The Rohingya refugee crisis emanating from Myanmar’s western Rakhine state has presented an acute challenge to State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government. It has also provided a unique opportunity for China to regain lost momentum in the strategically important neighboring nation.
While China had previously maintained a neutral stance on the Rohingya issue, it has taken a nuanced pro-government line since the situation flared up again last August 25 after insurgents attacked security force outposts. An estimated 680,000 refugees have since fled violence across the border into Bangladesh.
Beijing’s traditional neutrality on the Rohingya issue was based largely on the fact that it did not directly affect China’s interests or border security. That categorically differentiates the Rohingya crisis from the ongoing ethnic conflicts along the Sino-Myanmar border, including in northern Kachin and eastern Shan states, which remain China’s primary security concern in Myanmar.
It is also conceivable that China now relates Myanmar’s Rohingya issue with its own Uyghur Muslim militant problem in its northeastern Xinjiang province. Thus any criticism of the Myanmar government’s handling of the Rohingya crisis could negate China’s long-held non-interference policy and open the way for criticism of its own repressive policies against its Uyghur minority.
When China showed de facto support for the Myanmar government’s actions towards the Rohingya, including military-led “clearance operations” that the United Nations has said are tantamount to “ethnic cleansing.” On Tuesday, the United States called Myanmar’s blanket denials of ethnic cleansing “preposterous” and called on the UN Security Council to hold the military accountable.
China, on the other hand, has couched its pro-government position on “complicated historical, ethnic and religious factors.” Chinese experts, meanwhile, have been eager and keen to blame the Rohingya issue more on the legacy of British colonialism than the Myanmar government, military or its people.
China’s support of Suu Kyi’s government in the face of widespread international condemnation vividly reminds of its past protection of the previous military government for its human rights violations.
In 2007, China famously vetoed a draft United Nations Security Council resolution against the then ruling junta, similar to Beijing’s blocking of a proposed UN General Assembly resolution on the Rohingya issue last November.
The irony lies in that history is repeating itself under Suu Kyi’s elected quasi-democratic government, with China once again coming to Myanmar’s “rescue” over rights issues. (The autonomous military still controls the powerful home, border affairs and defense ministries and maintains a 25% bloc of appointees in parliament).
Indeed, the Rohingya crisis has posed a new opportunity for China to advance its relations with the Myanmar government and its people at a time Western governments are again distancing themselves.
Given the anti-Rohingya, ultranationalist sentiment prevalent in many areas of Myanmar, China is clearly not interested in joining any international campaign of criticism that could damage its drive to rebuild influence and popularity in Myanmar since a downturn in ties beginning in 2011.
China has defended the Myanmar government’s position in international fora, including the UN, and called for understanding of its efforts to promote “social stability.”
While there have been some Chinese statements about the “unacceptability” of violence, Beijing’s attentions are primarily focused on finding a solution to the abysmal situation rather than assigning blame.
China’s official language on the Rohingya issue is highly nuanced, reflecting its political sensitivity and preference. For example, China has declined to use the term “Rohingya refugees”, referring instead to “displaced people from Rakhine due to violence” in its official statements.
This is apparently designed to avoid any appearance that China accepts the term “Rohingya” or recognition of the ethnic group’s refugee status, which would irk the Myanmar government and could have implications for any Rohingya who have fled to China.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s only reference to the “Rohingya issue” came on November 19 in a media interview in Bangladesh that clearly meant to adapt to local terminology.
By standing with Myanmar, China has successfully proved once again that “a friend in need is a friend indeed” during times of crisis. China’s popularity in Myanmar, which had dimmed by the negativity associated with China’s perceived exploitative investments and its support of ethnic armed groups in northern Myanmar’s civil wars, has as a result soared.
To Beijing’s satisfaction, both the civilian government and military have bowed in respect. Faced with mounting international condemnation, Suu Kyi and military commander Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the general chiefly responsible for the alleged rights abuses associated with recent “clearance operations”, both took trips to Beijing last year to express gratitude and seek support.
To be sure, China does have certain concerns associated with instability in Rakhine state. China’s top two investment projects in Myanmar are situated in Rakhine state, namely the Sino-Myanmar oil and gas pipelines and the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Both carry special strategic importance in terms of energy security and access to the Indian Ocean, respectively.
However, both projects are located further south in Rakhine state, far removed from the northern townships that border Bangladesh where the violence has spiraled. While the crisis no doubt affects the area’s overall investment environment and security situation, the immediate threat of attacks on Chinese projects is extremely low.
The Rohingya issue has also raised China’s anxiety about the spread of radical Islam to China from Myanmar, and its convergence with China’s own radicalized minority Muslims.
It is an area where China and Myanmar’s security forces have recently closely cooperated. While the growing Rohingya population in China’s neighboring Yunnan province raises certain concerns of communal instability, linkages between the Rohingya and Islamic State-linked Uyghur militants remain elusive at this stage.
Although international observers have called for China to up its pressure on Myanmar, Beijing is unlikely to do so. This is not just due to China’s non-interference principle or political expediency, but also to its significantly different understanding of Myanmar’s internal politics and how best to play them to maximize its benefits.
For China, it is unlikely that Suu Kyi and her government will change their position on the Rohingya issue at the cost of domestic popularity. And to impose punitive measures or threats on the military is unlikely to change its behavior, and instead could tip a delicate domestic power balance which is now clearly working in China’s favor.
While China’s frustration with the Myanmar military has grown significantly in recent years, it is more likely to resort to indirect pressure than coercion to make political points. This is particularly true when attacks by the Myanmar military pose a direct threat to China’s interests, including in border areas where refugees could flow across the Chinese border and cause instability in its hinterlands.
China flexed its muscles when it proposed to help mediate a ceasefire to the ethnic conflicts in Shan and Kachin states. Significantly, that offer was conveyed last year during Min Aung Hlaing’s visit to China. The Rohingya crisis has also given China a testing ground for its international mediation through communications, persuasion and coordination between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
China claims to have been instrumental in forging the agreement between the two sides on repatriating the Rohingya, though many observers are skeptical Beijing played a decisive role. The Rohingya crisis has shown, however, that China is making different calculations and applying different philosophies to the crisis than its more critical Western counterparts.
China offers an alternative to Myanmar which could have a major impact on how the Rohingya issue is ultimately handled and resolved. The expansion of Chinese influence in Myanmar through the Rohingya crisis has subtly changed the landscape of foreign competition in the country, reversing some of the recent trends where the West had stolen a march.
The sustainability of that reversal remains to be seen, but so far China has astutely leveraged the humanitarian crisis into a diplomatic opportunity.