clearly China, despite some minor problems, still retains its dominant voice in an internationally isolated Myanmar on most issues. Myanmar’s sudden go-slow on internationally approved connectivity projects, meant to provide a smooth run for China’s OBOR.
Therefore without China’s positive nod, the pending crisis over the stranded Rohingyas, whether in Bangladesh or India, may remain unsolved for an unforeseeable period.
That seems to be the case until both Myanmar and Bangladesh agree to have China as the chief mediator. No wonder Chinese President Xi Jinping indicated in his new year’s message: “China plans to play a major role in world developments.”