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A file photo of Rohingya refugees at a refugee camp in Bangladesh. Photo: Reuters
A file photo of Rohingya refugees at a refugee camp in Bangladesh. Photo: Reuters

Rohingya crisis and Mandarin geopolitics

The regional strategic dry-cleaning that Bangladesh has been providing will submerge under the blanket of Sino-US realpolitik

China has outlined a conciliatory “three-stage plan" to mediate between Bangladesh and Myanmar to resolve the protracted Rohingya crisis. Its foreign minister Wang Yi, following his visit to Dhaka on 19 November, formally proposed the plan in Nay Pyi Taw. This had a significant influence on Myanmar signing the agreement on return of displaced persons from Rakhine state with Bangladesh on 23 November.

Amid the genocide committed by the Burmese military and the humanitarian catastrophe, the agreement emerged as a tangible option for Bangladesh at the bilateral level. A critical appraisal would claim that the agreement has redrawn the ethnic boundaries of the Rohingya heartland in the northern Rakhine state, with scant possibility for them to return voluntarily. The process of verification of the identity of the Rohingyas could potentially remain a source of dispute that may delay, if not halt, repatriation. But the agreement provides a pathway for the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) and international development partners to be involved in the return and resettlement of the Rohingya population. What remains perhaps as the unseen challenge is Myanmar’s willingness to respect the agreement. Otherwise, the Rohingyas will not be on any dignified path to citizenship.

Apart from the UN endorsements, the Chinese formula and the Donald Trump administration’s declaration of this crisis as a threat to the world are evidence of the emerging new geopolitics in a region where the fourth largest Muslim country in the world—Bangladesh—has become Zbigniew Brzezinski’s geopolitical chessboard. Both China and the US understood that imposing all the burden on Bangladesh could be tempting, but is in no way viable, let alone safe. After all, competition for the Balkanization of South and South-East Asia is conceivably possible.

China and the US anticipate that with the steady rise of the right in the region, a bigger influx of Muslim refugees into Bangladesh could be a reality. Bangladesh is already providing generous shelter to more than 800,000 Rohingya refugees. The Burmese military has long been pushing the Rohingya agenda as a bargaining chip in its many negotiations with China and the West for trade and investment.

Bangladesh’s non-belligerent approach to this crisis has successfully avoided armed conflict situations. But that comes at a price too. In less than three months, 618,000 Rohingyas found refuge in Bangladesh. It has been a mammoth task for the government and the armed forces to ensure biometric registration and humanitarian support in collaboration with international partners. However, a sociopolitical blitzkrieg for Bangladesh came from regional countries. India, for which the current Awami League regime has been the most dependable security guarantor, remained strikingly indifferent to Bangladesh’s agonies. China too refrained from supporting Bangladesh on multilateral platforms.

However, seemingly paradoxically, China’s proactive engagement, since April 2017, in facilitating bilateral solutions came as one of the two stable supports for Bangladesh in dealing with the crisis. The UN, European Union, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have remained useful platforms for multilateral initiatives. Hence, multilateral engagement remains the other solid check against the Burmese atrocity.

Of course, what has become clear is that economic priorities and the Rohingya influx will overwrite Bangladesh’s decade-old geopolitical tilts. The regional strategic dry-cleaning that Bangladesh has been providing will submerge under the blanket of Sino-US realpolitik. China is careful enough to note that the multilateral involvement will enable the global community to audit President Xi Jinping’s ambition to take China to ‘the centre of the world stage’. Perhaps such engagement will measure the level of Myanmar’s integrity, which may decide the course leading to targeted sanctions.

Balancing the global oversight and military macho-ism, China has apparently begun to redeem its leverage on the Burmese generals. The Burmese military’s countless offensives on its ethnic Kachin, Ta’ang and Kokang groups have caused thousands of civilians to flee into China. Eventually, such attacks will dent its magnum opus belt and road initiative and the proposed China-Myanmar economic corridor.

Beijing has been supporting inclusive nationwide ceasefires in Myanmar with $3 million incentives for the peace process between the generals and the rebels. The Rohingya issue is no exception. Moreover, the ineffectiveness of Aung San Suu Kyi, state counsellor of Myanmar, in taming extremism, textbook cases of genocide, and the threat of radicalization certainly gives the West a moral right to enforce the human rights standards that it stands for.

Meanwhile, the Palestine effect of the Rohingya crisis is emerging as a bridging conduit for the sectarianism across the Ummah. The cumulative effect of Rohingya politics is transforming Bangladesh into a compelling geopolitical entity. Beijing and Washington will need to readjust to the new sociopolitical realities in Dhaka.

Shahab Enam Khan is associate professor in international relations at Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh.

This is part of the Young Asian Writers series, a Mint initiative to bring young voices from different Asian countries to the fore.

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