Beijing’s Long Game: Where is China Headed in 2020?

By The Irrawaddy 2 July 2020

China’s trajectory in Myanmar and Asia as a whole is developing fast this year, from border clashes with India and confrontations in the South China Sea, to the Belt and Road Initiative and COVID-19. The Irrawaddy recently asked veteran Swedish journalist and Myanmar analyst Bertil Lintner, author of several books on Myanmar, for his perspective on Beijing’s ambitions and what they mean for conflict and development in the region.

The lack of global leadership on the COVID-19 pandemic and the chaotic domestic situation in the US seem to provide an advantage for China. In Asia, China is flexing its muscle, becoming more aggressive and assertive with Taiwan, the South China Sea and India. What are your thoughts on China’s recent moves?

It is obvious that China is taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the rest of the world is preoccupied with its own, internal problems, China is flexing its muscles in the Indo-Pacific region with a new security law in Hong Kong, Chinese fighter jets entering Taiwan’s airspace, the ramming of Vietnamese and Philippine fishing boats in the disputed South China Sea, a month-long standoff between a Malaysian oil exploration vessel and a Chinese survey ship in the same waters—and open confrontation with the Indians along the Line of Actual Control [LAC] that separates the two countries in the western Himalayas. China wants to become the world’s leading superpower, and those aggressive postures—and the more “benign” Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are part of that long-term strategy.

 The clashes between China and India in Ladakh raised concerns among governments in the region. Everyone was trying to see how far China wanted to go and what the motive was behind it. In the conflict with India, what do you think China wanted to achieve?

First of all, the confrontation along the Line of Actual Control between India and China has nothing to do with the border as such, if it should be on this or that barren rock in an uninhabited area. It’s a question of strategic rivalries between Asia’s two giants and, more specifically, China’s wanting to punish India for rejecting its multinational infrastructure program, the BRI, and show the neighbors who rules the roost in the region. 

In your book “China’s India War”, you mentioned that Mao’s China had a fundamentally different worldview from Nehru’s ideals of non-alignment and non-interference, and that China aspired to become the leader of the Third World by dethroning India from the position it held throughout the 1950s as the main voice of the newly-independent Asian and African nations.

Do you believe that the ongoing clashes and military movement in Ladakh by China and India is an open and final act, displacing India from that position after the 1962 war, as well as a signal to Asian countries to bow down to the Middle Kingdom and Emperor Xi? Has India’s nationalist leader, Modi, been blinded by his so-called-friendship and long-term dealings with the Chinese leader? Has India been beaten into submission?

You could put it that way, yes. In the 1950s, so before the 1962 war, India’s then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru thought China was a friend and a partner. It was India that brought the summit in Bandung which, in 1955, gave birth to the Non-aligned Movement. 1962 came as a shock to Nehru: he never recovered from it and died in 1964. Likewise, the present Indian leadership may have thought it would be possible to revive that old friendship, but the recent clash on the LAC may have prompted them to reevaluate that “friendship” and take a closer look at China’s ambitions.

Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner in Yangon in 2014. / The Irrawaddy

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a flagship of the BRI and India is openly opposed to the BRI in Kashmir. Do you feel that China is acting out of concerns that India may threaten both the BRI and Beijing’s access to the Arabian Sea and Central Asia, especially if India’s nationalist government moves to physically claim Kashmir as a whole in the near future?

CPEC is an important part of BRI, but we have to remember that the Karakoram Highway is one of the world’s most dangerous high-altitude roads. And south of it is Pakistan, where domestic politics are volatile and a number of extremist groups are active. CPEC is also located in westernmost China, far from the country’s industrial centers. Therefore, the Myanmar-China Economic Corridor (MCEC) is far more important to China. There, they can control the insurgents as well as playing a role in domestic politics. And the Ruili-Muse border crossing is much closer to China’s industrial centers and major cities than CPEC.

 What can Myanmar expect from the recent clashes and confrontation between two giants in Asia, as the country sits in the middle? The Myanmar military has forged closer military ties with India and top army leaders in Naypyidaw are upset with China’s support for some insurgent groups in Myanmar and China’s meddling in the peace process. We have seen more and more Chinese-made weapons seized in Myanmar. On the one hand, we also see active insurgents along the India-Myanmar border, where Indian insurgents are operating inside Myanmar. On the other, some insurgents have steady ties with Chinese. 

Sure, and that is what I would argue is part and parcel of China’s carrot-and-stick policy towards Myanmar. The carrot consists of loans, credits, investment and trade—and a friendly face in Yangon and Naypyitaw. But if China doesn’t get what it wants, it has a heavy stick too. 

It’s worth remembering what then-President’s Office Minister U Aung Min said when he visited Monywa in November 2012 to meet local people protesting a controversial Chinese-backed copper mining project: “We are afraid of China… we don’t dare to have a row with [them]. If they feel annoyed with the shutdown of their projects and resume their support for the communists, the economy in border areas would backslide.” By “the communists” he clearly meant the United Wa State Army and its allies. And he was right.

Can Myanmar’s military expect an unstable and violent conflict situation to continue along its borders with Bangladesh and India, as it confronts armed groups from Myanmar and India? The situation favors China’s increased role as mediator and negotiator for peace, as well as for commercial development on its own terms. Do these border conflicts give Beijing more political and economic control over Myanmar and an opportunity to insert itself firmly between Myanmar, Bangladesh and India, fulfilling its long-term objective of encircling India? Will we see an active China in Rakhine State?

Sure, we have to remember that China is the only foreign country that has any substantial links with Myanmar’s various ethnic armed organizations and is in a position to influence them. Forget the Western “peacemakers”, they just don’t get it. They and their so-called “peace programs” are utterly irrelevant. It is difficult to say what kind of games China is playing on the borders with Bangladesh and India, but those conflicts provide China with an opportunity to say to Myanmar authorities, “we will sort this out for you, and we are the only ones who can do that.”
What should ASEAN and other Asian countries expect from China in the next few months, especially as we see open confrontations and contested territorial claims pushed aggressively against Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia? Is it time to acknowledge that “aggressive China is now the superpower”? It disregards all established international norms and pushes its own version of history and historical claims—is it the new sheriff in town, who every country now has to listen to and follow?

The problem with ASEAN is that it is not a “Southeast Asian EU.” It has no common policies and there is actually minimal cooperation between its member states. ASEAN has two guiding principles: non-interference and consensus, and that makes it totally impotent as a bloc. ASEAN never “interfered” in East Timor (it was considered an “internal affair” for Indonesia), it never tried to solve border disputes between Laos and Thailand, Thailand and Cambodia, Cambodia and Vietnam, and the Philippines and Malaysia (Sabah). It has considered the Pattani insurgency in southern Thailand an internal Thai affair, so it never got involved as a bloc (only Mahathir Mohamad did, and then in a private initiative). Myanmar’s civil wars are considered an “internal affair” so ASEAN is not even trying to get involved as a mediator. Some ASEAN countries, like Laos and Cambodia, are one-party states: Cambodia is ruled by a strongman who has been in power for decades, Brunei is an absolute monarchy, Malaysia and Singapore are semi-democracies, in Thailand the military remains a very powerful institution behind the elected government and that’s also the case in Myanmar. The Philippines and Indonesia are probably the most “democratic” countries in ASEAN. This divergence of political systems and views makes it impossible for ASEAN to agree on its most fundamental principle: consensus.

This is also reflected in the way the different member states view China, and I can’t see any coherent policy there either. Cambodia and Laos are very close to China and never criticize it while Vietnam has been involved in several, serious conflicts with China (a border war in 1979 and clashes in the disputed South China Sea). The other ASEAN members have their own policies towards China, which overlap and contradict each other. China, of course, is aware of this and deals with ASEAN members bilaterally—a kind of “divide-and-rule policy”, one might say.

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