Jostling in the Bay of Bengal

Jostling in the Bay of Bengal

The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) brings Beijing’s presence right to India’s doorstep in the East

Chinese President Xi jinping. (AFP Photo)

During the recent state visit to Myanmar, the first by a Chinese President in 19 years, President Xi Jinping made new promises to take the “Pauk-Phaw” (mutual fraternity) and comprehensive strategic cooperation to newer heights. The visit, also marking 70 years of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Nay Pyi Taw, was centred on promising the full-fledged support of China to Myanmar through multiple avenues – investment, infrastructure and governance, reflected in the signing of 33 mutual agreements.

In the blueprint for bilateral relations from here on, what stands out is the impetus on the completion of the China–Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a core component of the Belt and Road Initiative. China’s CMEC plan revolves around three pillars – development of the Kyaukphyu port and the Special Economic Zone (SEZ); the China–Myanmar Border Economic Zone; and the development of Yangon city. For India, once the CMEC is completed, New Delhi would find itself right in between two Chinese bridgeheads, the other one being Gwadar in Pakistan, the mouth of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

The Chinese objectives for entering into the Bay of Bengal are fairly simple. While China lacks direct access to the Indian Ocean, its massive energy imports travel across the stretch of the enclosed ocean to Chinese shores via the Straits of Malacca. A string of port facilities, (occasionally also interpreted as the “String of Pearls” by the US and India) across Djibouti, Hambantota, Gwadar and now Kyaukphyu, is an effort to mitigate the geographical handicap. Another aspect is overcoming the sole dependency on the Straits of Malacca, which has also been quoted in the past to be China’s “Malacca Dilemma.” A strategy to transcend that over-dependency has been to explore newer routes – connecting China with the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal through a combination of multi-modal transport network using the coastal states of Pakistan and Myanmar.

China coming down to the shores of the Andaman Sea and its burgeoning relations with Myanmar have deeper implications for New Delhi in two ways. First, Chinese presence is directly competitive for India within the range of its immediate neighbourhood. Second, China-Myanmar relations also depict how the regional order is shaping up, adversarial to New Delhi’s interests.

A functional CMEC means China becoming a stakeholder in the Bay of Bengal with increased militarised presence. With greater energy imports passing the Bay of Bengal, overlooking the Straits of Malacca, an intensified Chinese security presence follows in the region. The Indian apprehensions are drawn from Chinese actions in the South China Sea. In the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal, Beijing is likely to undertake gradual measures to develop sea control and sea denial capabilities. Already, the forays of Chinese submarines into the Andaman Sea have been a steady activity. An incremental Chinese presence directly negates India’s operational space in the region and its aspiration to be a net-security provider.

China’s growing foray into the Bay of Bengal also has implications for shaping the regional order. In a region devoid of connectivity infrastructure and facing severe investment crunch, China’s economic offensive is likely to be received and accommodated, its predatory nature notwithstanding. Deeper partnerships between China and the Bay of Bengal littoral states would mean a shrinking space for India. Additionally, India’s efforts to build a sub-regional framework, primarily through the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) might not gather steam. As the dependency on Beijing grows, India’s own centrality in the region would take a hit.

Turning the Chinese tide backwards in the subcontinent is beyond India’s options currently. Its options range from strengthening regional bilateral relations, underplaying its own ‘big brother’ image and facilitating a sub-regional agency exclusive of China along with speeding up its deliverables and commitments in the region to accentuate credibility. For instance, constant engagement and speeding deliverables in Myanmar is crucial if India wants to infuse life into its ‘Neighbourhood First’ as well as ‘Act East’ policies. If left out in the cold, history will repeat itself. China is likely to take advantage of the vacuum as it did during the period of Myanmar’s international isolation. Xi’s Myanmar visit was also crucially timed when Myanmar has been internationally cornered because of its large-scale human rights violations against the Rohingyas.

What would be interesting in this Sino-Indian jostling in the Bay of Bengal is how the regional actors will react. While discarding the economic and infrastructure gains from China seems unlikely to happen, states like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar will also be wary of India’s geographical proximity and using New Delhi to counter-balance China. Amidst the security dilemma that India and China are locked in in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, the balancing act of the regional actors might convert the Bay of Bengal into a competitive space, if not necessarily a hostile one. A space in which India and China would be vying for influence but neither can afford to risk their core interests escalates the chances of confrontation.

(The writer is an assistant professor at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata)

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