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Geopolitics & Strategy

Will Daw Suu Kyi dance with the Dragon or the Elephant?: India-Myanmar-China relations vis-à-vis the Rohingya crisis; By Asma Masood

Picture courtesy: BBC.com

Article No. 0096/2017

India has engaged with Myanmar via a military exercise from November 20-25 2017, after which a delivery of 3000 family relief packages was undertaken to Myanmar’s Rakhine state which is mired in the Rohingya conflict. The defence cooperation which occurred is the first India-Myanmar Bilateral Military Exercise 2017 (IMBAX-2017).[1] These measures are being described by the media as moves to counter China’s increasing role in Napyidaw.[2] China had earlier offered to mediate dialogue between Myanmar and Bangladesh for resolving the Rohingya refugee crisis. This was followed up with Dhaka and Napyidaw signing a Memorandum of Understanding to facilitate the return of the more than 600,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh who had fled from the conflict in Rakhine.[3]

The MoU involves a three step plan namely: ceasefire, repatriation and rebuilding Rakhine. Significantly, this three step plan was first proposed by China earlier last month.[4] It is clear that China’s proposal has a role in shaping the contours of the refugee crisis’ mitigation. The agreement has been welcomed by the office of Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s State Counsellor and de facto leader, as a “win-win situation” and that the issue must be resolved through “bilateral negotiations”.[5]

The usage of the term ‘bilateral’ indicates that Myanmar may be cautious in allowing Beijing to overtly engage in the crisis resolution, for fear of China’s unchecked influence. Nevertheless, Myanmar increasingly needs China’s linkages to build its economic framework. This very fact depicts irony, given that China is assisting in the development of a transitioning democracy, while it had earlier been a staunch supporter of the military junta. At first sight, India is the ideal partner for assisting Myanmar’s transition. Yet the reality is not a black and white scenario: India had once criticized the erstwhile ruling military junta of Myanmar, then shifted track to engaging with the army government. This was done in order to balance Beijing’s presence in Napyidaw. The move was not condoned by Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy supporters who were struggling for free and fair political representation in Myanmar. Perhaps this is the reason, when India welcomed the 2015 electoral win of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, it was followed by a pragmatic response from Suu Ky’s government: It knew that Myanmar continued to need China for its economic growth.

China too practiced a realpolitik strategy towards both the earlier ruling military rulers and the present elected government of Myanmar. Xi Jinping had realized that shunning the democratic win of the NLD party would only backlash against China’s attempts to maintain good relations with Myanmar.  A balanced Chinese view was also presented on the Rohingya crisis, well before the NLD win: China had expressed that the conflict must be resolved through an ‘Asian solution’. While such views were put forth, no Chinese offer was made to take in the persecuted Rohingyas who were fleeing Myanmar. This is in contrast to India, where Rohingya asylum seekers are finding refuge, albeit the ongoing political debate. Perhaps China was well aware that Aung San Suu Kyi would not take any substantial measures to resolve the anti-Rohingya stance among the majority of Myanmar’s largely Buddhist population.

In addition, China needs the ‘Golden Land’ to gain access to the Indian Ocean through which oil is imported from the Middle East, thus resolving the Malacca dilemma. A vital framework of this alternate energy route is China’s Belt and Road Initiative. As part of BRI, Beijing is to take up a 70 per cent stake in the strategic Kyak Pyu port in Rakhine state,[6] which overlooks the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean. This port will be linked to China by an oil pipeline for energy imported from the Middle East. Hence China needs a stable Rakhine state for protecting its economic investments and energy security. This imperative has driven China, a country known for its non-interference policy in international affairs, to take up uncharacteristic foreign policy measures. It proactively proposed the 3 step process for resolving the Rohingya refugee crisis. As analyzed earlier, Myanmar prefers a bilateral approach with Bangladesh.

These developments bring forth the question of where lie Indian relations with Myanmar vis-à-vis the Rohingya crisis.

Firstly, it is curious to observe that Indian in its official statements never uses the term ‘Rohingya’. This is in keeping with Myanmar’s strong stance on calling the community as ‘Bengalis’. This in itself is a major move by India to appease Myanmar. It is paradoxical that India, the country giving refuge to thousands of Rohingya asylum seekers, does not recognize their basic ethnic identity- their historical name. On the other hand, Chinese state supported media often uses the term Rohingya. This may be a well-thought out aspect, whereby China presents a positive image to the rest of the international community which condemns the crisis.

Secondly, Prime Minister Modi has expressed empathy towards the Myanmar government: He has thus sought to justify the Myanmar military crackdown on the Rohingya community based on a few isolated incidents of alleged radicalism.[7]

Thirdly, India continues to engage with Myanmar’s Rakhine state economically- Delhi is developing the Kaladan multimodal project here. The project is worth USD 484 million and will connect Sittwe port in Rakhine to Mizoram.[8] While China has indirectly promoted reconstruction of Rakhine state by proposing the three step plan as mentioned earlier, India is yet to proactively take any similar strides. Delhi may be eschewing any involvement in resolving the crisis within Myanmar’s borders, by being respectful of Suu Kyi’s desire to avoid internationalizing the issue.

By examining the above, the larger question that arises is that of in which direction Aung San Suu Kyi’s political antennae point towards.

It must be understood that Daw Suu Kyi, while being subjective in domestic quandaries, is being pragmatic in dealing with both India and China. She is keen to leverage the point that Myanmar’s economic growth is deeply entrenched in relations with China, which is the world’s second largest economy. Besides, it cannot be ignored that the Myanmar military still retains a stronghold over the country’s political power. Aung San Suu Kyi cannot risk antagonizing the defence establishment, at the cost of losing her hard-fought and long drawn battle for democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi’s ‘mollification’ of the army may partly involve two aspects: allowing China to bear a semblance of influence in Myanmar; and restraint in reacting to the military crackdown against the Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine state. In fact, Suu Kyi stated recently during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Myanmar, that, ““Myanmar values China’s understanding of the Rakhine issue, which is complicated and delicate.”[9] Simultaneously, she is using relations with India to keep a check on China’s looming shadow over Myanmar. India is capitalizing on this approach to maintain ties with Myanmar which is crucial as a gateway to Southeast Asia.

Besides, it cannot be forgotten that Suu Kyi had stated in 2015 that Myanmar has the potential to arise as bridge between India and China.[10] Such words are those of a seasoned statesman. However Aung San Suu Kyi is demonstrating this strength only in her foreign policy, and not regarding the Rohingya crisis. This dualism resonates to an extent with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s policies of international diplomacy parallel to having to deal with ethnic turmoil in certain sections at home. Nevertheless, Suu Kyi cannot ignore that her country like India acknowledges its cultural diversity, the Rohingya crisis notwithstanding.

Hence, it is not whether Aung San Suu Kyi will dance with either only the Dragon or the Elephant based on similarities in wavelength. It is that she will delicately balance India and China for optimal gains for her country’s national interest.

It is upto India to decide how to take the issue of dealing on the Rohingya crisis further. While China is coming out of its mould of non-interference in foreign policy, India’s stance of strategic autonomy is keeping Delhi in a dilemma. This stance is seen in Modi’s empathy with the Myanmar military crackdown on the Rohingya, juxtaposed with India presently giving asylum to the persecuted community. It remains to be seen whether the political debate in India will lead to repatriation of the Rohinya refugees here. Delhi will do well to remember that India’s strategic autonomy cannot impede dealings on humanitarian issues in its foreign policy. Act East cannot be an economic strategy alone. The newly proposed Asia Africa Growth Corridor will not succeed without ensuring peace in the region.  India must invoke its ancient wisdom to engage in harmony not only with Myanmar’s government but its entire people. Not recognizing that the Rohingya are Myanmarese citizens would bring long term costs to India.

Hence India can go a step beyond China and offer a resolution to Myanmar to study the citizenship issue of the Rohingya. Alongside this measure, India can continue to increase partnership in agricultural cooperation cum research with Myanmar, as it has been found that rice traders in Rakhine are affected by a 2015 ban of rice import from China. This may lead to a spike in the resource conflict angle amidst the Rohingya and ethnic Rakhines, thus fueling the ongoing ethnic conflict. Indian agricultural cooperation hence offers itself as a viable remedy to one of the conflict’s roots.

Aung San Suu Kyi must not see the moves as interference, but rather as a valuable manifestation of India’s goodwill. It will lead to a win-win solution for all parties involved. This may pave the way for India to have the ‘last dance’ with Myanmar.

References: 

[1] Mitral, Naresh, “India-Myanmar joint military exercise to begin on Nov 20 in Meghalaya”, Times of India, November 18 2017, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/india-myanmar-joint-military-exercise-to-begin-on-nov-20-in-meghalaya/articleshow/61703643.cms

[2] Chaudhary, Dipanjan Roy, “India acts fast to counter Chinese moves in Myanmar”, The Economic Times, November 28 2017, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/india-acts-fast-to-counter-chinese-moves-in-myanmar/articleshow/61826389.cms

[3] Habib, Haroon, “Myanmar, Bangladesh sign agreement on Rohingya Muslims”, The Hindu, November 23 2017, http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/myanmar-bangladesh-sign-agreement-on-rohingya/article20714515.ece

[4] “The China plan — On Myanmar-Bangladesh deal on Rohingya”, The Hindu, November 25 2017, http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/the-china-plan/article20798339.ece

[5] Ibid note 3

[6] Lee, Yimou and Aung, Thu Thu, “China to take 70 percent stake in strategic port in Myanmar – official”, Reuters, October 17 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/china-silkroad-myanmar-port/china-to-take-70-percent-stake-in-strategic-port-in-myanmar-official-idUSL4N1MS3UB

[7] Kasturi, Charu Sudan, “Modi stands by Suu Kyi”, The Telegraph India, September 6 2017, https://www.telegraphindia.com/1170907/jsp/frontpage/story_171295.jsp

[8] Ibid note 2.

[9] Perlez, Jane, “In China, Aung San Suu Kyi Finds a Warm Welcome (and No Talk of Rohingya)”, The New York Times, November 30 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/30/world/asia/china-myanmar-aid-sanctions.html

[10] Maini, Tridivesh Singh, “Myanmar and the India/China Shuffle”, The Globalist, October 18 2015, https://www.theglobalist.com/myanmar-india-china-politics-south-asia/

(Asma Masood is a Research Officer with the Chennai Centre for China Studies, India, and President, Young Minds of C3S. The views expressed are her own. She can be contacted at asma.masood11@gmail.com. Twitter:@asmamasood11)

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