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China’s Xi turns to Myanmar as he push for ‘Belt and Road’ plan

Yangon, Myanmar – Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Myanmar on Friday on his first trip to the country since 2009, and is expected to step up investment in the southeast Asian nation including in the conflict-wracked state of Rakhine, a key link in China’s Belt and Road initiative. Myanmar’s deputy minister of commerce, Aung…

China’s Xi turns to Myanmar as he push for ‘Belt and Road’ plan

Yangon, Myanmar – Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Myanmar on Friday on his first trip to the country since 2009, and is expected to step up investment in the southeast Asian nation including in the conflict-wracked state of Rakhine, a key link in China’s Belt and Road initiative.
Myanmar’s deputy minister of commerce, Aung Htoo, told reporters ahead of the visit that Xi would sign agreements related to the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone and $1.3bn port in Rakhine, where a brutal military crackdown in 2017 led hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee over the border to Bangladesh.
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“Xi has visited almost all ASEAN countries since assuming power in 2013, but Myanmar had been left out until now,” Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the Stimson Center, said in an email to Al Jazeera.
During his two-day visit, Xi is scheduled to meet President Win Myint, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing in capital, Nay Pyi Daw.
When the National League of Democracy under Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi swept into power in 2015, there was an expectation around the world that it would mark a new age of human rights and democracy in a country that had spent decades under military rule.
But with intense criticism, led by many Western countries, on its handling of the Rohingya crisis, China has been able to rebuild its influence with its southern neighbour, analysts said.

Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi: ‘Defending the indefensible’ | UpFront (Special Interview)

Sun said the fallout over the Rohingya crisis, and Myanmar’s current isolation in the international community, had given China an opportunity to win Myanmar over through a “gesture of support”.
“The trip would not happen without the Chinese side being certain about the direction of the bilateral relations going in a positive direction. In other words, the Chinese are confident that China has regained its damaged influence and repaired its tarnished image in the country,” Sun said.
‘Bypassing Strait of Malacca’
In an article published in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar a day before his arrival, Xi expressed confidence that the projects would progress, specifically mentioning the Kyaukphyu project, as well as the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone and New Yangon City developments.
China and Myanmar “need to deepen results-oriented Belt and Road cooperation and move from a conceptual station to concrete planning and implementation,” he wrote.
The Kyaukphyu port would give China direct access to the Indian Ocean, allowing it to bypass the Strait of Malacca.

The Kyaukphyu port project would give China direct access to the Indian Ocean, allowing it to bypass the Strait of Malacca [File: Ye Aung Thu/AFP]

Around 80 percent of China’s oil imports pass through the narrow strait between Malaysia and Indonesia, leaving it vulnerable to blockades or unrest over the disputed South China Sea.
The port, coupled with a planned railway from Kyaukphyu to China’s Yunnan province, would not only bypass the strait, but also be more direct.
Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Myanmar was “probably moving closer to China,” but emphasised that the two countries had been “very close” for years.
“China has been the dominant strategic actor in Myanmar for several decades. But Xi is seeking to keep it that way, with a state visit,” he said in an email to Al Jazeera.
Still different from Cambodia
Kurlantzick also said the visit was “consistent with China’s desire to remain the preeminent external power in Myanmar” and blunt the influence of Japan, which is pushing its own infrastructure projects.
Despite the two countries close relationship, Myanmar has maintained a certain caution about Chinese development.
“I don’t think they are going to accept everything and anything China proposes,” Sun said.
“On that, Burma is categorically different from Cambodia.”
Where Cambodia is effectively a one-party state, Myanmar is at least semi-democratic, and an election is due later this year.

Myanmar quarry: Chinese road project causes division

People have shown they are willing to question development.
The China-backed Myitsone Dam in Kachin State for example, was delayed indefinitely in 2011 after mass protests from local residents and attacks from the Kachin Independence Army.
Xi himself might have an eye on the election too.
The visit “may provide Xi and his entourage a chance to assess the various Myanmar politicians who may be contesting for the leadership in the next national elections,” Kurlantzick said.
Local media has reported that Xi plans to meet representatives of minor parties, and in the run up to the visit Chinese officials met the leaders of various ethnic armed groups in Myanmar, which have been fighting the central government for decades.
‘Fiefdoms’
China’s special envoy for Asian affairs, Sun Guoxiang, met close Chinese allies like the National Democratic Alliance Army and officials from Wa State.
Both groups have carved out fully autonomous fiefdoms within Myanmar’s borders, and both have close ties with China. The government of Wa State welcomed Xi’s visit in a statement, expressing “delight” and hope that the two countries will “live in harmony”.
Guoxiang also met the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed group that has been a major thorn in the Myanmar government’s side, as it tries to carve out a territory of its own in Rakhine – the same state where the Kyaukphyu port is located.
While the AA has complained that the Myanmar government pursues development projects without input from locals, the group does not oppose Chinese investment.
China acts as an intermediary between the AA and the military, a mutually beneficial relationship that gives the rebel group a communication channel and makes China an essential part of the peace process.

Amnesty International has warned that China must stop shielding Myanmar’s generals from international accountability for human rights violations against the Rohingya [Damir Sagolj/AFP]

The Myanmar government is also eager to repair the image of Rakhine after years of violence.
“Having a major project in Rakhine would be a boon to the Myanmar government’s claims of boosting stability and development in Rakhine State,” Kurlantzick said, but added that focusing on development before accountability for human rights violations was “troubling” to some.
Amnesty International is among those troubled, writing in a press release that China must stop shielding Myanmar’s generals from international accountability for human rights violations against the Rohingya.
“With major economic and infrastructure agreements expected to be signed during President Xi’s visit, the absolute lack of transparency over such agreements is deeply disturbing,” said Amnesty’s Regional Director, Nicholas Bequelin, in the statement, adding that investment can only help improve human rights if it benefits the people on the ground.
While the AA may welcome Chinese development, many Rakhine people feel differently.
“We hold the motto that no development without genuine peace,” said Ting Oo, General Secretary of the All Arakan Students’ & Youths’ Congress.
“Right now, most of the development projects across Myanmar are planned and implemented by only a handful of people in power.”
Ting Oo said it made no difference whether the development was Chinese or western, as the current system for approving projects lacked transparency, did not include local people and was poorly regulated.
“Without such minimum requirements, we see no points in supporting a development project, however great the incentives are,” he said.
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China’s ‘provocative’ movements along border thwarted: India |NationalTribune.com

China has carried out “provocative military movements” in the Himalayan border area disputed between the two countries overnight from Saturday to Sunday, according to an Indian army statement, in a fresh flare-up between the two nuclear-armed countries. Indian troops pre-empted Chinese army’s activity on the Pangong Tso Lake in Ladakh, part of which was transgressed by the…

China’s ‘provocative’ movements along border thwarted: India |NationalTribune.com

China has carried out “provocative military movements” in the Himalayan border area disputed between the two countries overnight from Saturday to Sunday, according to an Indian army statement, in a fresh flare-up between the two nuclear-armed countries.
Indian troops pre-empted Chinese army’s activity on the Pangong Tso Lake in Ladakh, part of which was transgressed by the Chinese soldiers in May, the statement said on Monday, adding that Indian troops took steps to thwart the Chinese attempt to “unilaterally change” facts on the ground.
“On the Night of 29/30 August 2020, PLA [People’s Liberation Army] troops violated the previous consensus arrived at during military and diplomatic engagements during the ongoing standoff in Eastern Ladakh and carried out provocative military movements to change the status quo,” the Indian army said in a statement.
“Indian troops pre-empted this PLA activity on the southern bank of Pangong Tso Lake, undertook measures to strengthen our positions and thwart Chinese intentions to unilaterally change facts on ground,” it said.
Army officials from the two sides are meeting to resolve the latest border dispute that comes more than two months after 20 Indian soldiers were killed in fighting that broke out between the two sides in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley.
“Talks have been going on between the two sides since May to resolve these escalating tensions but despite these talks going on there was a very violent clash on the 15th of June, where 20 indian soldiers and an unknown number of chinese soldiers were killed,” Al Jazeera’s Elizabeth Puranam, reporting from New Delhi, said.
“Since then these talks between the two sides have really ramped up and yet the latest statement from the Indian army indicates that they were still far from a solution to this.”
China denies its troops crossed LAC
China’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the allegations made by India. Chinese border troops “always strictly abide by the Line of Actual Control, and never cross the line”, spokesman Zhao Lijian told a news briefing, referring to the the de facto frontier between the two countries.
Both sides are in communication regarding the situation on the ground, he said.
The two Asian giants have held several rounds of military and diplomatic talks to resolve the border dispute that erupted in late April after Chinese troops transgressed into the Indian side of the LAC.

Sino-Indian clash: Disputed border, divided media | The Listening Post (Full)

For months, troops have been locked in a face-off in the western Himalayas, where each side accuses the other of violating their nearly 3,500km-long (2,000 miles) border, most of which remains undemarcated.
The recent border tensions are the most serious in more than half a century.
Accusing each other of instigating the violence, both sides pledged to safeguard their territory but also to try to end the standoff that dramatically changed India-China bilateral relationship.

India has banned dozens of Chinese apps, including widely popular video-sharing app TikTok, and has placed restrictions on Chinese investments amid backlash against Beijing following the deadly border clashes.
India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has termed the latest border stand-off as “the most serious situation after 1962” war with China.
“This is surely the most serious situation after 1962. In fact, after 45 years, we have had military casualties on this border. The quantum of forces currently deployed by both sides at the LAC is also unprecedented,” Jaishankar told Rediff.com in an interview last week.

Sunday’s border violations by PLA in Pangong-Chushul sector are more serious than govt is admitting.China is steadily pushing the Line of Actual Control westwards. The Indian Army wants to stop “dialogue” and take action. But New Delhi is desperate for a negotiated solution.
— Ajai Shukla (@ajaishukla) August 31, 2020

India and China fought a war in 1962 over their competing territorial claims, and the two Asian giants have been unable to agree a permanent border along their frontier.
The ongoing standoff high in the Karakoram mountains is over disputed portions of a pristine landscape that boasts the world’s highest landing strip, a glacier that feeds one of the largest irrigation systems in the world, and a critical link to China’s massive “Belt and Road” infrastructure project.
The faceoff began at three places in April, but by June it escalated and spread to two other places toward the north in Depsang and Galwan Valley where India has built an all-weather military road along the disputed frontier.
On June 15, the situation turned deadly when the rival troops engaged in a night-time clash in Galwan that left 20 Indian soldiers dead. China did not report any casualties.
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US says China’s South China Sea missile launches threat to peace |NationalTribune.com

The United States Department of Defense said on Thursday that Chinese test launches of ballistic missiles in the South China Sea were a threat to peace and security in the region. Confirming reports that China had launched as many as four ballistic missiles during military exercises around the Paracel Islands, the Pentagon said the move…

US says China’s South China Sea missile launches threat to peace |NationalTribune.com

The United States Department of Defense said on Thursday that Chinese test launches of ballistic missiles in the South China Sea were a threat to peace and security in the region.
Confirming reports that China had launched as many as four ballistic missiles during military exercises around the Paracel Islands, the Pentagon said the move called into question the country’s 2002 commitment to avoiding provocative activities in the disputed seas.
“Conducting military exercises over disputed territory in the South China Sea is counterproductive to easing tensions and maintaining stability,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “The PRC’s actions, including missile tests, further destabilize the situation in the South China Sea.” The PRC – or People’s Republic of China – is the country’s official name.
“Such exercises also violate PRC commitments under the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to avoid activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability,” the Pentagon statement added.
Over the past decade China has built up military installations on several disputed reefs and outcrops in the South China Sea to assert its claim over much of the area. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Indonesia also have maritime claims to the sea.

Project Force: How powerful is China’s new navy?

The South China Morning Post reported earlier on Thursday that China launched an intermediate-range DF-26B ballistic missile from Qinghai Province and a medium-range DF-21D missile from Zhejiang Province after a US spy plane reportedly entered a Chinese-designated “no-fly zone” in an area where live-fire naval drills were taking place. 
China described the flight of the US spy plane in the area as a “provocative action”.
‘Aircraft-carrier killer’
The Pentagon said the Chinese military’s August 23-29 military exercises near the Paracels – which it calls the Xisha Islands – were “the latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbors.”
It said the US had urged China in July to reduce its “militarization and coercion” in the region.
Instead, “The PRC chose to escalate its exercise activities by firing ballistic missiles,” it said.
The DF-26B was formally unveiled earlier this month, and is capable of hitting moving targets at sea. The Global Times, a state-run tabloid, dubbed it the “aircraft-carrier killer”.

It is unjustified for the US to impose sanctions on Chinese companies and individuals for involvement in construction activities in their own country. pic.twitter.com/3jpaN9z8v9
— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) August 27, 2020

Earlier on Thursday Beijing criticised Washington over its blacklisting of two dozen state-owned Chinese companies involved in building and supplying China’s South China Sea bases.
“The US’s words grossly interfere in China’s internal affairs … it is wholly tyrannical logic and power politics,” said Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian.
“China will take firm measures to uphold the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies and individuals,” he said.
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China’s own records debunk ‘historic rights’ over disputed seas |NationalTribune.com

Having secured the allegiance of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during a state visit to Beijing in 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping returned the favour when he visited Manila in 2018 promising a new chapter in the two nations’ diplomatic ties and vowing to turn the disputed South China Sea into “a sea of peace”. In…

China’s own records debunk ‘historic rights’ over disputed seas |NationalTribune.com

Having secured the allegiance of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during a state visit to Beijing in 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping returned the favour when he visited Manila in 2018 promising a new chapter in the two nations’ diplomatic ties and vowing to turn the disputed South China Sea into “a sea of peace”.
In a published message to Filipinos just before his trip, Xi recalled how more than 600 years ago, Chinese explorer Zheng He “made multiple visits to the Manila Bay, Visayas and Sulu” areas during his “seven overseas voyages seeking friendship and cooperation”.
The suggestion was that China had been in contact with the archipelago long before Europeans arrived naming it Las Islas Filipinas after Spain’s King Felipe II. It was also a way for Xi to bolster China’s claims in the South China Sea based on its ‘nine dash line’ and long contested by the Philippines, as well as Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.
The problem is that the evidence suggests Zheng never set foot in the future Philippine islands.
“All the scholars all over the world are unanimous: Zheng He never visited the Philippines,” Antonio Carpio said in an online lecture earlier this month. He called Xi’s anecdote “totally false”. The former Philippine Supreme Court justice also presented other official Chinese records that debunk Beijing’s “historic maritime rights” over the South China Sea – thereby raising new questions about its standing in the region as tensions escalate.

South China Sea tensions prevail ahead of The Hague ruling

On Monday, the US raised the stakes saying “Beijing’s claims to offshore resources” across most of the disputed seas were “completely unlawful”. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added that the world would “not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.” In response, Beijing accused Washington of unnecessarily inflaming the situation.
Earlier, the US deployed the warships, USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan to assert what it calls its freedom of navigation in the waters. A sailor on one of the ships told Al Jazeera that the operations could last for weeks. China held a large-scale naval exercise in the area from July 1 to 5.
‘History vs facts on the ground’
Historical records may not favour China in the continuing debate on the control of the South China Sea,  through which as much as $5.3tn in global trade passes annually.
Refuting the Chinese president’s claim, Carpio, the Filipino legal scholar, presented evidence from China’s own Naval Hydrographic Institute, chronicling Zheng’s visit to the then Cham Kingdom of central Vietnam. A translation mixup of the kingdom’s Chinese name, incorrectly referred to it later as a Philippine island.
A 2019 Ancient History Encyclopedia article also traced Zheng’s expeditions in the early 1400s as far as the Arabia and Africa, but nowhere in the story did it mention Zheng’s supposed visit to the Philippines.

A map of ancient China dating back to the Tang Dynasty shows that the island of Hainan was the country’s southernmost territory [State Bureau of Cultural Relics of China via the presentation of Philippine Justice Antonio Carpio]

To further disprove China’s claim of “historic rights”, Carpio presented several ancient Chinese maps, dating as far back as 800 and 900 years ago during the Song and Tang dynasties. All the maps showed that China’s southernmost territory was the island of Hainan.
Additionally, the 1947 Constitution of the Republic of China, also identified Hainan as the country’s southernmost part, raising questions over what would later emerge as the “nine-dash line” claim.
Regardless of the historical evidence, the reality is that China already “controls almost all the facts on the ground”, said Thomas Benjamin Daniel, senior foreign policy expert at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies. It is clear that Beijing now has “real and credible foothold” in the South China Sea, he told Al Jazeera. 
Still, Daniel and other analysts are urging China and other stakeholders in the region, to abide by the principles and spirit of international law, to keep the peace and avoid situations that would lead “down a very dangerous road.”

— U.S. Navy (@USNavy) July 8, 2020

‘Nine-dash line’
For years, China has anchored its South China Sea claims on the “nine-dash line”, under which it lays claim to almost 90 percent of the disputed waters as far south as the coasts of Malaysian Borneo and Brunei. Images published by China showed the imaginary line almost hogging the shores of neighbouring countries.
Using the controversial line, Beijing has been ramping up activities in the South China Sea, starting with the Paracels in the 1970s and 1980s, the Spratlys in the 1990s, and the Scarborough Shoal in the early 2000s.
Chester Cabalza, a security analyst and fellow at the National Defence University in Beijing, said China has been strategic in approaching the “South China Sea conundrum”. He added that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has only provided the country even more opportunities to advance its interests.
“It seems like China is winning,” he told Al Jazeera, noting how it has militarised the disputed waters by developing rocks and atolls into islands in recent years.
ISIS Malaysia’s Daniel added that China “is playing the long game”, as it attempts to solidify and “normalise” its regional maritime position.

An aerial view of the disputed Subi reef shows China’s construction of maritime and aerial facilities on reclaimed land in 2017 [File: Francis R Malasig/EPA]

The Hague ruling
Beijing’s approach encountered resistance in 2016 with the landmark ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which declared China’s “historic rights” had no legal basis.
The ruling also said that the rocks and the partly submerged features, on which China had built its naval and aerial facilities, were within the 200 nautical miles (370.4km) Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines, as defined by the UN. Those zones allow only the Philippines to fish and explore any natural resources although foreign vessels are allowed safe passage.
The court also automatically established the EEZs of Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam, boosting their own positions in relation to China.
Furthermore, the court said China’s reclaimed areas and artificial islands were not entitled to a 12-mile (22.2km) territorial sea, because they were not habitable in their original form. As such, freedom of navigation and overflight are allowed in those areas.
China refused to participate in the arbitration case, dismissing the ruling as “null and void”.

South China Sea: Beijing extends its military and economic reach | Counting the Cost

It has continued to expand its facilities in the South China Sea regardless, including a three km (1.86 miles) military-grade runway, barracks and radars on Mischief Reef, which is within the Philippine EEZ.
Maritime incidents have also escalated, and in April a Vietnamese boat was sunk; an incident blamed on a Chinese surveillance vessel. All eight firshermen survived. In June 2019, at least 22 Filipino fishermen were almost left to drown when their fishing boat was rammed under suspicious circumstances by an alleged Chinese militia boat. They were later rescued by Vietnamese fishermen.
On Tuesday, Malaysia revealed that Chinese coastguard and navy ships were recorded to have encroached into its waters at least 89 times between 2016 and 2019. Earlier this year, there were also reports of a Chinese government survey ship “tagging” a Malaysian oil-exploration vessels within the Malaysian EEZ.
Cabalza, of the National Defence University in Beijing, described China’s behaviour as “schizophrenic”, as it tries to employ confrontation and cooperation in dealing with its neighbours.
‘Code of Conduct’
As part of its effort to defuse tensions in the region, the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been pressing China for years to reach agreement on the so-called Code of Conduct, which would govern countries’ behaviour in the South China Sea.
Differences between members – some of whom have no claim to the sea but are close to China – mean there has been has little headway.
Cabalza says the 10-nation bloc must present a more unified voice before it takes on China, which prefers bilateral negotiation, adding that ASEAN nations “should not become submissive” in negotiating an equitable deal with Beijing.
On June 26, ASEAN leaders held a virtual summit hosted by Vietnam, in which they declared that the 1982 United Nations oceans treaty should be foundation of sovereign rights and entitlements in the South China Sea. However, the leaders were unable to make significant progress on the Code of Conduct.

As the current chairman of the 10-nation ASEAN bloc, Vietnam has stepped up its pushback against Beijing amid recent incidents of alleged harassment of civilians vessels by Chinese militia in the South China Sea [File: Hau Dinh/AP]

Daniel says he is “not very optimistic” that an agreement can be reached soon in order to help ease tension.
“ASEAN is an Association of 10 member states with different national and foreign priorities, that makes decisions based on consensus. Consensus here often means the lowest common denominator.”
In the absence of a consensus, the increased presence of the United States in the South China Sea could prove a useful counterweight.
Daniel said the “marked increase” of US freedom of navigation operations and sharper rhetoric, show that Washington wanted to remain relevant in the region.
On Wednesday, Pompeo issued another statement saying the US would “support countries all across the world who recognise that China has violated their legal territorial claims as well – or maritime claims as well.”
Meanwhile, Carpio said all navies from around the world should be encouraged to sail through the South China Sea and exercise freedom of navigation – to deliver a message to Beijing that it does not control the area.
He also urged Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam to help the Philippines in explaining that China’s claim of “historic right” is “totally false.”
“We should continue resorting to the rule of law, because we have no other choice,” Carpio said.
“War is not an option.”
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