How China, India and Bangladesh could be drawn into the Myanmar conflict

The 2021 military coup in Myanmar sparked a new civil conflict between Myanmar government forces, the Tatmadaw, and perhaps a dozen insurgent groups seeking their own ethnic states. Many of these conflicts have cross-border implications, but the insurgency in Rakhine State has particular implications for the wider region. China has already been embroiled in the conflict in Rakhine State to protect key interests, and India and Bangladesh may soon follow. This can produce unpredictable results.

For the past decade or more, Myanmar’s Rakhine State, which borders southern Bangladesh, has been the scene of brutal ethnic cleansing. In 2017, the Tatmadaw, in conjunction with local nationalists, violently expelled more than 700,000 Rohingya – mostly Muslims – from Myanmar. Almost a million people now live in deplorable conditions in the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, southern Bangladesh.

The government of Bangladesh considers that the presence of the Rohingyas in their territory is only temporary and that, one way or another, they must be repatriated to their homeland in Rakhine. But all attempts were blocked by Myanmar authorities.

The Tatmadaw is in retreat and could be expelled from much of Rakhine State. This has potentially significant consequences for the wider region.

The situation has been further destabilized in recent months by renewed fighting between the Tatmadaw and the local separatists, the Arakan army, which have taken control of large areas, including the north, much of the center of Rakhine and the border with Bangladesh. The Tatmadaw is in retreat and could be expelled from much of Rakhine State. This has potentially significant consequences for the wider region.

China has important interests in Rakhine, mainly the protection of its transport and economic corridor between southern China and the Bay of Bengal, a key part of the Belt and Road Initiative. This includes the newly built port of Kyaukphyu on the Bay of Bengal and a planned pipeline and road and rail links between the port and southern China. Together, these give China direct access to the Bay of Bengal for the first time in history, with far-reaching implications for the regional balance of power.

With renewed fighting in Rakhine, China is seeking to protect its investments in the Kyaukphyu Corridor by providing substantial support for the Arakan Army, including money and weapons. This allows China to leverage against the Tatmadaw and hedge its bets.

In 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingyas – mostly Muslims – were expelled from Myanmar. About a million people now live in appalling conditions in the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, southern Bangladesh (Allison Joyce/UN Women/Flickr)

Chinese support for the Rakhine Army also offers other benefits, particularly in relation to India’s competing Kaladan project in Rakhine, which would link the Bay of Bengal to northeast India. The Kaladan project includes the construction of new port facilities in Sittwe, a river transport system and a road to the Indian state of Mizoram. When completed, this would provide a direct link between the Indian Ocean and the northeastern states of India, which are otherwise only tenuously connected to the rest of India.

Delhi hopes the Kaladan Corridor will be an engine of economic development in northeast India. It is also expected that it reduce India’s dependence on Bangladesh for transit routes – with important implications for relations between these two countries.

But there have been long delays in completing the Kaladan Corridor, and the Arakan Army recently seized key territory along the corridor, giving it considerable bargaining power with India. It is not clear whether India will make a deal with the Arakan armyor if it will just double its long duration support for the Tatmadaw.

Neighboring Bangladesh also has crucial interests in Rakhine. The fighting in the state is increasingly spilling over the border, thwarting Bangladesh’s hopes of repatriating Rohingya refugees. Apart from questioning whether the Myanmar authorities would ever allow the Rohingya they recently expelled to return, the international community would not approve of the repatriation of refugees to a war zone. It seems unlikely that Bangladesh will be able to go ahead with repatriation in the foreseeable future with the Tatmadaw agreement.

A takeover of Rakhine State by the Rakhine Army would carry risks for all parties involved, including the possibility of achieving lasting stability and security.

For years, Bangladesh has approached its difficult neighbor with great caution, seeking to defuse and demilitarize cross-border abuses. But with frustration building in Dhaka, there may be a hardening in his response and a search for new approaches to the Myanmar problem.

The Tatmadaw says the Arakan army is already finding refuge in ethnically linked communities in remote border areas of Bangladesh. Bangladesh officially denies. But there may be growing temptations in Dhaka to support the ambitions of the Arakan army for an autonomous state. Indeed, the control of Rakhine by the Arakan army probably offers the only realistic path for the repatriation of at least some Rohingyas.

Arakan’s Army recently promised to recognize the citizenship rights of what they call “Myanmar Muslims” and to allow those still remaining in Rakhine to “to participatein any future administration. But many Rohingya view these statements with deep skepticism given long-running Arakanese nationalist sentiments against the Rohingya. Indeed, some recent incidents, such as the shelling of border areas, suggest that the Arakan Army may be trying to stoke tensions between Bangladesh and the Tatmadaw for its own ends.

A takeover of Rakhine State by the Rakhine Army would carry risks for all parties involved, including the possibility of achieving lasting stability and security.

The Tatmadaw’s response is difficult to predict. India, too, has good reason not to see a Chinese-allied group take control of Rakhine. A fully independent Rakhine State could also lead to another break-up of Myanmar, with unpredictable consequences.

Of all internal conflicts in Myanmar, this is the one to watch. The conflict in Rakhine, fueled by great power competition and the Rohingya crisis, could have significant ramifications far beyond Myanmar’s borders.

About Leah Albert

Check Also

Harvard Pledges to Return Hundreds of Native American Hair Samples Held at the Peabody Museum | New

Harvard’s Peabody Museum pledged on Thursday to return hundreds of hair samples taken from Native …