It is well-known that the United States’ foreign policy of using extremist Islamic regimes as proxies against the Soviet Union and supporting petro-sheikhs in exchange for economic concessions has boomeranged and has caused extensive damage to the political systems and economies of a number of countries in the Middle East and South Asia. Unfortunately, China refuses to learn from the United States’ experience in this regard. In its quest for greater power in the global arena, China is supporting regimes it would love to disappear when it reaches the summit. For instance, China is using Myanmar as a force multiplier in South and South East Asia and conduit to the Indian Ocean. In the process it is supporting a regime in Myanmar that will not turn law-abiding after China achieves its strategic goals.
China’s current Myanmar policy that is based on support to the military junta in exchange for strategic and economic concessions will provide China with a number of challenges in the medium to long term. First, political repression and economic distress make Myanmar a potential source of humanitarian refugees. China may end up hosting millions of refugees in case the domestic situation in Myanmar deteriorates dramatically. (Here it bears noting that Myanmar shares a 2185 kilometres long difficult-to-monitor border with China.) In fact, Myanmar’s neighbours like Bangladesh and Thailand are already hosting a large number of Rohingya Muslim and Christian tribal refugees and once in a while even China faces influx of refugees from bordering regions of Myanmar like Kokang. And in any case China is already grappling with a growing number of illegal migrant workers and drug trafficking from Myanmar.
Second, almost two-thirds of Chinese territory is populated by ethnic minorities. In many cases, these ethnic minorities have not been completely overwhelmed by Han settlers and tension continues to simmer. In this context, ethnic conflict engendered by political repression in Myanmar’s lawless tribal belt that borders ethnic minority regions of China could infect the latter and probably encourage independence movements.
Third, sooner than later countries at the receiving end of the Chinese policy of encirclement will respond in kind in China’s neighbourhood completing the vicious circle. The increased willingness of outside powers to engage China’s neighbours like Mongolia and Vietnam is a case in point.
Fourth, China will find its investment in Myanmar growing beyond reasonable limits and that much more difficult to give up. The reason for this is as follows. China’s support makes the military junta largely impervious to potential international sanctions, which in turn discourages domestic opposition to the current regime in Myanmar. Muted domestic opposition further limits the options available to the international community, which gives a negative feedback to domestic opposition, ultimately, forcing Myanmar into a low-level political equilibrium. If Myanmar’s diplomatic isolation grows and its international economic options diminish, then it will become increasingly dependent on Chinese support. (In this context, it is worth noting that China is already one of the most important trade partners of Myanmar as well as a vital source of foreign investment.) But China will find it difficult to cut-off support when it realises that further support is not mutually beneficial because it has already incurred massive sunk costs in nurturing a strategic relationship with the military junta. In such circumstances, continued support means growing sunk costs and increasing difficulty in reversing its existing Myanmar policy.
Fifth, after it assumes international policing responsibilities as a global power China could find its influence in Myanmar waning. Myanmar might join China’s competitors once China starts exerting pressure upon it to behave, just as these days Pakistan’s leaders rush to China whenever the United States demands sincere participation in the War on Terror. In fact, just as one-time useful authoritarian Islamic regimes currently provide the United States with a major foreign policy challenge, in future the Myanmar could divert China’s attention from more important domestic and global problems.
Last but not the least China could face popular backlash in Myanmar. It has relied heavily on state influence to build strategic relationship and obtain contracts in Myanmar, which reminds of the United States’ risky engagement with petro-Sheikhs. China could end up on the wrong side in case current regime is dismantled. China’s difficulty in engaging with Libya’s new regime is a case in point. After democratization, Myanmar will provide China with far more serious challenges. In fact, China risks popular backlash in Myanmar due to yet another reason, namely, the mode of its economic engagement. The generally bad environmental and labour management of Chinese companies portrays China in poor light. Furthermore, Chinese companies depend substantially on Chinese labour, which disappoints locals who could potentially benefit from Chinese investments.
It is not yet too late for China to mend its foreign policy. China can still take heed of the United States’ experience and reverse its myopic policy. By doing so, it will help millions of Myanmarese suffering under the military junta, secure the genuine economic interests of its landlocked provinces like Yunnan and Sichuan, make its life as a potential global power easier, and reduce the military junta’s capacity to extract concessions from other neighbours of Myanmar by playing the China card. But unfortunately, “communist” China seems to be condemned to support the military junta because it is unable/unwilling to forgo the sunk costs it has incurred to nurture a strategic relationship.
Vikas Kumar is Assistant Professor at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.