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Rohingya Crisis: China Shows its Hand

04 Dec 2017
By Trevor Wilson
Ethnic tensions exploded earlier this year causing thousands of Rohingya to flee

International pressure on Myanmar to resolve the Rohingya crisis has so far yielded few concessions from the government. But could China’s recent proposal for an end to the violence, refugee repatriation and development assistance succeed?

While in Myanmar recently for a session of the Asia-Europe Meeting, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi reportedly presented a three-part Chinese proposal to the Myanmar government for resolution of the Rohingya crisis. It involves a ceasefire in military activities, repatriation of Rohingya from Bangladesh and follow-up development assistance for those affected.

This is the first time China has showed its hand on the Rohingya problem, which has occurred outside China’s normal sphere of influence in Myanmar, although China has quite good relations with the local nationalist political group, the Arakan National Party (which is also active in Kachin State on the Myanmar-China border). However, China’s assistance in Rakhine socioeconomic development is probably not as extensive as it might be.

China’s proposal merits closer analysis, coming from a friendly neighbour which nonetheless now has a long-term strategic interest in political stability in Rakhine State, given China’s construction of new oil and gas pipelines from Kyaukphyu in central Rakhine State to Yunnan in China’s southwest. So it is perfectly normal for China to protect its strategic interests in Myanmar in this way. In any event, China’s initiative is close to some of the conclusions of the recent Myanmar government-appointed Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, in which the Myanmar government seems to have lost interest.

However, China’s proposals will not necessarily suit those in the United Nations or in the activist community whose concerns are focused on allegations of serious human rights abuses by the Myanmar authorities. Indeed, China may be incidentally (but possibly deliberately) sheltering Myanmar from the full force of disapproval of the international human rights community. Nor would China wish to alienate the UN authorities whose support China may need on other even more serious issues, such as North Korea.

If China’s intervention actually helps break a deadlock over the Rohingya, this could be a helpful development. If it means financial resources would be available to underpin further socioeconomic development in Rakhine State, in line with Myanmar’s own (as yet unfunded) plans for such development, this could indeed be a tangible benefit.

China is not without problems in its own relations with Myanmar over cross-border trade and people movements, as well as problematic Chinese infrastructure projects in Myanmar. Moreover, an earlier Chinese attempt to mediate in the reignited Kachin insurgency on China’s own border with Myanmar was not successful. But China should otherwise be confident in its high-level dealings with the Myanmar government and army, which it would certainly have consulted before announcing its Rohingya proposals.

But it might be a mistake to assume the Myanmar government would automatically accept China’s proposals. Myanmar has been loath to blame its army publicly for its disproportionately tough respond to the initial Rohingya protests, and has openly refused to contemplate offering Rohingya citizenship as one way out of the current crisis. (Kofi Annan, however, recognised in his August 2017 report that the citizenship issue needs to be properly addressed.)

Whether or not the Chinese proposal will succeed remains to be seen.  It is not an especially ambitious proposal, but in the circumstances that might be prudent given Myanmar’s allergic reaction to international pressure to be more generous to the Rohingya.  Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi is currently visiting China again and will presumably inform the Chinese side of Myanmar’s decision, at least privately.

Coinciding with untested US suggestions for a reimposition of sanctions against Myanmar over the treatment of the Rohingya, it will certainly highlight the differences in US and Chinese attitudes towards Myanmar. But if, at a time when hopes of any other effective international intervention seem to have dissipated, it translates into greater Chinese influence in Myanmar, so be it. The quality, relevance and sustainability of any Chinese assistance are what is important.

China would have also consulted Bangladesh carefully about the idea, but it is hard to see why Bangladesh would object to a reasonable, and hopefully enduring, resolution to the ‘crisis’. On the other hand, India may not react so calmly, but it has not exactly been quick or generous in providing assistance to Myanmar in the recent past.

China’s initiative probably has little to do with China’s growing international role, despite the temptation for some to make this linkage. In terms of international influence at play, Myanmar, Rakhine State and the Rohingya are in practice an empty slate right now, and China is not competing with any other country or regional body by declaring its hand. Nor is China displacing any other country by making this relatively modest proposal and doing it publicly.

Yet it would be remiss of China, at this point, not to use its effective networks in Myanmar, official and unofficial, to try to resolve one of Myanmar’s most serious political problems. Its neglect has caused grave damage to the reputation of Myanmar, the reputation of its leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and the reputation of its attention-attracting transition to democracy.

Trevor Wilson is a visiting fellow at the Australia National University’s Department of Political and Social Change.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.