The reported move of China to build an economic corridor with Myanmar on the lines of China Pakistan Economic Corridor has naturally been a cause of concern for India.The idea of a separate China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) was pushed through during the recent visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Myanmar following his successful efforts to persuade Bangladesh and Myanmar to discuss the Rohingya issue across the table to work out at least a framework of agreement to a phased program of repatriation of the Rohingyas to Rakhine ; and a lot of hard work must have been necessary to bring home to the Myanmar Army the point that expulsion of the Rohingyas would not be acceptable to the global and UN family and that the only way to wriggle out of the situation was to agree in principle to allow return of the Rohingya Muslims in phases after due verification of their residential status in Rakhine.Implicit in this agreement is the Myanmarese acceptance of the fact that the expulsion was cruel and violative of human rights.
Even then the significance of Chinese intervention– the first time in history in a matter involving two states which till 1935 were parts of the Raj — cannot be ignored by strategic thinkers as it has demonstrated Chinese influence in both these countries which not only share long land borders with India but also are vital for success of India’s Act East policy.
Though some observers feel that the CMEC has come as a surprise to New Delhi since it runs parallel to the BCIM- Bangladesh- China- India – Myanmar initiative , the fact remains that BCIM- has been a non starter as it is seen as a China led initiative and hence unlikely to be of much benefit to South Asian economy given the asymmetry of economic strengths and the strong Chinese role in Myanmar in areas of defence and economic cooperation ever since the military take over in 1962 and all through the years when Myanmar was kept isolated from the rest of the world.
Even before and right from the end of world war 2, the Chinese influence through the Burmese communist movements in the north , Chinese speaking Kokang tribes and the strong presence of the Chinese traders in whole sale, retail trade and banking all over the country was steady and growing. The fact that Gen Ne Win’s mother was Chinese and that he expelled about 4 lakhs of Indians who left ” penniless and only with their clothes on their back ‘in 1964 as detailed in Thant Myint-U’ s The river of lost footsteps — a fascinating study of Burmese history helped rapid consolidation of the position of both the ethnic Chinese despite occasional anti Chinese riots and a growing constituency of the Peopleo’s Republic of China.
MCEC therefore should not come as a surprise because the Yunnan province of South has been for long the entrepot of Burma- China trade ; and MCEC will begin from here to go south to Mandalay in Central Burma , extend east to Yangon and west to the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Economic Zone . A 1060 km gas pipeline linking Kyaukphyu and Kunming in China was opened in July 2013 and a gas pipeline in January 2015 which allows China now to obtain oil and gas supply directly from the Middle East. So, MCEC has been already operational which is now being formalised.It seems that China is going steady with her Economic Corridor diplomacy in countries in India’s neighborhood. Further, since opening up of Myanmar in 2011 and till 2014 the total Foreign Direct Investment of US$ 5 billions came principally from China, Thailand and HongKong.
Myanmar, a least developed economy with a GDP of just US$ 64.3 billions in 2014, poor social and physical infrastructure and connectivity and over 70% of the population dependent on agriculture badly needs development support and investment. Her growth rate since 2012 at 7% plus is impressive though it is largely a outcome of what the economists call a’ low base’ effect.
This suggests scope for others to step in and from this angle it is necessary that other projects like the Thailand- Myanmar- India trinational high way, Transnational Railway project linking India with South East Asia and Kaladan multimodal transport projects are implemented on urgent basis to create a durable base of Myanmar’s economic interaction with her south Asian neighbourhood.It is time to strategise restoration of India’s old linkages – economic and cultural with Myanmar with a renewed sense of urgency arising out of the Chinese ” economic corridor diplomacy”.
( The writer is a retired IAS officer of the Assam – Meghalaya cadre and has served as Scientific Consultant in the office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India)