President Xi Jinping’s visit to Naypyidaw this month is significant for both China and Myanmar given
that Xi would be visiting the country after nearly a decade as also it is an opportune moment to kick start
many of the stalled Chinese infrastructure projects that had been put on hold after the controversy
involving Myitsone Dam. It not only caused bitterness in bilateral relations but from Chinese perspective
impacted on the progress of the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) in Myanmar.
Likewise, for Myanmar the visit is equally important given that foreign investments have dried up from the West as also from the Islamic world. This is due to accusations of genocide against the mainly- Muslim Rohingya minority group by the Myanmar military. As many as 700,000 of them had to flee to Bangladesh; the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar corroborated the accusations; and the UN human rights chief characterized it as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. The genocide case was brought before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) by Gambia with the backing of the 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Aung Su Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, presented herself before the ICJ to defend her country and assured that “no tolerance” for human rights abuses.
Under the circumstances, investments are critical and the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) is a useful choice for Myanmar. In particular, the focus would be on the 4,000 acres Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ), which is an economic and development project and is spread across Kyaukphyu, Ramree Island. The SEZ will have oil and gas terminal connected to the offshore Shwe gas field through natural gas and oil pipelines financed by the China National Petroleum Corporation.
About 80 miles south of Kyaukphyu, India plans to set up a SEZ at the port town of Sittwe. Spread over 1,000 acres, the SEZ would link Sittwe port to the Kaladan multi-modal project (158 kilometers on the Kaladan River to Paletwa in Myanmar and 109 kilometers road from Paletwa to Zorinpui) and will hook up Mizoram and the landlocked Northeast with Southeast Asia via Myanmar. Thailand is setting up a SEZ at Dawei port. It is also the western end of the East-West Economic Corridor (EWEC) connecting the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean which would begin at Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, pass through Laos, Phnom Penh in Cambodia, and Bangkok in Thailand.
Thilawa port in Myanmar is another important SEZ and is being developed with Japanese investments. Over 100 companies from 18 countries are setting up factories in the SEZ and 72 factories have already commenced commercial operations with total investment of over US $ 1.61 billion.
Economic Corridors and SEZ are symbolic of economic dynamism and provide avenues for modernization of basic infrastructure, economic development of people and communities located astride the corridor. The host countries also have opportunities to participate in global commerce by overcoming the tyranny of geography. For instance, the CMEC involves a network of roads and rail transport infrastructure connecting Yunnan Province in southern China through Muse and Mandalay to Kyaukphyu. It is worth mentioning that 1,420 kilometers long gas and oil pipelines are already operational along this route since 2013 and 2017 respectively. Furthermore, according to the China National Petroleum Corporation, ‘China imported more than 19 million tonnes of crude oil and more than 20 billion cubic meters of natural gas through the China-Myanmar oil and gas pipeline.’
Likewise, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is also an opportunity for the landlocked Xinjiang province of China to connect with the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean maritime trading system. Similarly, the EWEC would thus connect the Mekong sub-region with the Bay of Bengal trading system. Besides, there are several economic benefits for neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka with opportunities for investments along the corridors and the SEZs and would encourage Short Sea Shipping in the Bay of Bengal.
However, many such projects have an unstated strategic intent and possible military use. For instance, Gwadar in Pakistan is the seaward node of the CPEC is meant to provide the Chinese Navy a footing to conduct military operations in the adjacent waters. Similarly, naval facility at Kyaukphyu would help to ensure the safety and security of Chinese trade particularly energy supply chains that transit through these waters where Indian Navy has effective presence and capability.
In the context of the latter, China-Myanmar defence cooperation had figured prominently among the Indian strategic community and it was widely suspected that China had set up signal intelligence facilities at Kyaukphyu and a naval facility at the port would service the PLA Navy as an when it operated in the Bay of Bengal. There have been instances of sighting of Chinese naval and other scientific research vessels in the Bay of Bengal/Indian Ocean. In a recent case, Chinese Research Vessel Shi Yan 1 was detected carrying out research/ exploration activities in waters off the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and was forced to leave.
The strategic/military dynamics can potentially dampen and undermine economic enthusiasm in the Bay of Bengal. It would be useful to bring greater transparency among the littoral countries about infrastructure investments as symbol of their ‘regionalism’ which is poised and ready for taking the region to new levels of consolidation and prosperity. The focus should be to collaborate for mutual development and reap the benefits of the combined strengths and their penchant for economic integration and connectivity. Likewise, a regional approach to security would be a panacea for a number of transnational threats and challenges that confront the region.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi and author of ‘Sea of Destiny: Bay of Bengal and BIMSTEC.