While China aggressively promotes and defends its CPEC project (under BRI) in Pakistan administered Kashmir, Beijing at the same time is using COVID diplomacy to push its BRI initiative in neighbouring Myanmar via CMEC (China-Myanmar Economic Corridor).
In the present times, when the world struggles with the China-origin virus, Beijing still manages to find its way to strengthen its billion-dollar ambition – The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Launched in 2013, the BRI is also known as the Silk Road Economic Belt or the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road and is an attempt to build connectivity and promote international co-operation across six main economic corridors that consist of China, Mongolia and Russia; Eurasian countries; Central and West Asia; Pakistan, Myanmar and some other nations of the Indian-subcontinent and Indochina.
China Ignores India’s Objections
Earlier this month, Pakistan awarded a contract to a Chinese state-run firm to construct Diamer-Bhasha dam in the contentious region of Pakistan administered Kashmir. As EurAsian Times reported, the project is located in Gilgit-Baltistan and is a part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) under Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
India had been objecting to the BRI for long since the CPEC passes through Pakistan controlled Kashmir, a region claimed by India as part of Jammu and Kashmir.
When New Delhi shared its concerns with Beijing, the Chinese government brazenly dismissed it by saying “China’s position on the issue of Kashmir is consistent. China and Pakistan conduct economic cooperation to promote economic development and improve the well-being of the local people.”
COVID Diplomacy in Myanmar for BRI
In January this year, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping visited Myanmar, the first time in about two decades. The prospects that Xi brought along included New Yangon City, Kyaukphyu Deep-Sea Port and Industrial Zone and the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone that will strategically allow China direct access to the Indian Ocean.
Branded as three pillars of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), Xi had said that both sides will deepen “result-oriented Belt and Road cooperation” and move from “the conceptual stage to concrete planning and implementation” of building the CMEC.
Myanmar joined as a founding member of BRI in 2015 and it is reported that many MoUs had been signed with China and that the planning for BRI in Myanmar was underway until the coronavirus pandemic halted everything.
Since China publicly declared that it had controlled coronavirus, Beijing then began with COVID Diplomacy. “Chinese government started sending medical supplies and personnel across the world — including to Myanmar — to build goodwill and show global leadership in fighting the pandemic,” writes Shah Suraj Bharat, a Yangon-based transport infrastructure analyst.
Many of the Chinese provincial governments have taken the front seats on COVID diplomacy in continental Southern Asia. A closer look reveals that the Yunnan provincial government sent medical aid supplies and medical teams to Myanmar and Laos. While Pakistan received medical teams and emergency medical supplies from Uygur Autonomous Region.
“Myanmar has shown a degree of autonomy in its economic relations with China. Indeed, soft power is defined as the ability of a state to get what it wants through attraction rather than coercion, which some see China as trying to do via its COVID diplomacy” Shah writes.
Chinese Influence in Myanmar’s Politics
Since the elections in Myanmar are scheduled for November this year, some reports suggest the State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi is a trusted ally of Beijing.
Post the Northern Rakhine State clashes, Aung San Suu Kyi, once viewed as a peace icon, dramatically turned into a global outcast of human rights due to her refusal to condemn the genocide of the Rohingya minority in the region.
This led to limited aids and grants from the Western nations, however, it is reported that China has been opening its arms to Myanmar for assistance. Some reports suggest that apart from being a part of Myanmar’s official politics, Beijing has also been supplying arms to insurgents in the country.
Bertil Lintner writes that “China’s double-game in Myanmar, where it serves as both an armed conflict mediator and supplier of arms to insurgents, is a long-worn carrot and a stick approach to get what it wants, namely the CMEC and access to Myanmar’s rich natural resources including copper, gold, jade, amber and rare earth metals.”