The last few days have witnessed Chinese senior officials undertaking trips to various countries and attending meetings to try and resolve and reduce impact of evolving sensitive issues that are casting shadows on their multifaceted bilateral relations.
Towards the end of the first week of September we had a senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee visiting three countries-- Myanmar, Spain and Greece. It was subsequently explained that these trips were aimed at consolidating mutual political trust, expanding cooperation and creating consensus on certain key issues.
It needs to be mentioned here that China, for nearly one year has been tackling not only the socio-economic dimensions of the Covid pandemic crisis but also the fall-out resulting from their various disagreements pertaining to trade and tariff with the USA and the European Union. There is also the on-going rumble over their border with India and the Line of Control in the adjoining areas.
As anticipated, Yang has made it clear that he has had a fruitful trip to Myanmar. Apparently, China and Myanmar have agreed to continue maintaining close high-level contact and implementing various facets of the agreement reached during Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to that country in January. This according to Yang would help to formulate an action plan to build the China-Myanmar community with a shared future.
In Myanmar, Yang had an in-depth exchange of views with the Myanmar side on developing relations between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the two sides had identified multiple areas of possible consensus. It has also been made clear that China believes that Myanmar is an important ASEAN member, an organisation that China attaches great importance to and attaches priority in its neighbourhood diplomacy. It has also been reiterated by him that China considers China-ASEAN relations are a driving force for regional development and prosperity and that Myanmar can play an important role in this regard.
He also noted that next year would mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of a dialogue of partnership between China and ASEAN and that enhancing political mutual trust had already been reached between Xi and the leaders of the ASEAN countries. Secondly, Yang pointed out that he, during his visit had stressed on the two sides for promoting mutually beneficial development, and further aligning the Belt and Road Initiative with the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025. Yang has also remarked that the two sides should work closely in the fight against the COVID-19 outbreak, adding that they should actively promote joint prevention and control, and strengthen cooperation in research and development of vaccines and medicines. Lastly, Yang is supposed to have drawn attention not only to the need of ASEAN and Myanmar to maintain regional stability but also to the fact that China is willing to maintain close coordination and cooperation with ASEAN on international, regional and global issues in supporting multilateralism, preserving regional peace and stability and safeguarding international fairness and justice.
It was also clarified that China and Myanmar had decided to actively push forward the construction of the Myanmar-China Economic Corridor so as to take bilateral economic and trade cooperation up to a new level.
However, Bangladesh took note of the fact that there was no reference from China of using their moral, political and economic authority for Myanmar to take the necessary steps to complete the process of repatriating more than one million Rohingya refugees who were forcibly displaced from their homes to Bangladesh because of violence perpetrated by the Myanmar military.
There was also no mention from Yang on the situation in Rakhine and the need to address the long-term causes of the crisis in Rakhine and to create conditions conducive to the safe, voluntary, sustainable, and dignified return of refugees. China, in this context, also needs to encourage Myanmar to set out a transparent and credible plan to implement the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission and the Independent Commission of Enquiry.
All of us need to understand, including China, that Myanmar is also under the obligation to comply with the provisional measures order of the International Court of Justice. Yang, in this regard, might have also encouraged Myanmar to take immediate confidence-building steps that include lifting restrictions on access to health, education and basic services, lifting restrictions on freedom of movement, and implementing the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp closure strategy in Rakhine in line with international standards. Yang, as the senior official from China could have also encouraged Myanmar to intensify its bilateral dialogue with Bangladesh to agree to a durable solution.
Had this been done, China would have been consistent with the views expressed on September 11 in New York in the United Nations by Belgium, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Tunisia, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the United States of America, UN Special Envoy for Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, and Assistant Secretary-General and Regional Director of the UN Development Programme Kanni Wignaraja.
China's efforts directed to Europe has seen the senior Chinese official going to Spain and Greece to further step up political dialogue and the synergy of policies so as to upgrade the level of strategic cooperation and mutual trust. Yang also said that they had hailed the progress China had made in containing the COVID-19 outbreak and in resuming work and production. China apparently has also assured these countries and the European Union that it would be part of their strategies for economic recovery. This would include deepening cooperation in export of agricultural products, renewable energy, smart cities, electric cars, e-commerce and digital communications. China and Greece had also agreed to further push forward the Piraeus port cooperation project. China has also agreed to step up cooperation in the fight against the virus, the development of vaccines and drugs, as well as the production and sales of anti-epidemic supplies, and to jointly support the leading role of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the world's fight to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.
During the visit to Europe the Chinese delegation also underscored that this year marks the 45th anniversary of the establishment of the China-EU diplomatic relations. Consequently, both sides need to appreciate the significance of upholding multilateralism, safeguarding the development rights of people in all countries, and jointly coping with global challenges.
This was focused by China because, according to them, in recent times, unilateralism and protectionism had disrupted and damaged international coordination and cooperation and had cast a shadow on the economic and social development of countries across the world. Multilateralism, it was pointed out, constituted an important foundation for the operation and development of multilateral mechanisms that can play an effective role in safeguarding world peace and bolstering common development and global governance.
There is no doubt that China was correct in this estimation. One wishes however that like the United States it does not get carried away with transactional diplomacy.
China is also exerting itself in containing the osmotic effects of the Hong Kong and South China Sea imbroglio. China's rapid buildup of bases, naval forces and long-range air force in the South China Sea and beyond has unnerved its neighbours, who now seek closer defence ties with each other. Australia and India has signed a naval and logistical cooperation defence pact in June. Japan is also trying to strengthen ties with India, Australia and other ASEAN states and is pushing plans for further cooperation in an effort to form an alliance that is able, with the US help, to counter any potential aggression from China. This dynamics is casting its own impact on the ASEAN region.
The disputed Sino-Indian border, which stretches some 3,500km along some of the world's most rugged terrain, is also in a state of instability after soldiers from the two countries clashed violently in June in the remote Galwan River Valley. Today, the two militaries remain poised eyeball-to-eyeball in Ladakh. China also has to face the fall-out of the recent border skirmishes in the contiguous sub-region between India and Nepal and the adjoining region with Bhutan.
Fortunately, better sense has prevailed. One needs to particularly thank Russia for playing a constructive role in this regard. Their intervention enabled the Indian and Chinese Ministers for Defence to meet and try and achieve a degree of patience instead of flexing their muscles. Subsequently, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation convened in Moscow has also enabled their respective Foreign Ministers to sit down together and try to identify a peaceful way forward.
The United States has offered its support to India and is carefully monitoring the situation. However, by leaning towards Russia, India seems to have followed the right direction. Any US involvement would have made matters more complicated for them.
Let us wait and see how the matrix now evolves.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance. firstname.lastname@example.org