Chinese President Xi Jinping likely to focus on Bay of Bengal during Myanmar visit

China is already expanding its outreach in the Arabian Sea by developing Gwadar port under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)./ File   | Photo Credit: AP

Chinese President Xi Jinping is heading to Myanmar on Friday, to strengthen Beijing’s influence in the Bay of Bengal, and bring to focus the intersection between the China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and India’s Act East policy.

President Xi has made it clear that his visit will focus on the full development of the Kyaukpyu port in the Bay of Bengal, as the gateway to southwest China. The initiative is part of the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which is another spur of the BRI in the Indian Ocean.

China is already expanding its outreach in the Arabian Sea by developing Gwadar port under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Analysts point out that China’s focus on the Indian Ocean feeds into its growing military rivalry with the United States. By developing ports such as the Gwadar and Kyaukpyu, China hopes to lower its strategic dependence on the Malacca straits — the vital trade link between the Indian and the Pacific oceans, which the Indo-Pacific command of the U.S. dominates.

In an article published in three newspapers in Myanmar ahead of his visit, President Xi—the first Chinese head of state to visit Myanmar in two decades — pointed out that Beijing and Naypyitaw needed to “deepen results-oriented Belt and Road cooperation and move from a conceptual stage to concrete planning and implementation in building the CMEC.”

President Xi focused on “three pillars of the CMEC” — the Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone, the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone and the New Yangon City.

The article also disclosed that a joint CMEC committee has been formed to steer the development of the undertaking.

The CMEC already covers gas and oil pipelines that were built in 2013 and 2017. In future, there are plans to build a high-speed rail link that will link Ruili on the Chinese side of the border with Muse in Myanmar and head to the central city of Mandalay in the first phase. Eventually, it could be extended to Kyaukpyu on the Bay of Bengal.

India and Japan — two major external players in Myanmar — are expected to keep a close eye on President Xi’s visit. However, there is also an acknowledgement in New Delhi and Tokyo that the three countries, despite restrained rivalry, are unlikely to engage in a full blown zero-sum competition for influence in Myanmar.

“We are aware that for historical reasons, Chinese influence will remain strong in northern Myanmar while in southern Myanmar, Japan and India should remain major influencers,” a Japanese official who did not wish to be named told The Hindu. He pointed out that a “multilateral bank” has been engaged in dialogue on identifying and coordinating specific projects, with adequate buffers.

Separately, Manabu Fujimura, Professor at Tokyo’s Aoyama Gakuin University, had earlier said in an interview with the website Consult-Myanmar that it was likely that the Chinese economic influence in Myanmar will continue to radiate “from Muse (in Shan State on Myanmar’s border with China’s Yunnan province) to Mandalay and ‘upper Burma’ in general, while Japanese and Thai economic influence will continue to spill over from Myawaddy (in southeastern Myanmar) to Yangon and ‘lower Burma’ in general.”

While Beijing continues to expand its influence, especially after the squeeze imposed by the West on Myanmar on grounds of human rights violations following the exodus of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh, India and Japan are also engaging with Naypyitaw, especially in the construction of key infrastructure.

Japan and India are bridging gaps and repaving roads in the Indo-Pacific to establish a giant corridor that will link India’s northeast with Vietnam.

The gigantic effort will merge two parallel initiatives — the New Delhi led India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway and the East West Economic Corridor (EWEC) marshaled by Japan in partnership with Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.

Doctrinally, the joint foray is a fusion of India’s Act East Policy and the Japan’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy.

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Printable version | Jun 21, 2021 1:50:17 PM |

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