How China and India are handling Myanmar's crisis three years on

In the three years since the coup in Myanmar, the country’s northern border with China has become an economic and strategic challenge to Beijing’s interests, while India is faced with the biggest humanitarian and security crisis, with refugees entering India posing an immediate security challenge.
Debris is pictured next to a damaged Buddha statue following fighting between Myanmar's military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Nam Hpat Kar, Kutkai township, in Myanmar's northern Shan State, on 4 February 2024. (AFP)
Debris is pictured next to a damaged Buddha statue following fighting between Myanmar's military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Nam Hpat Kar, Kutkai township, in Myanmar's northern Shan State, on 4 February 2024. (AFP)

With over 40 countries going to the polls this year, the signs of democratic degradation in countries like Myanmar have been alarming, especially considering the loss of lives since the military coup on 1 February 2021. A report last year put the figure of civilian lives lost at over 6,000 in 20 months since the start of the coup.

The junta regime continues to face resistance from armed rebel groups as well as the National Unity Government of Myanmar formed by elected lawmakers sidelined by the coup. The rebel offensive against the military junta has pushed the latter from several of its strongholds, especially since October 2023. 

While the death toll and continuing violence is alarming to many, global attention on Myanmar has been overshadowed by the Russia-Ukraine war, the Taiwan Strait crisis and the conflict in Gaza. Barring international sanctions, humanitarian assistance and joint condemnations, not enough is being done to end the conflict. For regional actors like India and China, however, the Myanmar crisis is not a distant one as they are acutely impacted by the conflict precisely due to their close geographical proximity. 

Myanmar’s northern border with China has become an economic and strategic challenge to Beijing’s interests as China is heavily invested in Myanmar on both these fronts. India, on the other hand, is faced with the biggest humanitarian and security crisis, with the refugees entering India posing an immediate security challenge. Faced with their respective challenges in Myanmar, China and India have outlined various strategies to protect their interests.

Though Beijing supports the military junta materially, it has been moving very cautiously in view of its own strategic and economic interests...

China’s strategic gamble 

Soon after the military coup, China opted for a pro-civilian approach and condemned the violence, in view of coup leader General Min Aung Hlaing’s anti-China stance in the past. However, in the last three years, the Chinese strategy in Myanmar has evolved tremendously, including adopting an upfront and direct approach to engage the military junta.

This photo taken on 4 February  2024 shows destroyed buildings and houses following fighting between Myanmar's Military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Nam Hpat Kar, Kutkai township in Myanmar's northern Shan State. (AFP)
This photo taken on 4 February 2024 shows destroyed buildings and houses following fighting between Myanmar's Military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Nam Hpat Kar, Kutkai township in Myanmar's northern Shan State. (AFP)

In April 2023, secretary of the Yunnan Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China Wang Ning visited the capital city Naypyidaw, indicating a rapprochement. This was further solidified by then Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s visit on 3 May 2023. 

After Russia, China is also the second largest supplier of arms to Myanmar amid global sanctions. Though Beijing supports the military junta materially, it has been moving very cautiously in view of its own strategic and economic interests, unlike Russia, which was the only country coming to the rescue of military junta chief General Min Aung Hlaing during the coup, and had continued to supply arms to fight the ethnic armed rebels that are demanding the restoration of democracy. 

For China, Myanmar holds strategic significance due to its direct access to the Indian Ocean via the Bay of Bengal. This access is crucial for facilitating the movement of oil and gas from Africa and the Middle East, thereby establishing China as a dominant power in the Indian Ocean region.

Amid competition from regional and global players such as India and the US, who advocate for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar, China is faced with both a strategic imperative and the need to protect its substantial investments in the country, valued in the millions.

China’s balancing act involves bargaining for the security of its investments in Myanmar because both parties have strongholds in different geographies. 

Bargaining to stabilise trade routes

In terms of economic interests, China is the largest investor in Myanmar, accounting for 55% or US$3 billion of total FDI in Myanmar. The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a key economic and strategic link in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, has pushed Beijing to pursue a cautiously driven strategy. 

By supporting the junta financially, militarily and diplomatically, Beijing seeks to continue the ongoing infrastructure projects, including the CMEC. At the same time, winning over the rebels has been a perilous task for Beijing as they continue to attack Chinese projects and sport an anti-China posture. China’s balancing act involves bargaining for the security of its investments in Myanmar because both parties have strongholds in different geographies. 

This photo taken on 4 February 2024 shows a woman sitting next to a cat in front of her house damaged following fighting between Myanmar's Military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Nam Hpat Kar, Kutkai township in Myanmar's northern Shan State. In late October, an alliance of ethnic minority fighters launched a surprise offensive in northern Shan state, capturing territory and taking control of lucrative trade routes to China. (AFP)
This photo taken on 4 February 2024 shows a woman sitting next to a cat in front of her house damaged following fighting between Myanmar's military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Nam Hpat Kar, Kutkai township in Myanmar's northern Shan State. In late October, an alliance of ethnic minority fighters launched a surprise offensive in northern Shan state, capturing territory and taking control of lucrative trade routes to China. (AFP)

Beijing is aware of how dependent all parties in Myanmar are on it to handle their military needs, so it is able to exert influence on them, especially parties along the China-Myanmar border, to stabilise critical trade routes connecting Yunnan province to the Indian Ocean. 

Since the launch of Operation 1027 in October 2023 by the Three Brotherhood Alliance (TBA), the military junta has faced the biggest defeat in the Shan State as TBA has captured two dozen towns and hundreds of military outposts. The Three Brotherhood Alliance of three ethnic rebel groups — the Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Force, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army — has reportedly received support from Beijing. Chinese support for TBA has especially grown after the junta regime failed to capture the online fraudsters based in the northern province of Myanmar, who have been siphoning millions of dollars from China. 

China has been successful in securing some assurance from both parties for the protection of Chinese border residents and its investments across the country, particularly the CMEC. 

In December 2023, China brokered a peace agreement between the military junta and the TBA. However, within a week, the agreement was torn up by the two parties, and the conflict regained momentum. Some analysts see this as a failure of Beijing’s diplomatic efforts, but that is only partly true.

In China's view, the political dynamics "inside Myanmar," including the junta's relationship with rebel groups, and the parties' shared goal of finding a consensus on a political solution, are less important; instead, how it impacts Beijing’s interests and investments is taken seriously.

Certainly, China would not like to get involved in the political affairs of Myanmar, which it has time and again emphasised in its official statements. The official Chinese approach has been based on security and investment considerations. 

In doing so, China has been successful in securing some assurance from both parties for the protection of Chinese border residents and its investments across the country, particularly the CMEC. 

India fences the border 

Myanmar is a key geographical piece in India’s ”Look East” policy, which the Narendra Modi-led government has reconfigured as the “Act East” policy aimed at connecting India’s northeastern region with Southeast Asia for connectivity, economic cooperation and developing strategic partnerships.

Just like China, India also seeks greater influence in the Indo-Pacific region, but Delhi’s intent closely aligns with its three Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) partners of the US, Japan, Australia — to counter Chinese influence. 

People who fled Myanmar carry their belongings across a bridge that connects Myanmar and India at the border village of Zokhawthar, Champhai district, in India's northeastern state of Mizoram, India, 15 November 2023. (Chanchinmawia/Reuters)
People who fled Myanmar carry their belongings across a bridge that connects Myanmar and India at the border village of Zokhawthar, Champhai district, in India's northeastern state of Mizoram, India, on 15 November 2023. (Chanchinmawia/Reuters)

In terms of investments and infrastructure development, India has closely aligned its interests with Myanmar through the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Port Project agreed upon in 2008 by the two governments. The project connects India’s eastern seaports to Myanmar’s Sittwe Port and further East India through Myanmar using sea, river and road. However, due to the ongoing conflict and the security situation in Myanmar, progress on the project has been slow. 

The mass exodus from Myanmar to India does not only include the civilian population, but hundreds of junta soldiers who have entered India equipped with arms, presenting a security nightmare.

Refugee influx and security concerns

The people-to-people ties and close cultural affinity between the two countries have, for the longest time, been facilitated by a soft border between India and Myanmar. But the other side of a thousand-plus miles of land border has presented a civil war-like situation to India.

The influx of refugees from Myanmar has posed a significant challenge for India over the past decade, and this issue has been exacerbated since the Myanmar coup. As of July 2023, the UNHCR reported that the number of new arrivals entering the bordering Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram stands at 600, following increased tensions in Myanmar from the Chin and Sagaing States. This raises the total tally of refugee arrivals from Myanmar to India to approximately 53,500 since the coup in February 2021.  

This situation raises concerns regarding border security, demographic shifts, and the growing resistance from local communities in India's northeastern states, particularly in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram, where refugees are seeking shelter. 

The mass exodus from Myanmar to India does not only include the civilian population, but hundreds of junta soldiers who have entered India equipped with arms, presenting a security nightmare. The ongoing ethnic conflict in India’s Manipur state has been linked to migrants coming from Myanmar. The chief minister of Manipur and India’s home minister both blamed the illegal infiltrators for the ethnic inferno in the state. 

The need for a balanced approach

As a result, India has opted for a balanced approach to engaging with the central authority — the military junta — and the rebel forces based in Rakhine, Kachin and Chin States that border India. This balanced approach primarily focuses on advocacy for the restoration of democracy, which is very much in sync with Western understanding of the Myanmar crisis but different from Chinese adherence to keeping itself away from proposing any such solutions. 

At the same time, Delhi does not wish to antagonise the junta regime as it may double India’s security concerns on the border. Also, an unhappy junta aligning with China will not be in India’s interests when it comes at the cost of losing the regional power title and making the border more hostile.

India has announced that it will fence the entire 1643-kilometre-long border with Myanmar to facilitate better surveillance and a patrol track.

Meanwhile, in terms of policies to curb mass refugees entering India, Delhi came up with a Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in 2019. The Indian government promises to implement the act before May 2024 in view of the security situation rising out of Myanmar. 

An Indian national flag flies next to an immigration check post on the India-Myanmar border in Zokhawthar village in Champhai district of India's northeastern state of Mizoram, India, 16 March 2021. (Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters)
An Indian national flag flies next to an immigration check post on the India-Myanmar border in Zokhawthar village in Champhai district of India's northeastern state of Mizoram, India, on 16 March 2021. (Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters)

In addition, India has announced that it will fence the entire 1643-kilometre-long border with Myanmar to facilitate better surveillance and a patrol track. Fencing along the border will severely impact the free movement of border communities, both in terms of mobility and access to local markets and shared natural resources like fishing and farming. It remains to be seen how India handles the rugged foresters and rebel hinterlands in fencing the border.   

While the junta regime's grip has loosened in the face of rebel advances in multiple states, the prospect of its complete ouster does not ensure a swift return to democracy.

Given the influential roles of China and India, who maintain ties with both the junta and the rebels, it is imperative for the global community to advocate for a peaceful, negotiation-based resolution to the conflict. This approach offers the best chance for stability and the eventual restoration of democratic governance in the affected regions.

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