Rohingya issue could change dynamics of Myanmar's ties with China, says academic

Rohingya refugees lining up for daily essentials at Balukhali camp, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on Jan 15.
Rohingya refugees lining up for daily essentials at Balukhali camp, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on Jan 15. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SINGAPORE - Myanmar has deftly managed its relations with a rising China over the years and, contrary to widely-held opinion, is not a Chinese satellite state.

But this could change in future because of mounting international pressure over how the country has handled the Rohingya crisis, said international relations expert Evelyn Goh from the Australian National University (ANU).

More than 650,000 Muslim Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since August last year, driven out by the military in Buddhist-majority Myanmar's Rakhine State.

China, which had helped deflect international pressure for its neighbour over the crisis, has inserted itself into the Rohingya problem, something it "hadn't done before", said Professor Goh at a seminar on Tuesday (Jan 16) at the East Asian Institute.

Beijing has offered to mediate between Myanmar and Bangladesh to pave the way for Rohingya refugees to return to their homeland.

"Unfortunately because of how it has handled the Rohingya crisis, (Myanmar) is in a situation where it's being forced to rely on the Chinese umbrella more than it had in the (post-2011 period)," said Prof Goh.

Earlier during the 90-minute seminar, Prof Goh had outlined how Myanmar has been able to manage Chinese influence to derive benefits for itself even as Beijing pursued its four main interests in the country.

These Chinese interests were having stable borders; keeping the ethnic insurgency on the Myanmar border under control; protecting Chinese economic interests in the country; and ensuring Myanmar remained a strategic corridor to South-east Asia, South Asia and the Indian Ocean.

Prof Goh, who is Shedden Professor of Strategic Policy Studies at ANU, noted that during the years after 1988, when Myanmar was ruled by a brutal military junta and viewed as a pariah by the international community, the country struck an "implicit bargain" with China.

In return for aligning itself more closely to China and helping it build its economic and military presence in the Indian Ocean, the military regime in Myanmar got large-scale economic and political support which it could not find anywhere else, said Prof Goh.

In the noughties, China was active in helping Myanmar deflect Western pressure in the United Nations against human rights abuses in the country - support that Myanmar reciprocated by granting Beijing exclusive access to resources and infrastructure projects within the country.

But at the same time, the Myanmar government was also concerned about an overdependence on China, said Prof Goh, noting that internal documents from the Myanmar military began to discuss this from 2004, calling it a "national emergency".

This led to the political reforms in 2011 that, among other things included the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.

These reforms opened a strategic option to Myanmar in the form of the United States, said Prof Goh.

In 2011, Myanmar also abruptly put on ice the US$3.6 billion Chinese-financed Myitsone dam project on the Irrawaddy river after widespread public protests over its potential environmental and social impact.

The decision, which caused a chill in relations between Naypyitaw and Beijing, showed that Myanmar, then led by former general Thein Sein, was not afraid to stand up to its bigger neighbour.

"This was in many ways, the most high-profile way in which the Thein Sein government showed themselves to be willing to upset Beijing by putting a halt to China's most expensive investment in Myanmar to date," said Prof Goh.

Currently, China has also ploughed into Myanmar "a lot of sunk unmovable capital" in the form of large infrastructure projects that cannot be removed from the country.

"China has become as dependent on Myanmar just as much as Myanmar is dependent on China for investments," said Prof Goh.

But the balance could tilt again.