On 25th August 2017, in response to militant attacks against the government, the Myanmar military launched “clearance operations” against its Rohingya Muslim population. This involved the burning down of villages, the murder of civilians – including at least 730 children – and the sexual abuse of women and girls in the predominantly Muslim northern area of Rakhine state. In addition to representing what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights branded a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, such atrocities have triggered an increasingly worrying refugee crisis for the neighbouring state of Bangladesh as hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas flee there to escape the persecution and violence.
As these atrocities have shocked the conscience of humanity, commentators around the globe have called for the international community to act. In considering what an effective international response might look like, the role of China cannot be overlooked. Aside from being its most powerful neighbour, China also wields significant influence in Myanmar which could be crucial to resolving the Rohingya crisis.
China and Myanmar have close economic ties to one another. A major part of their economic connection concerns the Rakhine state itself, where China has been funding a massive infrastructure project – the Kyauk Phyu deep seaport. China’s stakes in the project are of such a large scale that it has roused serious concern within Myanmar and other regional states over the economic control that China holds over the country. In addition to forging a strong economic link between China and Myanmar, the project gives China cause for concern about any instability in the Rakhine state which might spill over to the area where their investments lie. This situation provides ample reason, even in terms of pure self-interest, for China to step up and engineer a solution to the crisis.
China has also exercised substantial diplomatic influence in Myanmar. It has taken on a prominent mediating role between the government and the Kachin rebel ethnic group, who have been fighting for independence since the military coup in 1962, with the majority of violence taking place across the Sino-Myanmar border. It is also clear that Myanmar is growing increasingly dependent on China for maintaining their reputation in the international arena. Given the economic and diplomatic leverage they hold, China is arguably the most capable actor of playing a constructive role in regards to the Rohingya.
So what has China said and done in relation to the Rohingya crisis? So far, their language has been nuanced and careful. In line with the sentiment of the Myanmar government, it has declined to use the terms “Rohingya” or “refugee”. It has avoided assigning any blame, focusing instead on finding a solution. The solution which China has proposed comes in the form of a three-point plan. This calls for: firstly, ensuring a ceasefire in the Rakhine state; secondly, facilitating bilateral dialogue between Myanmar and Bangladesh to find a workable solution for returning those displaced; and thirdly, pursuing a long-term solution based on poverty alleviation. However, this plan has been criticised, mainly in regards to the second point: it is feared that with no major change in governmental policy, the Rohingya will simply face continued persecution upon return. Many have also argued that this diplomatic initiative is motivated only by Chinese economic interests.
The issue of motivation is one often raised by commentators on China’s role in the international arena. When it comes to the Rohingya crisis, it is disheartening to grasp that these large-scale atrocities themselves are insufficient to provoke a moral reaction from states to ameliorate the situation. Nevertheless, it must be accepted that fundamentally actors such as China will behave in accordance with their own interests. There are certainly many less commendable factors which could play a role in China’s decision-making. As discussed above, it is likely that China will be economically motivated given its investments in the Rakhine state.
It is also important to consider how China’s own human rights violations might play a role in its deliberations. Specifically, China’s treatment of its own Muslim minority is significant. In the Xinjiang province, China’s Uighur Muslim population have been subject to long-term repression by Beijing and, as the Uighurs have grown militant in recent years, the police response has been brutal and the repression has intensified. Consideration of this fragile and morally reprehensible situation has likely contributed to China’s resistance to condemn Myanmar for also responding harshly to militancy by its Muslim population. Motivations such as these might well contribute to China playing a role in the crisis – whether to protect their investments or to address Islamic militancy, drowning out traditional human security arguments on mass displacement and food security. These issues may well become chickens that come home to roost in Beijing, especially in context with impacts of mass migration, water shortages and the social disintegration of Syria.
However, we can also reasonably conceive of Chinese motivations which could lead to positive results for the Rohingya people. As China now holds a firm place as one of the great powers of our international community, it faces increasing pressure to step up to the responsibilities required of such a role. For great powers, peacemaking and humanitarian response is crucial to reputation-building. When it comes to atrocity prevention in particular, although China has remained opposed in principle to the Western framework of atrocity prevention encapsulated in the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), there has been evidence of China pursuing policy which, in line with the normative underpinnings of R2P, advances its own form of atrocity prevention. Pursuing this policy with positive effect could be a prominent route for China to build its reputation as a great power in the international arena.
In considering past atrocities where China has stepped up to play the major third party role, Darfur is an insightful case. When rebel groups began fighting the Sudanese government in 2003, the Government responded with a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Darfur’s non-Arabs – Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, has since been indicted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. In the face of the Sudanese Government’s longstanding refusal to engage, the Chinese UN ambassador played a decisive role in gaining their acceptance for a joint UN-AU peacekeeping force, which was crucial to alleviating the crisis. They also contributed a significant amount of time, effort and money to facilitating the peace process, which the Chinese President emphasised should include the Darfur rebels. Importantly, China was only able to have such an impact in Darfur due to its unique economic leverage there. Many analysts argued that this was a new venture for China which was far outside of their usual diplomatic comfort zone. It was certainly a venture that had significant positive effect for China’s reputation in the international community.
The parallels between the Darfur crisis and that of the Rakhine state are clear. Like it did in Darfur, China has the level of influence necessary to play a decisive role in altering the policy of the Myanmar government. The question is whether it will once again take this opportunity to build upon its international reputation as a great power; or whether it will act solely in accordance with economic goals or in consideration of its own Muslim minority crisis. With the international community generally split on its policy for preventing atrocities, there are unpromising prospects for an effective coordinated response to the Rohingya crisis. Given their close connection to Myanmar, China should use this as an opportunity to demonstrate their own commitment to atrocity prevention by facilitating a positive outcome for the Rohingya.