As Chinese President Xi Jinping travels to Myanmar this week, focus will be on the future of China-Myanmar bilateral relations and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects. With this visit, the Chinese leader has rounded-off all immediate neighbours of India–––the Maldives and Sri Lanka in 2014, Pakistan in 2015, Bangladesh in 2016 and Nepal in 2019–––except Bhutan. There appears to be a pattern in Xi’s visits to these smaller neighbouring countries.
At least three factors are identifiable and they exist in Myanmar today. Xi undertakes these bilateral visits after Beijing has established strong political ties with the current regime. Second, Beijing uses these visits to speed up implementation of BRI projects in these countries. Lastly, in most cases these visits take place at a time when the ruling regimes in these countries are under international pressure over issues relating to treatment of minorities and political opponents. The Chinese leader’s visit to Myanmar can be framed within this wider lens of China’s neighbourhood diplomacy to assess the motivating factors behind Xi’s sojourns to smaller neighbouring countries.
President Xi’s visit to Nepal in October 2019 came when the ruling communist party in Nepal has consolidated power following the merger of two major left-wing parties to form Nepal Communist Party (NCP) in May 2018. Earlier, the left parties won a landslide in the 2017 general election. China’s “friendly-regimes” are seen as lead by ‘strongmen’ who have strengthened their domestic political hold.
Beijing seemingly uses such high profile visits to further strengthen ties with these regimes with the hope that they would remain in power for a longer period. The Chinese leader also appears to use his bilateral visits to send the message to these regimes that his visit is a sort of reward to them for being close “allies” of China.
In the case of Nepal and Bangladesh, Beijing apparently timed Xi’s visit right as bilateral ties appear to have been strengthened with the ruling regimes following his visits to these countries. However, Xi’s visits to Sri Lanka and the Maldives probably failed to produce the outcomes desired by Beijing.
Xi visited Colombo and Male in 2014 after Beijing established closer political ties with the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka and the Abdulla Yameen regime in the Maldives. This was at a time when the two regimes appeared to have consolidated their positions in domestic politics. A year later, Rajapaksa was defeated in the presidential election in Sri Lanka and similarly, Yameen was ousted from power in the 2018 Maldivian presidential election.
In the Maldives, opposition parties filed corruptions charges linked to Chinese investments against the ruling regime were during election campaigns. It is difficult to draw a clear link between Xi’s bilateral visits and the plausible impact on electoral outcomes in these countries, but it is definitely worth arguing that the China factor has emerged to shape domestic political dynamics at certain levels in these smaller neighbouring countries.
Xi’s visit to Myanmar also comes after Beijing has established close political ties with the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) regime under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, particularly after the NLD came to power in 2016. Xi’s visit assumes significance in the context of changing domestic politics with the country facing a general election later this year. Whether this visit will have any impact on Myanmar’s domestic political dynamics will be an aspect that would be closely observed.
All the five countries mentioned above have joined Xi’s signature project––the BRI and this factor also forms another dimension of the Chinese leader’s visits to these countries. Two specific issues seem to drive Xi’s visits to these countries on the BRI. First, His bilateral visits to these neighbouring countries take place when there is growing Chinese frustration over implementation of BRI-related projects. President Xi has used his bilateral visits to speed up execution of BRI projects. Second, he has also used these visits to announce new projects under the BRI.
After Nepal signed up to the BRI in May 2017, nine projects were identified to be financed under the project. When Xi visited Kathmandu in October last year, except for a feasibility study of a railway project, none of the other projects reached even the negotiation phase. Beijing sees such high-profile visits as an opportunity to push these through.
In Myanmar, several BRI-related projects including a deep-sea port at Kyaukphyu on the Bay of Bengal, a railway project to connect Chinese southwestern province of Yunnan to Myanmar’s coastal cities, an inland-waterway through the Irrawaddy River and a mega-hydropower dam project are either stalled or making little progress. Xi will use his visit to speed up implementation, and is likely to announce new Chinese infrastructure investment as well.
The third dimension of Xi’s visit to smaller neighbouring countries appears to be driven by geopolitical objectives. Beijing uses these visits to reassure the ruling regimes that it is willing to protect them from external interference in their internal affairs. Beijing’s backing and support are critical for regimes that are under international pressure over treatment of their minority communities based on religion and ethnic lines. Xi’s 2014 visit to Sri Lanka happened at a time when Western criticism was rising against the Rajapaksa government over its commitment to human rights.
President Xi’s visit also comes at a time when Myanmar has been facing international condemnation over atrocities against its Rohingya Muslim community, and when hearings on genocide accusations against the state are being heard at the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Beijing has earlier protected Myanmar over the issue at the UNSC.
Lastly, bilateral specific issues such as border security and stability seem to drive Xi’s visits to smaller neighbouring countries. For instance, the Tibet issue was one of the motivating factors for Xi’s visit to Nepal last year. In the case of Myanmar, ethnic conflicts in China-Myanmar borderlands have long been a concern for Beijing not only for the spill-over effects but also these conflicts in the borderlands attract international attention and, Beijing has been wary of its adversaries using the humanitarian cause to access its border regions.
From Beijing’s perspective, the present situation in Myanmar presents the right moment for Chinese President Xi to visit the country to send out the message that China stands with Myanmar and as an opportunity to use the visit to further push its BRI projects. It might appear that China is beginning to reap the benefits of decades of investments in Myanmar, but the question is whether Beijing has read Myanmar right?
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