New diplomatic missions signal Chinese support for Myanmar amid Rohingya crisis
Symbolic move to set up presence in capital shunned by most other foreign diplomats highlights Beijing’s desire to strengthen ties
Myanmar’s purpose-built capital Naypyidaw is known for its vast scale and emptiness, but China is using it to showcase its presence and boost ties with the Southeast Asian nation as it faces a wave of international criticism over the plight of the Muslim Rohingya.
China established its first diplomatic liaison office last week in the city, which is still struggling to attract foreign diplomatic missions even though it replaced Yangon – where most foreign embassies are still located – as the capital in 2006.
The setting up of the Chinese diplomatic liaison office came as Beijing offered its support to Myanmar’s handling of the Rohingya conflict in Rakhine state.
Other regional rivals, including India, are also seeking closer ties with Myanmar, which offers opportunities to invest in infrastructure and economic projects.
In the opening speech last Friday, Hong Liang, the Chinese ambassador to Myanmar, said that China “highly valued relations with Myanmar”.
He added that the newly established office was expected to push forward preparations for moving its embassy while “setting as an example” to other foreign countries, according to a statement on the embassy’s website.
In another sign of Beijing’s support for Myanmar, the World Chinese Entrepreneurs Convention, a conference of more than 2,000 Chinese traders operating across the world, started in Yangon on Saturday, and Yu Zhengsheng, the number four in China’s ruling Communist Party, sent a congratulatory letter to the meeting.
The two nations are seen to be moving closer amid the Rohingya crisis. Earlier this month, Myanmar’s national security adviser said the nation was counting on China and Russia, both permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, to block UN censure over the violence that has forced an exodus of more than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims to Bangladesh.
There is mounting pressure for the Nobel Peace Prize that was given to Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to be revoked. She has blamed terrorists for the conflict, in which the armed forces have faced widespread accusations of committing atrocities against civilians.
Beijing has backed the military offensive in Rakhine state.
Hong said the conflict was an “internal affair” for Myanmar, and the efforts of its security forces to combat extremists were strongly welcomed, Myanmar Global New Light newspaper reported.
Diplomatic observers said the huge investment China was undertaking in Myanmar was part of the reason for Beijing’s desire to ensure its ties with Naypyidaw were not affected by the crisis.
The investments include a 2.5 billion-yuan (US$382,000) cross-border oil and gas pipeline that is expected to become an alternative route for energy imports from the Middle East as it avoids the Malacca Strait, a shipping chokepoint in the disputed South China Sea.
Other projects include the construction of a port and industrial area at the Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone in Rakhine, which, once finished, will expand Beijing’s reach in the Indian Ocean.
“Stability in Rakhine state really matters,” said Fan Hongwei, a Myanmar affair expert at Xiamen University in eastern China’s Fujian province.
“If the situation in Rakhine remains as bad as it is now, the future of all these projects would be really bleak.”
China is also highly concerned about the spread of terrorist groups, including those with ties to Islamic State, from Southeast Asia into southwestern parts of the country such as Yunnan province, which is on the border with Myanmar.
It is also worried that Uygur Muslims from Xianjiang may seek the opportunity to cross into Southeast Asia to join forces with Islamist groups.
But Beijing is not alone in defending Suu Kyi’s government. During his recent trip to Myanmar, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told her that India shared her concerns about “extremist violence in Rakhine state and especially the violence against security forces and how innocent lives have been affected”.
Yun Sun, a senior associate at the East Asia programme at the Stimson Centre in Washington, said it remained to be seen if India could present any real challenge to China’s relations with Myanmar, but added that “a sense of Indian competition with China in the region is real”.
“China has more to offer in terms of financial support of Myanmar’s economic development and political support of Myanmar’s peace process, so it has more leverage,” he said.
“When it comes to Southeast Asia, and Myanmar in particular, India has not been the most competitive.”
Hu Zhiyong, from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said Beijing still needed to be cautious especially after the Doklam crisis, which deepened the rivalry between the two regional powers.
“China needs to have a clear understanding of India as it is apparently trying to woo China’s neighbours in the region to counterbalance China,” Hu said.