The United Nations will focus its attention this week on the Rohingya humanitarian crisis and what has been described as “ethnic cleansing” in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, although analysts say China is unlikely to support any actions that would put pressure on Yangon and its military.
One key reason Beijing is unlikely to back tougher steps, the experts note, is because the crisis is happening in a state where China has huge business interests.
The business interests not only account for billions of dollars in investment, but are part of the country’s ambitious global “Belt and Road” trade project.
Almost right in the middle of Rakhine state’s coastline on the Bay of Bengal, a consortium led by China’s CITIC Group has proposed taking a 70 percent to 85 percent stake in a $7.3 billion deep sea port. The port at Kyauk Pyu is a key link in China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, and what some Chinese analysts call “blue economic passageways.”
In addition to the sea port, China also plans to build an industrial park and a special economic zone there, where Chinese companies will be located.
The project is a crucial link in a larger passageway connecting China’s southwestern provinces with the Indian Ocean, Africa and further to the Mediterranean Sea. The port is also where oil and gas pipelines begin and run through Myanmar to China’s southern Yunnan province.
“The importance of your investments, to secure your investments and ensure that this region [Rakhine state of Myanmar] is peaceful so that your important pipelines can pass through. I would say that this takes more precedence against the humanitarian issue,” says Irene Chan, an associate research fellow with the China Programme at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “Chinese foreign policy is very much driven by domestic needs.”
Chan adds that Beijing is trying to use neighboring countries like Myanmar to export its industrial overcapacity, and provide the necessary development impetus to its relatively backward western region.
The latest outbreak of violence began in late August when a group of Rohingya militants attacked dozens of police posts and an army base. The group says the attack was launched to protect their ethnic minority from persecution.
At least 400 people have been killed in the violence and subsequent clashes, while a military counteroffensive has pushed more than 400,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh.
Some of the world’s major countries including China, Russia and India have refused to specifically condemn the ongoing violence against the Rohingyas.
Beijing has offered small amounts of humanitarian aid to both Bangladesh and Myanmar, and Chinese officials have spoken about the need for a permanent solution to the crisis.
When it comes to the crisis and the ongoing violence, however, China has put its support squarely behind the Myanmar government and military, and what it says are efforts to “protect its national security.”
“It [China] clearly is supporting the government of Myanmar in addressing the issue of how it responded to the attack by the so-called [Arakan] Rohingya Salvation Army. China is telling the Myanmar, telling the U.N. that it understands and supports Myanmar’s attempts to preserve its sovereignty,” said Murray Hiebert, who serves as senior adviser and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Tuesday, the U.N. will hold a closed-door briefing on the crisis. On Thursday, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres will address the Security Council about the situation. So far, a U.N. Human Rights Council fact-finding mission, established earlier this year, has been barred from visiting Myanmar's Rakhine state.
The United States has called for “strong and swift action” to end the violence, but already earlier this month there were reports that Myanmar was negotiating with Russia and China to protect Yangon from any Security Council actions.
“China certainly would not accept resolution or something of this kind at the Security Council at this point, that’s for sure,” Hiebert said. “I don’t know if it could change its position depending on what the wording of the resolution would be, but China very much would stand behind the Myanmar government’s opposition to the U.N. taking any political action, taking any direct action.”
Hiebert, does not think, though, that China needs to placate Yangon to forward its economic agenda in Myanmar.
Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese studies at London’s King College said, “[China] will need to produce a balancing act, where it will not antagonize an important regional partner and ally, nor through this action irritate the international community.”
He says Beijing is likely to “assert to the Myanmar leadership the imperative that they maintain stability and do not create a crisis, but in such a way that it still will be regarded as non-interventionist and a relatively benign ally.”
Analyst say the Western world is divided about whether it should put more pressure on Myanmar’s defacto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Some believe that international disapproval of her role on the Rohingya crisis would offer Myanmar’s military an opportunity to push her out of the picture and assume full control.