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China and Friends Surround India. Your Move, New Delhi

2020-09-11 16:49:42       source:NISCSS

September 9, 2020

The recent visit of China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi to Myanmar stood out as the first high-level visit between the two countries since the outbreak of the coronavirus.


It was the second state visit by Yang since he began a diplomatic charm offensive with a trip to Singapore on August 19 and followed a visit by President Xi Jinping half a year ago in which dozens of cooperation agreements were agreed.


It also comes at a significant juncture; Myanmar is to hold a general election in November and it looks likely that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy will be returned to power.


Such high-level contacts between China and Myanmar are a reflection of a relationship that has been strengthening in recent years.


For Myanmar, China is not only its largest trade partner, its main source of foreign investment and assistance, but it is also a diplomatic shelter in the international arena. For instance China, together with Russia, has protected Myanmar from UN sanctions proposed by the West as a response to Myanmar’s alleged involvement in human rights abuses against the Rohingya.


China benefits from the relationship, too. Myanmar supports Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative projects and as part of this, the two countries are cooperating on the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) project, which is building road and rail links from Yunnan province in China to Kyaukpyu in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.


On a diplomatic level, Myanmar has also shown support for Beijing’s “one China” principle. During Xi’s visit, for instance, Myanmar’s President U Win Myint said his country had always recognised Taiwan as an inalienable part of China’s territory and underlined his respect for the “one country, two systems” principle China had implemented in Hong Kong and Macau.


Joint efforts in fighting Covid-19 have further cemented the relationship. China has pledged to share any future vaccine with Myanmar, making it one of 10 countries (and six Southeast Asian states) to have received such a promise.


Naturally, this has only boosted the trust and friendship between the two peoples and suggests the relationship will if anything deepen in future.


Concerns for India


This growing intimacy between China and Myanmar will be of concern to India, Myanmar’s other powerful neighbour, which has long fretted over their relationship, especially their maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean.


Since the advent of military rule in Myanmar in the 1990s, India has pursued close naval cooperation with Myanmar by selling it weapons, holding military exercises and conducting military exchanges to prevent it becoming drawn too closely into Beijing’s orbit.


To Indian strategists, China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy in the Indian Ocean–Beijing’s construction of a network of Chinese military and commercial facilities extending from the Chinese mainland to Sudan–appears designed to encircle India.


This encirclement, to them, is being strengthened with the help of Myanmar in the east and Pakistan in the West. In a sort of mirror image of the CMEC in Myanmar, Pakistan is helping Beijing to construct the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a US$62 billion infrastructure megaproject that will connect Kashgar in China to Pakistan’s Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea, running the entire length of India’s western border.


New Delhi sees both CMEC and CPEC as key to realising the “string of pearls” strategy. This rings alarm bells in Indian ears as the two corridors will advance China’s economic and military influence in areas where India and China have border disputes–near Arunachal Pradesh (named “Zangnan” in China) in India’s northeast and near Kashmir in India’s northwest. India has for instance openly criticised CPEC for undermining its sovereignty in Kashmir.


Worryingly, for New Delhi, both projects are progressing at great speed. During Yang’s meeting with President U Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, China and Myanmar agreed to accelerate CMEC. Shortly before that, at the Second China-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue on August 20, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Pakistani counterpart Makhdum Shah Mahmoud Qureshi reiterated the countries’ “hardcore friendship” and agreed to double down on CPEC.


New Delhi, therefore, is feeling the pressure on all sides, from China, Pakistan and Myanmar. Its big fear is that in the CMEC and CPEC, China has an opportunity to punish it for its stance on Tibet and for the ongoing border dispute in the Himalayas where Chinese and Indian forces were recently involved in deadly hand-to-hand fighting.


As Mandira Nayar from India’s Week magazine said, with China closing in on India’s neighbourhood, India now sees the need for its own diplomatic charm offensive with its neighbours, to prevent Myanmar from going the same way as Nepal, a small neighbouring country influenced by India that has since fallen into China’s orbit.


Just 10 days before Yang’s Myanmar trip, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said he hoped to visit Myanmar soon to demonstrate India’s deep commitment to the relationship.


In other words, New Delhi has found itself having to play catch up in its own neighbourhood. Consequently, when it comes to Sino-Indian ties the ball is in India’s court.


China does not want to escalate tensions in the border region, nor does it seek to endanger Sino-Indian ties by leveraging third countries. Rather, it wants to see peace and stability along the shared border and it welcomes Indian participation in regional cooperation. But this will require India to abandon its hostile policies towards China and take steps to improve the relationship.


Two years ago, China proposed a peaceful way to coexist with India in their neighbouring areas, by following a formula for trilateral relationships: “China, India + X”.


Now it is time for India to decide whether to accept that equation. Can there be an inclusive China, India and Myanmar relationship, or a China, India and Pakistan relationship in the near future? If not, an intense power rivalry between Beijing and New Delhi in neighbouring areas looms.


It all depends on India.

Peng Nian is an Associate Research Fellow at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies.