Tag Archives: OBOR


To choose or not to choose: That is the question for Myanmar

Liam Brewin Higgins

Politics | Southeast Asia


The low sonorous murmurs of Buddhist prayer rising above the sea of twinkling golden stupas becomes distant and distorted, as the startling bright lights of gleaming shopping centres engulfs the crammed streets of downtown Yangon.

Myanmar, like many countries, is a place of contrasts, challenges and complexity.  As an undergraduate student taking part in the ‘Political Economy of Myanmar Course’ this year and a first-time traveller to Myanmar, I became increasingly aware of the great importance of the multi-dimensional relationship between Myanmar and China. From lively karaoke in Naypyidaw, to the green mountain tops of the Shan mountains and to the smallest villages in between, the cultural and geographical diversity of this country should not be underestimated.

Despite intensifying Chinese economic and strategic interests and considerable support from the USA for Myanmar’s ongoing political transition, Myanmar has engaged on a higher pragmatic bilateral level with China. Myanmar as an emerging Asia Pacific state cannot afford direct and confrontational great power competition manifesting into a potentially dangerous Sino-USA rivalry in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi has thus sought to navigate the complexities of the increasing Sino-USA competition in the Asia Pacific Region, by continuing her father’s overarching post-Second World War emphasis on an independent, pragmatic and non-aligned foreign policy for Myanmar.

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Since the victory of the National League of Democracy in the 2015 elections, Suu Kyi as foreign minister and state counsellor has pragmatically intensified Myanmar’s paukphaw ‘cousin’ relationship with China amid growing uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific. Prior to the NLD’s landslide victory, relations between the Thein Sein government and Beijing cooled because of the stalling of the billion dollar Myitsone Dam project in Kachin State, in what Jürgen Haacke has described as the military’s fear of ‘...undue military, political or economic dependence on China.’ Indeed, Myanmar’s experience of exploitative British colonialism has a created a strong and ‘pervasive’ nationalistic sentiment that sustains much of the Tatmadaw’s hypersensitivity to foreign interests in Myanmar.

Geographically, China is a key and influential actor in Myanmar’s border regions and peace process.  In a recent New York Times article Jane Perlez highlighted China’s continued indirect support of ethnic armed organisations such as the United Wa Army, despite China’s extensive investment in infrastructure projects in Myanmar. The United Wa Army is believed to have the military capabilities to rival or at least challenge the Tatmadaw, with an estimated 20,000 active soldiers, as well as an arsenal of helicopters and tank destroyers allegedly supplied by China. The Wa region is virtually a self-administered area that has more cultural ties with China, rather than with Myanmar. Its close proximity to the border and an association with the illegal narcotics trade in China has even resulted in the circulation of Chinese currency instead of the Burmese Kyat.

President Xi Jinping’s extensive Belt and Road initiative, including the Kyaukphyu oil, and gas pipelines originating in Rakhine State are geostrategic and economic projects that Beijing has focused on in Myanmar. The Kyaukphyu pipeline is considered as economically and strategically significant because it allows Beijing to transport large amounts of oil and natural gas overland from Rakhine State and transport it into Yunnan Province, where it is processed and sent to power the industrial centres further east. The pipelines are currently in operation, allowing China to source energy from the Bay of Bengal without it having to pass through the highly-contested and geostrategically significant Malacca Straits, currently controlled by Singapore. China has also begun constructing a number of deep-sea ports in Myanmar, as part of the ‘string of pearls strategy’, that has also seen China building ports in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.  The People’s Liberation Army Navy is attempting to exercise influence on the waters to China’s East and also in the Indian ocean, making China what Steinberg refers to as a ‘two ocean country.’  China’s economic interests in Myanmar have been focused primarily in terms of developmental investment and these have rarely come into conflict with the interests of the USA.

Under the de facto leadership of the state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar will continue to attempt to pursue a foreign policy that isn’t solely reliant on a foreign actor. It is very probable however, that Myanmar’s desire for democratic reform, greater state unity and foreign investment in a wider regional context of great power competition is going to be increasingly difficult to pursue. Especially given the present situation in Rakhine state which has seen, according to the United Nations’ Refugee Agency, over 300,000 Rohingya refugees escaping violence and fleeing to Bangladesh since the 25th of August 2017.

Particular moments in Myanmar stand out to me as being intensely provocative. Standing at the base of the Shwedagon Pagoda the low hum of afternoon prayers still resonating, I realised the great extent to which the challenges facing Myanmar are inter-connected and intricate. Soaring above thunderous monsoon clouds over the Bay of Bengal, I reflected how wonderful it was to live and breathe research and understand how even the simplest human narratives can create a burning desire to explore and to investigate.

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OBOR: A Checkmate Move in China’s New Great Game?

Toby Warden

Politics | Asia


Announced in 2013, China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) economic blueprint has been heralded by some as ‘the number one project under heaven’. The mega-plan sees the construction of an infrastructure project at sea, connecting both South East Asia and East Africa to China, and a revival of the ancient Silk Road- a trade route that lead the way for Chinese geoeconomic and geopolitical expansion. The ambitious initiative stretches across Central and Western Asia, East Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Although described as having ‘trade relations, financial cooperation and coordinated development policies’ in his sights, Xi Jinping has faced considerable regional headwinds, begging for the question: is OBOR becoming the new realm for regional contestation, despite being framed as a way to transcend popular geopolitical issues?

The leviathan project has been announced at a time when China’s foreign policy has been typified by aggressive assertiveness and proactivity. By purposely excluding the western-orientated Japan and the US, OBOR draws upon Edward Luttwak’s concoction of “geo-economics” and “military strategy”, which sees the “logic of conflict” being pursued through “methods of commerce and trade”. In 2015, Shinzo Abe announced Japan’s $110 billion infrastructure investment program for Asia through the Asian Development Bank (ADB)- the major competitor to OBOR’s AIIB bank. Likewise, the previous US’ previous administration’s ‘Pivot to East Asia’, which focused on the ‘expansion of trade and investment’ reflects a challenge to China’s grand strategy. This informal warfare over economic influence is rattling the current global economic order at its pillars, and China is at the epicentre.

The geopolitical creativity of the blueprint manifests in its ability to take advantage of other’s fragility and instability. The China-Pakistan economic corridor, which will deliver China greater preferential strategic access to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf through the port of Gwadar, runs through Afghanistan and Pakistani tribal areas, including the Gwadar port itself, which has subsequently required a 12,000-strong special unit protection force. Its greater proclivity for corrupt and unstable politics will allow China to assume leadership in a range of security issues. Likewise, the relationship of dependence of these relatively economically, politically and socially fragile countries with the Chinese powerhouse will, as David Arase argues, give China ‘superior leverage in one-on-one economic negotiations’. This relationship gives China the ability to inflict punishment through reduced market access and to incite obstructionism in international organisations at its will.

The anxiety of neo-imperial tendencies and a lack of commercial imperatives have seen international backlash. In April 2017, Australia rejected any involvement in the initiative. As Peter Cai, OBOR researcher for the Lowy Institute, believes, OBOR antagonism and strategic distrust is most prominent in India.

Furthermore, even looking past of what some see as geopolitical expansion through pursuit of Eurasian power, domestic observers are concerned. These financially unsound countries could only add to China’s accelerating burden of debt, which soared to 170% of GDP in 2016. Surrounded in domestic and international worries, Xi Jinping needs to take clear, inclusive and transparent actions to soothe and reassure.

Undoubtedly, OBOR is a major component in China’s grand strategy of national renaissance, the ‘Chinese Dream’ (hence the echoing of the ancient Silk Road). Xi Jinping has agreed with predecessors that China is confronting a “period of strategic opportunity” until 2020, legitimising its actions that pursue great power status. Yet the security environment isn’t as benign as Mr Xi has been taught to believe it is.

The Indian Ocean is, and will for the extended future remain, a significant international space.  Its control by a single security community will always elicit reactionary contest. Possibly motivated by the construction of deep-sea Chinese-built ports, which accommodate the dimensions of Chinese aircraft carriers and submarines in Gwadar, Kyaukphyu and Hambanota, the Modi government has rigorously pursued its ‘Look East’ policy. This has been manifested in the acceleration of the construction of the India–Myanmar–Thailand (IMT) trilateral highway and the reinvigoration of dialogue within the SAARC organisational union to open up more maritime corridors.

While Britain and Russia may have fought for Central and South Asian power in the 19th and 20th century Great Game, China’s OBOR blueprint is a possible checkmate move in the New Great Game. Although competing geopolitical interests and visions stand in the way, the Chinese locomotive has started and it seems there is little to stop it. In Trump’s age of anti-globalisation and Europe’s sweeping populism, Xi Jinping is being served the opportunity to make OBOR the global vehicle for international trade in the 21st century. But if he is truly going to champion our liberal economic order he will need to be efficient. And that means addressing trust deficits, assuring multilateral cooperation and reinforcing the promise that OBOR will serve collective absolute gains for all its members.

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