Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 59, 1 April 2020

Myanmar: Economic dependence on China will deepen the internal conflicts
Aparupa Bhattacherje

In the news

A new report titled, “Commerce and Conflict: Navigating Myanmar’s China Relationship,” published by the International Crisis Group (ICG) focusses on Myanmar’s economic dependence on China and its impact on the on-going conflicts within the country. 

The report elaborates on the recent strengthening of the Sino-Myanmar bonhomie due to Naypyitaw's strained relations with the West and the global South. Nevertheless, the Chinese investments and projects can embolden the armed actors, intensify the local grievances, and magnify the anti-China sentiment within Myanmar. The report intricately discusses the reasons and consequences of Myanmar’s China dependency. It also provides policy recommendations.

Issues at large

The Sino-Myanmar relationship has been seen as fraternal. In 2020, the Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Myanmar to enhance the relations. This was followed by multi-billion dollar Chinese investments in Myanmar under the Belt and Road Initiative, and, other private investments in several sectors from commercial property to agriculture. These investments have made China the largest foreign direct investor in Myanmar. 

Apart from the economic relation, the robust nature of the diplomatic ties between the two is evident through the protective role played by China to save Myanmar from any UN-led investigations on the atrocities within Myanmar. The Chinese veto in the UN Security Council has restricted any adverse action against Myanmar. 

Since 2017, Tatmadaw’s efforts to fight the pro-Rohingya insurgent group have led to atrocities on the community, which has resulted in a mass exodus to neighbouring countries, especially Bangladesh. Myanmar’s claim of no intentional atrocities or crime against the Rohingyas has been vehemently criticised by the international communities to the extent that the West and the ‘global South’ have eschewed Myanmar. Myanmar has been taken to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) by the Gambia for the same reason. Hence given this Chinese support, Myanmar has become increasingly dependent on it.

The report also asserts an interesting point. The deterioration of the Sino-Myanmar relation in phases, during bilateral history. The report also underlines on how China has been pressurizing for a long period to reassert its relationship with Myanmar. For example, the Chinese funding to the Communist Party of Burma in the 1970s and currently the funding and equation with the Northern Myanmar Armed groups. China has used investments and pressure as leverage against successive Myanmar governments. 

In perspective

The report emphasises that even though the bilateral diplomatic relation is claimed to be good, the government in Myanmar has always been cautious. For example, Xi’s visit to Myanmar in January 2020 did not have many outcomes. 

Second, the NLD led government is also wary of its over-dependence on China. There is an anti-China sentiment that is growing among the people in Myanmar; with the elections scheduled in November 2020, the NLD is cautious. The anti-Chinese sentiment has grown due to the lack of transparency, consultation and from a belief that none of the projects will benefit the country. 

The report also highlights the fact that these Chinese investments have the capability to accelerate the conflict within Myanmar. The big projects like CMEC (China Myanmar Economic Corridor) pass through most of the states that are zones of conflict between different armed groups and the Tatmadaw. China has claimed the economic development will restore peace in these conflict-torn states. Nevertheless, the report disagrees and claims this approach to be naïve, as each conflict has its own history and context. 

Not only the big project, but the private commercial ventures and investments in an agricultural crop such as banana and watermelon have also made its way in strengthening the militia and thereby propelling the anti-China sentiment among the people. This is unique to this report. 

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