Why does China keep supporting Burma in the Rohingya crisis?
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Why does China keep supporting Burma in the Rohingya crisis?

CHINA once again boycotted talks at the United Nations Security Council aimed at addressing the Rohingya refugee crisis taking place in Burma (Myanmar), diplomats told Reuters on Monday.

This is the latest in a long line of Chinese efforts to divert any course action aimed at solving the crisis, which saw more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims flee across the border to Bangladesh.

Not only has Beijing stopped any international intervention, it has also openly voiced support for the military’s efforts, saying Burma is merely “maintaining its domestic stability.”

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The accusations against the Tatmadaw, another name for Burma’s military, have been building, with the UN going so far as accusing them of ethnic cleansing. The international condemnation has been almost universal – almost.

Beijing continues to hold strong, despite international pressure and mounting evidence of war crimes. So what is it about this Southeast Asian nation of 50 million that has China happily making apologies for genocide?

Strings attached protection

As the United States withdraws from the region, China sheltering Burma’s military and political leaders from international pressure draws them closer into Beijing’s orbit.

“The Rohingya crisis really creates an opportunity” for China with Burma, Yun Sun, an expert on Burma-China relations at the Washington-based Stimson Center, told The Wall Street Journal. “Now’s the time to show them who their real friends are.”

Predictably, it’s not for purely selfless reasons. Burma is a resource-rich neighbour and by extending the hand of friendship, China ensures its companies get first dibs after all other regional players have been scathing of the Tatmadaw’s actions.

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Burma State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi (R) and China’s Defence Minister Lieutenant Geneneral Wei Fenghe meet during a courtesy call in Naypyidaw on June 15, 2018. Source: Aung Shine Oo/Pool/AFP

This is already starting to pay dividends as Chinese companies are responsible for roughly a quarter of the country’s foreign direct investment. The Communist Party is also investing heavily in infrastructure projects – all of which now need protecting.

Both countries recently signed a deal to develop the huge China-funded Kyauk Phyu Special Economic Zone deep-sea port in the very state in which the Rohingya have faced persecution. While not in the volatile areas of Rakhine state, the threat of terrorism spilling over to parts where they have invested worries Beijing.

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The port is key to regional connectivity and is a pillar of President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is to act as the starting point of an oil-gas pipeline and railroad link to Yunnan state in China.

This is only the beginning with new high-speed rail lines, roads and industry expected to follow.

Clip the wings of international intervention

It’s no secret that Beijing likes governments to keep themselves to themselves, preferring a non-interventionist approach to internal affairs.

China’s fear is that, should the United Nations take a role in resolving and seeking justice in the case of the Rohingya, it will set a precedent for UN involvement in other border issues, of which China has no shortage.

One such conflict is in the northern reaches of Burma, where conflicts between the Tatmadaw and rebel groups have been raging along the Chinese border.

China’s view “is that there shouldn’t be any international interference in ethnic conflicts in Myanmar, because that might affect what’s happening at the border,” Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s East Asia director, told the Journal.

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Displaced Kachin residents crossing Malikha river on a ferry to escape the fighting between ethnic armed group and the Burma troops in Burma’s northernmost state of Kachin near the border with China. Source: Zau Ring Hpra/AFP

Despite flutters of wariness from Burma’s military over China’s mounting leverage in the country, the relationship has persisted.

China remains Burma’s number one trading partner, weathering the storm of the government’s pivot to western countries earlier this decade.

As China emerges as a superpower with jaw-dropping global ambitions, the proximity and strategic significance of Burma makes it a prime target for Chinese intervention.