NEW DELHI: India is closely monitoring Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar. It’s his first overseas visit in the new year, usually an indication or warning of strategic import. That was the case in 2017 when Xi was at the World Economic Forum in Davos and in 2018 when he flew into Tehran shortly after sanctions had been lifted. Today, China is seen as Iran’s staunchest ally against the United States.
So is President Xi working towards the same goal? According to Myanmar’s widely respected online magazine Irrawaddy, Xi, the first Chinese President to visit Myanmar in 19 years, has come bearing many gifts: A $1.3 billion deep-sea port in Rakhine state on the Bay of Bengal which will give Beijing access to the Indian Ocean; alongside the port will be a special economic zone where garment and food processing factories will employ thousands of Myanmarese workers (or so the Chinese claim); the Chinese have also promised $1.7 billion to fund a new city opposite the former capital Yangon.
This is heady stuff. The Chinese have also promised to build a high speed rail link between China’s neighbouring province of Yunnan and the former Myanmar capital of Mandalay. There are some doubts on that score since the line will have to pass through areas controlled by various armed militias who rely on the drug trade and can be expected to cooperate only if their interests are protected.
There is no word on whether Myanmar will give the go ahead to the controversial China-funded Myitsone Dam, work on which was stopped some years ago after the local population protested over its environmental impact.
India is funding its own projects in Myanmar but cannot match the estimated $20 billion China has invested. According to the Irrawaddy, Myanmar will be careful to ensure it is not caught in a Chinese debt trap, but the country is isolated since it forcefully expelled thousands of Muslims from Rakhine state some years ago.
India has walked a careful path, counselling Myanmar’s leaders to take back its own people, while contributing to building infrastructure in Rakhine, including homes for the local people.