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Oil, gas and geopolitics: behind china's three phase solution to the Rohingya crisis

By Martine van Mil

As the international community watched the Myanmar military carry out its highly controversial counter-insurgency campaign in Rakhine State, Beijing constantly refused to condemn the atrocities perpetrated by Myanmar’s security forces. Instead, China blocked the attempts by the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution condemning the attacks, arguing that foreign interference is not the solution and echoing Myanmar’s official narrative that justifies the attacks on the grounds of fighting terrorism and safeguarding national security.[1] Myanmar’s military campaign, which the UN has called a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’ with possible ‘elements of genocide’, triggered a mass exodus of more than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims who now seek refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh.[2][3] The horrors of their plight are widely covered by the media, including stories of rape, murder and villages burned to the ground. Although Western states have discussed the prospect of sanctions, plans to solve the crisis remained absent. Then things took a different turn. On November 19, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, announced Beijing’s ‘three-phase solution’ to the ongoing Rohingya crisis where it positioned itself as mediator.

Vague on details, the China brokered plan contains a ceasefire phase, followed by the repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar, and then long-term economic development of Rakhine State to address the root cause of the conflict. China, who believes that poverty is the root cause of the conflict, said it is “willing to keep playing a constructive role for the appropriate handling of the Rakhine State issue.”[4] “It is a complex situation and needs a comprehensive solution. Economic development of Rakhine State is needed. China is ready to help,” foreign minister Wang Yi said.[5]

In itself, Beijing’s proposal and self-assigned role as mediator in the dispute between Bangladesh and Myanmar over the Rohingya refugee crisis are laudable. It could compel Myanmar to allow Rohingya refugees to return to Myanmar and alleviate the burden the large influx is posing on Bangladesh’s resources. However, various concerns have been raised about Beijing’s three-phase plan.[6]  

In line with the Myanmar government, Beijing argues the crisis should be resolved through bilateral consultations instead of an international initiative and requests the international community to encourage this approach. This goes counter to Bangladesh’s calls for active involvement of the international community.[7] Contrary to Beijing’s assertion that both Bangladesh and Myanmar have accepted its proposal, Bangladesh has yet to endorse the plan. Bangladesh has expressed skepticism that the now more than 1 million Rohingya refugees who are living in squalid camps on Bangladesh’s border can be repatriated though bilateral efforts alone. Moreover, China’s proposal provides no guarantee that repatriated Rohingya will be allowed to safely return ‘home’. Instead, returnees would be confined in internment camps. “Basically, China wants Bangladesh to stop putting international pressure on Myanmar through the UN and other international bodies. They [China] want to dictate the Rohingya issue,” a Bangladeshi government official said in an interview with Dhaka Tribune, adding: “Bangladesh has held bilateral discussions with Myanmar over the Rohingya issue on numerous occasions, but had failed to make any headway in resolving the crisis.”[8]

Moreover, the plan aims to address the conflict’s root causes through long-term economic development strategies. However, it limits these root causes to economic deprivation, which fails to acknowledge deep-rooted ethnic tensions and key political drivers to the conflict such as the consistent political exclusion of Rohingya including the denial to citizenship and their disenfranchisement prior to the 2015 elections.[9] This focus on economic development suggests China is not seeking to address various human rights abuses or to hold Myanmar accountable for its campaign against the Rohingya. Indeed, it rather suggests China’s role as mediator is geared towards protecting its own economic and strategic interests. China has strong geopolitical and economic interests in Myanmar, and does extensive business in Rakhine State where it is developing the Kyauk Phyu port and establishing a special economic zone.[10] Chinese corporations such as China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), PetroChina, and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) are currently doing business in or offshore Rakhine State.[11] China has long been involved in infrastructural development projects in Myanmar, but lately their relations took a big step forward when President Htin Kyaw closed the deal on the oil pipeline between China and Myanmar after almost a decade of negotiations.[12] The oil pipeline runs next to the existing Shwe-pipeline which carries more than 12 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year from Myanmar’s Rakhine State to China’s Yunnan province. The agreement will allow PetroChina to import oversees oil from Africa and the Middle East, notably Saudi Arabia, via the Bay of Bengal and to transport about 260,000-barrels-per-day through Rakhine State to southwest China. This overland access route reduces transportation time by 30% and allows China to avoid importing oil through the Straits of Malacca and disputed areas of the South China Sea, which provides an additional geopolitical advantage. Myanmar, being a major stakeholder, is set to benefit $7 million per year in right-of-way fees for the pipelines.[13][14] Against this backdrop, China’s proposal to mediate the Rohingya crisis appears to be guided by its own economic and strategic interests.

Although China aims to strengthen its relations with both Bangladesh and Myanmar, China consistently tipped the scale in favour of Myanmar when it comes to the Rohingya crisis. Arguably, China does not want to set a precedent for outside interference in domestic human rights issues, as this could be used against them in their own internal affairs. This raises the question what China’s reaction would be if Myanmar’s security forces were to violate the proposed agreement, for instance by inciting a new cycle of violence against returnees.[15] China does have the economic, diplomatic and humanitarian capacity to steer the Rohingya crisis into calmer waters. Due to its economic ties, it could pressure Myanmar to uphold the ceasefire agreement and to engage in repatriation. The question is how China’s economic interests will determine its course.

 

Sources:

[1] Bequelin, N. (5 December 2017). “Behind China’s Attempt to Ease the Rohingya Crisis” Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/1...

[2] Venkatachalam, K.S. (2 December 2017). “Can China Solve the Rohingya Crisis?” Retrieved from https://thediplomat.com/2017/1...

[3] AFP. (7 December 2017). “China says UN Resolutions ‘cannot solve’ Rohingya Crisis.” Retrieved from http://www.mizzima.com/news-in...

[4] Lee, Y. (20 November 2017). “China draws three-stage path for Myanmar, Bangladesh to resolve Rohingya crisis.” Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/articl...

[5] Quadir, S. (18 November 2017). “China wants Bangladesh, Myanmar to solve Rohingya crisis bilaterally.” Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/articl...

[6] Beech, H. (23 November 2017). “Deal on Rohingya Repatriation Inches Forward, but Hurdles Remain.” Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/1...

[7] See [6]

[8] Zaman, S.S. (18 November 2017). “Bangladesh to reject China’s proposal on Rohingya crisis.” Retrieved from http://www.dhakatribune.com/ba...

[9] ICG. 2016. “The World’s Newest Muslim Insurgency Is Being Waged in Burma.” Crisis Group, December 15. Retrieved from https://www.crisisgroup.org/as....

[10] Corr, A. (31 December 2016). “Exclusive: Asian Diplomat on Chinese Role in Myanmar’s Rohingya Tragedy.” Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/a...

[11] See [10]

[12] Quadir, S. (25 April 2017). “China ready to mediate between Myanmar, Bangladesh over Rohingya row.” Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/articl...

[13] Webb, W. (25 September 2017). “Oil, Gas and Geopolitics: US Hand in Playing the Rohingya Crisis against China.” Retrieved from https://www.globalresearch.ca/...

[14] Reuters. (23 Augustus 2017). “Saudi Aramco to sign China's Yunnan refinery deal in 6 months – Falih.” Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/articl...

[15] See [2]