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China’s role in the Rohingya crisis

Image credit: Cancillería del Ecuador (Flickr: Creative Commons)

As diplomats and foreign ministers met in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw on 20 November for the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), it was China that took the reins in proposing a solution to the Rohingya humanitarian and refugee crisis. Having just come from meeting Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi put forward a three phase plan.

‘The first phase is to effect a ceasefire on the ground, to return to stability and order, so the people can enjoy peace and no longer be forced to flee,’ Wang affirmed. Once a ceasefire is seen to be in place, Wang said Myanmar and Bangladesh should work to find a viable, mutually acceptable solution for the return of the refugees. Whilst Wang declared the solution should be bilateral, he stated China was ‘willing to keep playing a constructive role for the appropriate handling of the Rakhine State issue’. The third phase of the plan is working toward a long-term solution for poverty alleviation, as Wang pinpointed poverty as the root cause of the conflict.

Although China claims both states endorse the proposal and that a ceasefire is underway, there has been no proper evaluation of whether a safe return is advisable or even possible for the thousands of mainly women and children who are still stranded, trying to flee the violence, oppression and hunger in Rakhine state. Human Rights Watch has dismissed the repatriation arrangements, stating ‘The idea that Myanmar will now welcome them back to their smouldering villages with open arms is laughable’.

The long standing crisis re-erupted in late August when Myanmar’s military launched a brutal counter-insurgency after militants attacked security bases in Rakhine state, leading to the mass exodus of over 600,000 Rohingya people. United Nations (UN) officials have condemned the situation as a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’, but the Myanmar government and military continue to deny all allegations of persecution in Rakhine.

Given its burgeoning relations with Bangladesh and well established ‘friendship’ with Myanmar, China has maintained support for both governments throughout the crisis. In late September, China and Russia supported Myanmar in the United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) first meeting on the issue in eight years. China has consistently argued against condemnation or sanctions of Myanmar at the UN because of its important relationship with the state, and also its (arguably selective) commitment to non-interventionist foreign policy.

Guo Yezhou, Deputy Head of the CCP’s international department, stated China would not intervene in this crisis because, ‘Based on experience, you can see recently the consequences when one country interferes in another. We won’t do it’.

Now China is asking the international community and the UNSC to support both states ‘to create the necessary conditions and a good environment’ for the plan to succeed. ‘Actions in the UNSC must help Bangladesh-Myanmar bilateral cooperation to resolve the problem peacefully’, Wang Yi asserted.

Significantly, on 28 September, China delivered 150 tons of aid, including 2,000 relief tents and 3,000 blankets, to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. In line with their support for the Myanmar government, however, the Chinese embassy in Bangladesh said the aid was for the ‘displaced people in the Myanmar-Bangladesh border area’, rather than referring to the ‘Rohingya’ directly—a term the Myanmar government refuses to recognise.

China has a vested interest in Myanmar’s stability and Beijing has repeatedly emphasised the need for peace. Long running civil wars in the border states of Shan and Kachin have periodically led to large influxes of refugees spilling into neighbouring Yunnan province. Further, China has extensive investments in Myanmar, with business interests in timber, gold, and jade as well as billions of dollars in infrastructure projects, such as major oil pipelines, dams and other energy resources. Stability would not only grant China more unfettered access to Myanmar’s markets, but more significantly, the most direct land route to India runs through Kachin State. Connecting the two economies by road has been flagged as a ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ project. Steve Naw Aung, General Secretary for the Kachin Development Networking Group, has lamented ‘They just want peace so they can happily run their businesses’.

Further, as the United States under Trump pulls back from over six years of heavy engagement in Myanmar, China is able to play an even more dominant role. Aung San Suu Kyi is also increasingly relying on China rather than the US on the international stage, stating on a trip to China last year: ‘I do believe that as a good neighbour China will do everything possible to promote our peace process’.

China’s objectives as peacemaker in the Rohingya crisis are hardly humanitarian. Returning the refugees to Myanmar with no international oversight in the name of stability is dangerous, irresponsible and unrealistic. China’s interest in maintaining friendly relations with Bangladesh and Myanmar will inevitably see China continue to play a non-interventionist role, positioning itself as chief mediator between the two states.

Clare O’Meara is the China Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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