Guest Column

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Myanmar Trip Aimed at Pushing Beijing’s ‘Two-Ocean’ Strategy

By Joe Kumbun 15 January 2020

Chinese President Xi Jinping is scheduled to visit Myanmar this week at the invitation of President U Win Myint. He will stay in the country for two days and meet with Myanmar’s leaders.

Since he came to power in March 2013, Xi has visited more than 60 countries across the globe, and he will kick off his international travels for 2020 by visiting Myanmar. However, from Beijing’s perspective, the trip to Myanmar will have a narrow geopolitical focus.

China’s “two-ocean” strategy—referring to the Pacific and Indian oceans—is aimed at redistributing the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region in its favor by expanding its naval operations from the South China Sea and Western Pacific into the Indian Ocean, where it seeks to conduct “far seas operations”.

The strategy was conceived by the Communist Party of China in the 2000s and aims to achieve the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s strategic objective of naval power projection. Robert D. Kaplan posited this idea in “China’s Two-Ocean Strategy,” his famous chapter of the multi-author report “China’s Arrival: A Strategic Framework for a Global Relationship”, published in 2009 by the Center for a New American Security. Since the Indian Ocean is considered to be part of the “far seas”, it provides conditions for the PLA’s navy to navigate and operate in a deep-water region. The “two-ocean” strategy is a major linchpin in the power-projection plans of China, a junior superpower.

In June 2019, the US Defense Department released its Indo-Pacific strategy report, in which “Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region” form the core elements of its defense strategy for the region.

Through “preparedness”, the US aims to maintain its military’s capability to win any conflict.  Through “partnerships”, it strives to strengthen its unique network of alliances; and “promotion of a networked region” refers to the strengthening and evolution of US alliances and partnerships into a networked security architecture to uphold the international rules-based order. The first joint maritime exercise between the US and ASEAN navies in early September 2019 was held as part of this Indo-Pacific strategy.

The moves by the US have compelled China to push the two-ocean strategy through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure projects, especially the sea-based portion of the initiative, known as the Maritime Silk Road.

Myanmar occupies a strategically important geographical position in the two-ocean strategy, through which China seeks to build links to the Indian Ocean, then to the Middle East and Africa. China has already established the PLA’s first overseas military base in the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti.

China has also reportedly established a maritime reconnaissance and electronic intelligence station on Myanmar’s Great Coco Island in the Bay of Bengal, about 300 kilometers south of Myanmar’s mainland, and on Little Coco Island in the Alexandra Channel between the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Islands.

To fulfill the two-ocean strategy, China is pushing to build the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor projects: the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Rakhine State; a railway connecting Kyaukphyu and China’s Yunnan province; three border economic zones; and the Namjim Industrial Park in Myitkyina. The Kyaukhpyu port will be crucial to China’s goal of developing a route to import oil and gas that bypasses the Strait of Malacca. In fact, no one knows whether China is negotiating with Myanmar’s leaders to establish a naval base in Myanmar’s territory, for example in Kyaukphyu.

As a quid pro quo, China will support Myanmar’s peace process by facilitating efforts to reach a ceasefire agreement between the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) and the ethnic armed organizations—especially the Northern Alliance, which comprises the Arakan Army, Kachin Independence Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army. Through the UN Security Council, China will also continue to shield Myanmar from any international criticism and action.

China understands that Myanmar is facing a tumultuous period. The International Court of Justice will on Jan. 23 rule on a request by The Gambia that emergency measures be imposed as part of its genocide lawsuit against Myanmar over its treatment of Rohingya people. This year will also be critical for Myanmar politically, as a general election is due to be held.

Thus, China will not waste this crucial opportunity for President Xi to fulfill Beijing’s geopolitical interest in the two-ocean strategy, which will be its priority, rather than bringing peace and prosperity to Myanmar.

Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of an analyst based in Kachin State.

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