China’s intention to make inroads into the Bay of Bengal had become clear with President Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar in January. The intention was not just to boost infrastructure projects in Myanmar but also increase China’s influence in the region. Among the 33 agreements signed during the visit, the development of a deep-sea port in Kyaukphyu on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, a railway project to connect the Chinese province of Yunnan to Myanmar’s coastal cities, an inland-waterway through the Irrawaddy river and a megahydropower dam project are the most prominent. These projects are expected to re-energise the rather staid progress made under the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) so far.

Xi’s visit to Myanmar, the first by a Chinese president in almost two decades, was aimed at drastically altering regional geopolitics in the Bay of Bengal. Several domestic and geopolitical reasons underline Beijing’s outreach to Myanmar and its strategy to use it as a conduit to the Bay of Bengal. It will boost China’s presence in the Indian sub-continent. The deep-sea port project is intended to cement China’s geostrategic footprint in the Bay of Bengal. China’s dependence on oil has been increasing by 6.7 per cent each year and the demand is set to increase further, given the trade war with the US. Therefore, the Bay of Bengal will be an alternative route for China.

Being the conduit between the Western Indian Ocean and South China, the Bay of Bengal enjoys immense geostrategic influence in strategies of Asia’s rising powers. It is also a lynchpin of any successful Indo-Pacific strategy. If the Quad countries ~ the US, India, Japan and Australia ~ continue to push for a loose alliance against China’s increasing maritime power both in the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, China’s maritime ambitions could be easily thwarted. Beijing would like to pre-empt any such attempt by the Quad countries. Establishing its presence in the Bay of Bengal is, therefore, fundamental to sustain China’s inroads in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Cultivating Myanmar as a strategic partner serves three major objectives in China’s Indian Ocean strategy.

First, China’s development of Kyaukpyu port will entrench its naval presence in the IOR. On the pretext of developing infrastructure and connectivity under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing has developed a myriad of naval posts across IOR ~ from Gwadar port in Pakistan to Djibouti in Africa and the most recent naval outpost in Cambodia. However, the militarisation of the Kyaukpyu port will be a game-changer as China will get a military foothold in the Bay of Bengal. Though the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy is highly active in the waters of the Bay of Bengal, it still lacks military infrastructure and logistics support in the region.

Second, the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal are fast becoming new flashpoints in the Sino-Indian strategic maritime competition. In the last two years, PLA Navy entered the Bay of Bengal on several occasions with the most recent incident in December 2019 when a Chinese vessel entered India’s special economic zone without permission. The frequency of Chinese submarine patrols in the IOR has almost tripled in the last two years. Although the past interventions were criticised as violations of the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea, China will now have a legitimate reason to be present in the Bay of Bengal because of its presence in Myanmar.

Third, Myanmar is a key influencer for China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean. It is not only a gateway to the Bay of Bengal but is also a strong member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). While the Western nations continue to isolate Myanmar on its human rights track record, China’s policy of non-intervention in Myanmar’s domestic politics has helped it to cultivate goodwill in Nay Pyi Taw. China also provided military support to Myanmar. By keeping Myanmar on its side and by building such economic dependencies, Beijing hopes not only to keep India on its toes but also enhance its influence within Asean.

For New Delhi, securing the Indian waters is of utmost priority which otherwise would intensify the maritime security dilemma. Yet, India has been complacent in confronting this new geostrategic reality ~ lack of economic might.

Recognising this, New Delhi is partnering the Quad countries to boost maritime security in the Bay of Bengal. Japan has been funding infrastructure projects, including port development in Myanmar and Bangladesh with India. The US and India jointly held the Malabar naval exercise in the Indian Ocean in 2019. Washington laid out a clear military roadmap in the Indo-Pacific to not only boost military activities in the IOR but also to build India’s maritime security capabilities. Additionally, New Delhi could rekindle maritime ties with Asean. This will reduce the collective concerns regarding the security of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Some time ago, India, Singapore and Thailand held a joint trilateral maritime exercise for the first time to cooperate on security and maritime issues in the Bay of Bengal. However, Asean and India can do more by partnering with Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines.

While the governments of Myanmar and China hailed the Xi visit as a tremendous success, many other key stakeholders issued statements expressing reservations. More than 50 civil society groups published an open letter to Xi, urging him to permanently cancel the controversial Myitsone Dam project. The Myanmar government in 2011 halted construction of this mega-dam, located at the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River, after environmental, social and national security concerns sparked nationwide protests.

Key political parties, including the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, voiced similar perspectives, urging the CMEC to respect traditional land rights and demanding that all CMEC projects receive approval directly from communities in addition to the Union government.

Representatives of Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups voiced some of the most serious objections. The Arakan Army (AA), which has clashed several times with the Myanmar army in Rakhine state since the beginning of 2020, released a statement the day before Xi’s visit asserting that it would “recover land and resources taken from the Rakhine people … and wage a war for the liberation of the Rakhine nation.”

China’s leaders recognize that they need to do more to win broad-based support for their various initiatives, and they have placed greater emphasis on public relations. For example, in advance of Xi’s visit, the operator of the Sino-Myanmar Pipeline, the China National Petroleum Company, released a new “Corporate Social Responsibility” report, noting that it has delivered $500 million of benefits to Myanmar. And in his open letter, Xi stressed China’s commitment to projects that will improve the livelihood of the Myanmar people.

Two possible initiatives stand out as potential solutions: In China, leaders have promised to greatly enhance transparency, accountability, and environmental sustainability of future BRI projects. Instruments such as the Beijing Initiative for the Clean Silk Road were released in April of 2019, but it remains unclear how these principles have been implemented on the ground in a BRI host country like Myanmar. Going forward, China is trying its best to cater for the needs of opposition parties, ethnic nonstate authorities and civil society by making a good-faith attempt to fulfill the promises it made last year.The Myanmar government, for its part, has made efforts to subject projects to a strict review process incorporating social and environmental impacts assessments. Dubbed the “Project Bank,” this plan has not yet been implemented, due largely to a lack of donor support. With the proper resources, political will and emphasis on how various projects might affect the causes of conflict, Myanmar’s government can respond more robustly to the needs of other stakeholders and renew efforts to build peace in the country.

(To be concluded)

The writer is retired Senior Professor, International Trade, and member of the Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi