I wrote this article in October last year. Situation on the ground has changed with the military coup on 1 February 2021 in Myanmar. But to me, there does not appear to be a reason for falling in line with the Western democracies.
This is because in the larger interest of India, Japan and Australia, our presence in a meaningful way in Myanmar will be the only way to prevent the country from becoming a pariah state — deeply in Chinese influence now, but on the verge of becoming an enigmatic fragmented state.
The safety, national integrity, connectivity, trade of India and some likeminded democracies of Asia, and the South China Sea (SCS) ecosystem cannot be separated from that of the Indian Ocean.
It is four months since the introduction of military autocratic regime, followed by a civil disobedience movement, violent clashes with some of the armed ethnic groups carrying the legacy of armed insurgencies, tactical support by China and Russia to the junta, and slapping of economic sanctions by the US, UK and Western countries are all adding up to the creation of the enigmatic situation in Myanmar.
To compound this situation, the National Unity Government (NUG) has lost faith in the questionable efforts by Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) members, and Myanmar continues to reel under a deadly crackdown on protesters, economic stalemate, violent resistance from armed ethnic groups, and now guerilla-style civil resistance across the country.
Covid-19 ‘cold war’ has already set in with the US-China trade war and the expansionist design of China under the influence of the Middle Kingdom Syndrome at the centre. This has led to the need to create a non-Sino centric world order and this act has already started to roll.
At the onset, I would state that Myanmar — a member of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), may be one of the key countries in the Indo-Pacific Region, where the newly-forged partnership of India, Japan and Australia may be robustly developed for a new sustainable supply chain.
From the Indian perspective, any such venture in Myanmar assumes special significance as it is in the immediate vicinity of the North Eastern Region (NER), and hence fulfills the purpose of two fundamental pillars of India's foreign policy viz the ‘neighbourhood first’ and ‘act east’.
Such a step will also be in the interest of Myanmar because it’s a rich storehouse of strategic minerals like titanium, tin, tungsten, molybdenum, tantalum, rare earth metal (REM) and Lithium, and maybe a source of raw material for modern-day high-tech industries including solar energy, wind energy, green energy, automobile, military hardware, space science, electronic industry, and also semiconductor chip etc — in a new world order, which is transparent, believes in multilateralism, security of the territorial boundaries, employment, secured eco-system, equitable distribution of resources of all hues.
Before elaborating the key status of Myanmar for the development of Japan-India-Australia Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI), it would be prudent to refresh the readers of two facts — one, Myanmar remained a tributary state to the Qing Empire (1644-1912) of China. Two, ever since mid-nineteenth century — just after the independence of Myanmar from the British rule (1824-1948) this country has remained a pariah for decades.
The rich resources of strategic minerals of Myanmar were ignored by the world and particularly India. But the Dragon walked into its erstwhile tributary state and made deep footprints over its mineral and other natural resources.
At this stage, it would not be out of place to define ‘tributary state’ as an independent state technically in pre-modern times with internal autonomy but some degree of subordination to a more powerful state in the vicinity. China is one country, which lays all its territorial claims and business rules on its own terms, and in the process has drawn leaves from its history to frame the rules.
A few sentences about the history of Myanmar-China relations maybe prudent before elaborating on the present-day behaviour of Beijing. Myanmar has always been an independent nation. Though Chinese emperors of Ming and Qing dynasties and Mongol (1287) kings did invade Myanmar several times from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries but could never conquer. They succeeded in making Myanmar a tributary state, and had substantial influence over it.
Even after Anglo-Burma wars when Myanmar came under British rule, tributes were sent to China by Myanmar. This pre-modern times system discontinued after the independence of Myanmar from the British rule in January 1948. But the international geo-political events then left Myanmar as a pariah state, making it a happy playground for the Dragon to move forward under the Middle Kingdom Syndrome.
For decades, it continued with unbridled exploitation of the rich mineral and other land resources of that country. The mineral resources from Myanmar were the raw materials for the fast-changing modern-day industry and technology in China.
But this is twenty-first century when the collective conscience of the world would revolt against the idea of any country claiming, wanting/threatening to occupy, land and maritime areas that are not its own as well as any country that tries to enforce a status of satellite state for the smaller or weaker country.
Shortly after the end of the Second World War, an era of Cold War between the US and Soviet Union set in. This was a period of heightened tensions and competition for global influence between the US and USSR which lasted until 1991.
After the end of the US-USSR Cold War, the insularity of the erstwhile guardians of the global economy exposed the unattended global commons to the assertiveness of the Dragon which had started developing supply chain in which trade and technology became more and more China centric.
Simultaneously, numerous geostrategic platforms, initiatives like Belt and Roads Initiative (BRI), String of Pearls, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) were floated and finally a deeply Sino centric world order came into being which was not fair, free, inclusive and transparent .
In an earlier article, I had elaborated upon some mining/mineral exploration projects by a Chinese company belonging to Chinese government with a junior Australian partner wherein norms on environmental, human welfare, forest etc, were flouted. Information was put under the warp and local commune was ignored and deprived of their rights.
The advantage with China is that it has been steadily exploiting its numerous mineral resources for decades and in that process it has got geological data to explore for more minerals that are critical to a host of modern high-tech industries.
A classic case is its clandestine operation in targeting some highly-critical metals like titanium, REMs, chromite etc, in Rakhine state in the early 2000s. Titanium and other critical minerals, which were hitherto unknown to be present in Myanmar are now reported to be found in the beach sand of Rakhine state, and hence caught the attention of the Chinese companies, who have carried out exploration around Rathidaung Tsp and Aungmaw coastal belt in the Rakhine state for almost seven years before 2013.
They were given permission to explore by the local state government but never made the findings public or known to the government. There was a local resentment against this exploration. So it was stopped but reportedly took off in 2010 again. "BNI Multi Media Group" reported on 28 January 2016 that a Burmese company, backed by the Chinese government, started exploratory studies to determine the presence of titanium and other aluminum minerals (nearly 20 odd). Geologically, this amounts to deliberately hiding the information of the mineralogy of the beach sand.
The special interest of China in the heavy mineral beach sand (HMBS) resources of Rakhine state should have been looked into very carefully because it gives the Dragon the access to not only the highly-touted strategic metal titanium but also some other equally highly strategic metals, which were never disclosed.
A discussion with a geologist suggests that the heavy mineral sand (HMS) of that beach could also contain either monazite/xenotime/bastenesite, which are source materials for REMs.
Interestingly, in the immediate adjoining coastal tract of Bangladesh, in the vicinity of Cox Bazar, Teknaf and Bdarmokam, substantial geological and geochemical studies were carried out by the scientists of Bangladesh. As a result, considerable amount of HMS like ilmenite, zircon, garnet, leucoxene, monazite etc, along with REM like neodymium, yttrium etc have been identified, and an Australian Company is already engaged in prospecting of these strategic HMS and REM.
The distribution of HMS and REM in Bangladesh and Myanmar may have fair amount of similarity with respect to its provenance on the land and the long shore currents.
As per the study report of Global Environmental Institute (GEI), the state-owned Chinese companies in Myanmar under their investment programme in that country have preferred investments and have tied up with the government of Myanmar enterprises (under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment Conversation or MONREC).
The Chinese companies listed in the report do not figure in any mining or exploration activities in Rakhine state, and moreover their target minerals include Cu and other base metals, Au (gold), Sn (tin), W (tungsten), Coltan, but does not include HMBS or ilmenite.
However, the ground truth reveals that small unlisted or unknown Chinese companies like Ray Myaeshin, Yemyaeshin and ShweShepway (meaning gold finder in Burmese), had prospected in 2007 and they got one-year permit from the Ministry of Mines.
The profile of these unlisted companies is not found in public domain. It was reported that the samples were taken to Beijing and elsewhere for mineralogical and chemical test but the results were never made available in the public domain. Beach sand was also purchased by some Chinese company.
According to a report titled "Western Burma State Government Mining Projects…" written by Nyein Nyein, senior reporter in the Irrawaddy on 7 October 2013, ShweShepweye and Luxembourg firm Boulle Mining Group were granted permit for mining of Al and Ti deposits in the beach sand located in northern Rakhine by the regional government.
These deposits are along Rathedaung and Maungdaw townships. The owner of the Luxembourg firm, Jean Raymand Boulle is a controversial person with his business practices under a UN panel scrutiny. Wunlatt Foundation — a civil society group — objected to the project by the Chinese in a shady way but one of the ministers from the region was in favour of the project.
A discussion about the clandestine activity of China in Rakhine state needs special attention in the interest of Myanmar, India and perhaps even Bangladesh because whatever China does, is not happenstance.
China bats for multilateral order every now and then but its aggressive action as seen in South China Sea, Taiwan, termination of Hong Kong autonomy, encroachment and hostilities on India-China border, Tibet, Mongolia and Nepal — the latest in this long list, belie all International rules and co-operation.
China was signatory of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in December 1982 and ratified it in May 1996, but has blatantly violated this Convention of Sea Laws thereby infringing upon the sovereign rights of SCS member countries on their marine resources, exclusive economic zone and trade etc.
It created numerous artificial islands in SCS within disputed maritime boundary with Vietnam and Malaysia, without any proper environmental impact assessment. It will thus cause damage to the sea floor eco-system, which has been essential for human life in the coastal regions of the member countries, their nutrient recycling and pollution filtration.
This may also influence the coastal erosion, wave pattern, long shore current pattern and in turn may affect the distribution and replenishment of heavy minerals sand on the beaches of Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia.
Similarly, its surreptitious activities in Myanmar as a whole and in some states like Rakhine, Chin etc, need not only to be watched with caution by India and Myanmar, but should be followed up with action on the ground, because the Dragon wants a weak Myanmar with poor humanitarian record.
Promoting insurgency in the country by supplying arms and money to at least seven armed ethnic insurgent groups including Arakan Army on the one hand, and sluicing massive investments under various geopolitical platforms and initiatives like OBOR, CMEC, BRI, perhaps may be termed a mix of debt trap warped under ‘dollar diplomacy’ with ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’ or a prelude to ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’ followed by forceful subjugation of the territory. By this, it wants to keep India, West and some East Asian countries at bay.
Some of the critical mineral resources are the key to the development of all stable sustainable supply chains that would strengthen a Sino-centric world order. And Rakhine state is incidentally rich not only in oil and gas but hosts minerals like wollastonite, titanium, garnet etc, REE as placer deposits.
Myanmar is not known to be on the titanium and REE map of the world. The country would do well to have a greater and transparent say in the exploration and exploitation and basic value addition of these critical metals. The dubious behaviour of China in prospecting of beach sand has been far from transparent and thus there is a need for Myanmar to ensure transparency and equitable distribution of the benefits.
In this context, Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, Shan, Tanintharyi, Kayien and Mon State assumes very special significance for Myanmar as well as member countries of QUAD nations and a few other initiatives, who want to be a key component in the development of a new resilient initiative leading to the formation of a new world order minus China in the Indo-Pacific region. This resilient initiative would be transparent and would be based on equitable distribution of the resources and the benefits accrued from the judicious utilisation of all resources.
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