Gaining overland access to Indian Ocean through Myanmar is crucial for China’s geostrategic designs. Which means India can’t protest against coup too loudly

by Lt Gen Prakash Menon

The military coup in Myanmar and the recent developments about the Quad could portend the intensification of a geopolitical struggle that was unleashed when Xi Jinping announced China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, or One Belt One Road as it was called then, which was projected as a geo-economic enterprise to benefit a large segment of the global population. Two of its oceanic prongs were the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that stretched from Xinjiang to Gwadar in Pakistan, and the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor that connected Kunming in Yunnan Province to the ocean outlet in the coastal Rakhine State at Kyaukpyu in the Bay of Bengal.

Gaining overland access to the Indian Ocean through Pakistan and Myanmar is considered crucial in China’s geostrategic designs. It is seen as an imperative that provides alternatives to its Malacca dilemma — currently, China’s economically viable trade routes to West Asia, Africa and Europe are primarily reliant on the narrow Strait of Malacca.

The China-Myanmar Corridor

China’s infrastructure activity in Myanmar predates the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In 2013, two oil and gas pipelines were commissioned between Kunming and Kyaukpyu. This project brought economic benefit to Myanmar and provided an alternative route for China’s energy import. The construction of the pipelines had to confront the resistance from armed insurgent groups in the Kachin State that borders China in north Myanmar and also against the acquisition of agricultural land around Kyaukpyu in the Rakhine State on the coast. These issues required use of force, and in the Kachin State, Myanmar was also assisted by China, which has always had close relations with insurgent groups. Earlier, in 2011, popular protests had halted the construction of a mega dam by China in the Kachin State.

Chinese infrastructure projects in Myanmar have always required the continued use of force by the Tatmadaw, the official nomenclature of the military. The genocide by the Tatmadaw against the Rohingyas in 2016-17 in the Rakhine State had supposedly weakened any future threat that could be posed by the Muslim minorities who have been historically estranged from Myanmar due to ethnic and religious divides.

In 2018, China signed an MoU with Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to establish the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). It is envisaged as a 1,700 kilometre-long, Y-shaped corridor connecting Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan Province, with major economic centres that include Mandalay in central Myanmar from where one branch goes south to Yangon and another branch south-west to the ocean outlet at Kyaukpyu, which is to be developed as a major port and a special economic zone (SEZ).

The China Claw

Myanmar’s Tatmadaw has, since 1962, maintained its ruthless grip on the throat of democracy. All popular uprisings have been met with brutality and suppressed. The popular protests in 1988 and the 2007 protest of the monks were notable occasions of the Tatmadaw wielding its iron hand. Before the Tatmadaw, led by its Commander-in-Chief General Min Aung Hlaing, seized power on 1 February 2021, the country saw a short charade of power sharing across the democratic table with the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

China can be expected to support the throttling of democracy so that it can leverage the opportunity from the Tatmadaw’s increasing dependency on Beijing and use its economic clout to exploit Myanmar geo-strategically to further its interests in the context of the larger global geopolitical struggle. However, the widespread protests and civil disobedience that broke out after the military coup have shown no sign of abating despite increasingly ruthless suppression by the Tatmadaw, resulting in more than 200 deaths with several thousand being arrested. Apparently, the protesters perceive that the coup has been undertaken with China’s support, so anger has also been directed at China and large-scale damages to Chinese business assets have been reported. The blocking of a UN condemnation of the Myanmar coup by China is apparently seen as confirmatory evidence of Chinese support.

Despite rolling out economic largesse for several decades, China has always been viewed suspiciously by the people of Myanmar. Even the Tatmadaw harbours a similar sentiment. The widespread sentiment against the coup and the perceived support of China for the military have the potential of adversely affecting the roll-out of the CMEC. For China, this is a major challenge, unless the Tatmadaw manages to suppress the popular uprising and control the insurgent groups. From reports coming out of Myanmar, this time around, it will not be easy to put down the popular upsurge.

India’s Choice Now

India has extremely important stakes to protect and seems to be politically ambivalent and strategically cautious after the coup. The official reaction to the coup emphasised New Delhi’s support for democracy. The Indian Foreign Secretary spoke of balanced outcomes and recognising the sensitivities of all concerned. What is left unsaid is that the people of Myanmar cannot expect any meaningful support in their fight against Tatmadaw from India. This is understandable because the ghosts of the previous Indian reaction, following the last coup in 1988, in support of democracy and its aftermath, have probably necessitated caution.

The US has quite predictably imposed limited and targeted sanctions that can hardly change the violent approach of the Tatmadaw and may, in actual practice, hurt the people who are fighting for democracy and also push the Tatmadaw closer to China.

Support for democracy in Myanmar found special mention in the Joint Statement of the Quad leaders. In practice, the larger issue is, what role the Quad should play to undermine China’s geostrategic ambitions signified by the Belt and Road Initiative that are openly opposed to people’s freedom. For the recently revived Quad and especially for India, dealing effectively with the situation in Myanmar will be a challenge. Catalysing partners from outside the Quad have to confront the economic clout of China. In the end, China’s ideological proposition is that material wellbeing even at the cost of freedom is preferable. The liberal world disagrees. It is an age-old political contestation that will certainly find its echoes through Myanmar and reach the shores of the Bay of Bengal.

Democracy in Myanmar had once again just about picked up its begging bowl. The international community has acknowledged the needs of the supplicant, but it is unlikely that alms in any form will provide much relief unless lip service to democracy is followed by cooperative efforts, which the Quad is possibly better placed to lead than the others. The moot point for India, which has the highest stake, is whether it can count on the Quad whose other members have lesser stakes. Importantly, India should ideally prepare itself for the feasible and extendable means of support to the cause of democracy, in case the Quad does not measure up to its expectations.