Guest Column

The Dragon Fishes in Myanmar’s Troubled Waters

By Yan Naing 16 March 2022

With the Western world riveted on the Ukraine crisis, the still simmering cauldron of Myanmar presents perfect waters for the Chinese dragon to fish in. Ever since the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s armed forces) usurped Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s fledgling democratic regime on Feb. 1, 2021, Beijing has deftly made its moves in the resource rich country. On the surface, it has appeared to support calls for a return to democracy, but it has also relished Myanmar’s isolation and the consequent shift into China’s grip. It has armed the Tatmadaw and clandestinely, the rebel ethnic armed groups too, resulting in both remaining dependent on Beijing and firmly under its influence.

At the same time, China has nimbly used ASEAN to project its own narratives, with pro-China ASEAN members on both sides of the divide vis-a-vis the junta ensconced in Naypyitaw. While Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia have taken a pro-democracy stance and seek to limit the junta’s role in representing Myanmar in ASEAN, China’s long-term ally Cambodia has adopted the opposite position. Consequently, China leaves the nitty gritty of regional diplomatic niceties to its ASEAN lackeys, while projecting itself as a responsible superpower interested merely in regional stability.

Away from the spotlight however, Beijing has moved to consolidate its influence in the strategically important neighboring country. The Ukraine war now seems to have added to China’s sense of opportunity. Earlier this week, the Myanmar military received a shipment of arms and ammunition, including CH-3 drones, from China. Meanwhile, from March 15, a six-month course in Chinese language will get underway in Kunming for 50 senior members of the Myanmar junta-affiliated Union Solidarity & Development Party (USDP). They will be schooled in the intricacies of not only Mandarin but also the ideological precepts espoused by the Chinese Communist Party. Such initiatives by China are aimed at ensuring influence and control in the long run—i.e., even if in the future some semblance of an election is held in Myanmar, by cultivating political outfits such as the USDP, Beijing will ensure that its diktat continues to run in the country.

On the economic front, too, Nyapyitaw is increasingly dependent upon the behemoth Chinese economy. China has poured resources into the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor which will connect China’s Yunnan Province to strategic ports on the Bay of Bengal, such as Yangon and Mandalay. Not only will it boost Chinese manufacturing in its somewhat remote southwestern region, it will advance China’s aim of encircling India through investments into crucial maritime assets on India’s periphery. Other Chinese projects towards this end are the funding of the Yangon-Sittwe Road (which would also provide the shortest overland route to the Indian Ocean from southern China) and assistance to the Tatmadaw in building a naval base in Sittwe—located ominously across the Bay of Bengal from Kolkata, eastern India’s largest megapolis—enabling any maritime force stationed there to threaten India’s eastern seaboard.

Beijing’s dabbling in Myanmar is not a one-off instance of great power politics. It is but one in a string of policy choices designed to seek advantage of instability in any country drifting from the Western world’s narrative in order to occupy any economic, military or political space thus vacated. While the West responds to coups and politico-military crises with outrage and sanctions, Beijing pretends to play along, but does not hesitate to simultaneously cultivate influence and corner economic resources. In Afghanistan, while terrified would-be asylum-seeking Afghans were falling to their deaths off departing US C-130 Hercules planes, the Chinese machinery was stealthily encroaching into the mining sector with an eye on the country’s vast untapped mineral resources—especially Lithium, a crucial resource amidst the impending electric car revolution. While the Russian economy is battered by sanctions, the Chinese seek to broaden the presence of their UnionPay payments mechanism, in the space left by MasterCard and Visa.

And this phenomenon of Beijing using the shadows to project its power is not recent either. During the turbulent years of piracy in the Indian Ocean, amid the chaos in Sudan, while the world sought to protect the sea lanes and merchant shipping, the Chinese made all the right noises, participating in joint naval patrols and deploying vessels to patrol those waters. But Beijing also used the opportunity to invest in Djibouti, establishing a full-fledged naval base near the Horn of Africa, from where the PLA Navy can project its power not only in the Indian Ocean, but also in the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Persian Gulf.

Myanmar may be the latest example, but those of Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan, Djibouti and Afghanistan should serve as insights into Chinese strategy and behavior, which usually starts with a political/military/economic crisis, and culminates in that country becoming economically beholden and hopelessly indebted to China, losing its own agency and voice in the international arena.

Yan Naing is the pseudonym of an observer on Myanmar affairs.

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