Without alienating Bangladesh, China is backing Myanmar, setting the stage of mediation between the two countries to resolve the Rohingya humanitarian and refugee crisis.
On September 28, China flew 2,000 tents and 3,000 blankets as part of a 150 tonnes relief package for Rohingya refugees, fleeing the violence in Myanmar.
The Chinese stressed that they had flown in the supplies purely on humanitarian considerations, to help Bangladesh shoulder the burden of the sudden refugee surge. Politically, Beijing empathised with Myanmar,which had become a target of harsh criticism from the West, on the familiar grounds of violating human rights and engaging in “ethnic cleansing”.
“The Chinese side is highly concerned about the difficulty facing Bangladesh in resettling the displaced people in the Myanmar-Bangladesh border area. In order to help the government of Bangladesh with the resettlement efforts, the Chinese government has decided to provide emergency humanitarian supplies to the government of Bangladesh,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang during a September 30 media briefing.
But Beijing also ensured that Myanmar avoided harsh international sanctions, which the United Nations could impose. During the first debate in the UN Security Council on September 28, the Chinese side defended Myanmar, highlighting the context of the humanitarian crisis.
China’s Deputy UN Ambassador Wu Haitao at the meeting highlighted that “the question of Rakhine state is rooted in a nexus of complex historical, ethnic and religious factor.”
Myanmar’s Rakhine state is at the heart of the Rohingya crisis. On August 25, the Arakan Rohingya Salivation Army (ARSA), operating in the state, attacked 30 police posts, killing 84, with 54 going missing. The massive retaliation by the Myanmar armed forces triggered an exodus of 400,000 people, seeking sanctuaries in the Chittagong hill tracts of neighbouring Bangladesh.
The Rakhine state is strategically vital for both China and India. The website The Irrawaddy from Myanmar is reporting that Beijing has been pushing for preferential access to the deep seaport of Kyaukphyu—part of its ambitious infrastructure investment plan to deepen its links with economies throughout Asia and beyond. China has plans to pitch in $10 billion in the neighbouringKyaukphyu Special Economic Zone.
Besides, it wants to establish a railway from the Bay of Bengal, linking Myanmar with its Yunnan Province, within the framework of its Belt and Road undertaking. India, on its part is developing the Sittwe port, the capital of Rakhine province, for providing port access to its landlocked Northeast.
With the crisis escalating, China has reiterated its offer to mediate between Myanmar and Bangladesh. “China is willing to continue promoting peace talks in its own way, and hopes the international community can play a constructive role to ease the situation and promote dialogue,” China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi was quoted as saying.
China’s offer to broker a resolution is not new. In April, Chinese Special Envoy for Asian Affairs Sun Guoxiang visited Bangladesh and offered to tackle a diplomatic row between Bangladesh and Myanmar over the flight of the Rohingya.
“Stability in Rakhine state really matters,” said Fan Hongwei, a Myanmar affair expert at Xiamen University in eastern China’s Fujian province, as quoted by the South China Morning Post.
“If the situation in Rakhine remains as bad as it is now, the future of all these projects would be really bleak,” he observed.