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India worried as China-Myanmar deepen ties

Chinese President Xi Jinping holds talks with Myanmar President U Win Myint in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, Jan. 17, 2020

China and Myanmar, over the weekend, signed 33 bilateral agreements that are expected to strengthen ties between India’s eastern neighbor and Beijing.

The accords include those to construct a rail link and a deep-sea port – part of a China-Myanmar-Economic Corridor – that runs from China’s south-western region to the Bay of Bengal. This will give a significant push to China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative to which Myanmar had signed onto in 2018 amid lack of investments from western countries.

The pacts were signed during president Xi Jinping’s two-day visit to Myanmar, a first by a Chinese president in almost two decades. Xi’s visit to Myanmar was also his first abroad in the 2020 calendar year.

The pacts were signed against the backdrop of Myanmar State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi coming under increasing pressure from Western countries over its crackdown on Rohingya Muslims. A Myanmar military campaign in 2017-18 caused some 730,000 Rohingyas from Rakhine state to flee to Bangladesh. In December, Nobel Laureate Suu Kyi defended her country’s human rights record vis a vis the Rohingyas at a hearing at the Hague-based International Court of Justice and a ruling in expected this month.

China, meanwhile, has been instrumental in shielding Myanmar from international sanctions at the United Nations, though the US last year placed several Myanmarese military generals on a sanctions list. China is also Myanmar’s biggest trading partner and one of its largest sources of inward investment. News reports say some one million Chinese tourists visit the country every year.

In an op-ed published in Myanmar’s state newspaper on the eve of his visit, Xi extolled the “millennia-old pauk-phaw (fraternal) friendship", between the two countries – setting the tone for the visit.

For India, China making inroads along its periphery in South Asia has been a major source of concern, and New Delhi will be watching the progress and implementation of the pacts signed on Saturday with a wary eye. Here are some of the reasons:

Through the construction of the Kyaukpyu port, China will be making its presence felt on India’s eastern flank. That, analysts say, is a matter of major concern given that India is already wary of China’s presence at Gwadar in Pakistan (in the west) and Hambantota in Sri Lanka (in the south). Kyaukpyu could end up being a “dual use" facility – ie for military as well as commercial uses, they say. “India will have to stretch its security capabilities to monitor Chinese activities in the Bay of Bengal," said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. For China a port in Kyaukpyu will make it easier to export goods made in its Yunan province rather than through Shanghai or Guangzhou.

China’s increased presence in Myanmar could mean constraints on India that wishes to deepen cooperation with Myanmar. One of the reasons for this has been that India’s northeast is riven with insurgencies. Though New Delhi has taken steps in recent years to sign peace agreements with several groups in the region, the situation still needs careful attention. India and Myanmar have conducted several military operations along their borders in close cooperation with each other. With China moving in with armed with economic and other incentives, there could be pressures on the India-Myanmar relationship, say analysts.

With Myanmar seemingly drawing closer to China under pressure from the West, Beijing could attempt to keep the country under its influence like it does in the case of Cambodia and Laos. The latter two have been chief supporters of Beijing within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, making sure the grouping does not take any tough anti-China postures on issues like the South China Sea dispute. The addition of Myanmar to Laos and Cambodia could also weaken ASEAN from within, said former foreign secretary Sibal.