A recommendation by investigators that Myanmar’s military leaders be prosecuted for genocide over their campaign against Rohingya Muslims is dragging China into another fight at the United Nations. For Beijing, that could be a good thing.
The investigators’ report, released this week by the U.N.’s human-rights agency, gives China a fresh chance to shelter Myanmar’s military and political leaders from international pressure, drawing them further into Beijing’s orbit as the U.S. retreats from the region, analysts say.
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“The Rohingya crisis really creates an opportunity” for China with Myanmar, said Yun Sun, an expert on Myanmar-China relations at the Washington-based Stimson Center. “Now’s the time to show them who their real friends are.”
For the friendship, Beijing expects to secure access for its companies to a resource-rich neighbor on the Indian Ocean and a strategic partner in efforts to tamp down criticism of China’s more muscular exercise of power in the region.
The U.S. and other Western nations accuse China and Russia of using their veto power in the U.N. Security Council to scuttle punitive action against Myanmar for a campaign of violence that since last year drove Rohingya to flee en mass. When Sweden and the Netherlands called on Tuesday for the Security Council to refer Myanmar’s military commanders to the International Criminal Court, China and Russia urged patient diplomacy.
“Unilateral accusation or pressure will not help to solve the problem,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing on Tuesday. She denied that Beijing is blocking action but rather sees the Rohingya issue as complicated.
China has tried to facilitate negotiations between Myanmar and Bangladesh, where more than 700,000 Rohingya have fled, to secure their safe return, but there are no signs of progress.
The potential payoff for China’s leaders is worth the risk of being accused of shielding potential war criminals, according to analysts. China fears that allowing the U.N. to take a role in resolving the Rohingya clearances would set a precedent for U.N. involvement in other border issues, including long-running conflicts between Myanmar’s military and rebel groups along the Chinese border.
The rebel groups share ethnic and commercial ties to China, and Beijing would like to play peacemaker and resolve the conflicts on its own terms. 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,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s East Asia director.
Myanmar also occupies an important role in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road plan to build infrastructure and deepen trade ties throughout Eurasia. A critical piece of Mr. Xi’s plan is a multibillion-dollar China-Myanmar Economic Corridor anchored by an Indian Ocean port at Kyaukpyu, in the Rohingyas’ home state of Rakhine.
Authorities in Myanmar are pressing to scale back the port project, worried it could leave the country too heavily indebted to China, and no agreement has been reached about the rest of the corridor, expected to consist of new roads, high-speed rail lines, and industrial zones.
“Beijing has a long wish list in Myanmar,” said Elliot Brennan, a nonresident research fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm. While Myanmar’s leaders are wary of China and may resist concessions on the biggest projects, “an acceptable, if unpalatable, quid pro quo for its support will certainly be found,” he said.
Beijing played diplomatic protector for Myanmar in the previous decade when the country was isolated and its military leadership was shunned by the West for resisting democracy and confining Aung San Suu Kyi, then an opposition leader who had won a Nobel Peace Prize.
The Myanmar junta eventually became leery of China’s sway. With political reforms and Ms. Suu Kyi’s release, Myanmar began to court Western nations and multinationals, eclipsing Beijing.
Still, China remains Myanmar’s largest trading partner, and, according to Myanmar government statistics, Chinese companies are responsible for roughly a quarter of Myanmar’s foreign direct investment.
China’s government has worked to rekindle the political relationship, including hosting a visit last year by Ms. Suu Kyi, now Myanmar’s de facto leader who came in for blame in the U.N. report for failing to use her position and moral authority to stop the violence.
More than anything, according to Ms. Sun of the Stimson Center, patching up ties with Myanmar’s military and civilian leaders allows China to regain regional prestige befitting an emerging superpower.
“There’s almost a psychology of revenge,” after Myanmar was coaxed away by the West, Ms. Sun said. “The mentality in China is, ‘Myanmar is right on our border. If we can’t take care of them, then who are we?’”. End
Source: The Wall Street Journal today 8/29/2018. By Josh Chin, Fanfan Wang, and Jeremy Page
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