Myanmar presents a huge geopolitical challenge to the regions of Bay of Bengal, South Asia and Southeast Asia in general, Bangladesh, in particular. It emanates from aggressive posture of Myanmar to its own people – ethnic groups and the Rohingyas, on the one hand, seeding mistrust with its next-door neighbor Bangladesh. For Bangladesh geopolitics features prominently in its foreign and security policies. Bangladesh is a natural bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia. One of the crucial factors which makes Bangladesh a geographical riddle is its land and sea boundary with its neighboring countries. The border between Bangladesh and India is ranked the seventh longest border in the world.
Bangladesh and Myanmar, two neighboring countries share a 270 km land border which has emerged as a geopolitical hotspot in South Asia owing to its discrete topography and involvement of regional powers like China and India. Besides, the Rohingya crisis has altered the equation of Bangladesh-Myanmar relations remolding both the land and sea fringe, a center of attention for both regional and extra-regional powers.
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Myanmar shares a border with Bangladesh and India to the West but it is separated from those neighbors through a spine of mountains. The border starts in the north at the tripoint with Mizoram, India. It then proceeds southwards overland, before turning west at a point west of Paletwa. The border then proceeds to the west, northwest, and then south in a broad arc before reaching the Naf River. The border then follows this wide river southwards out to the Bay of Bengal. Additionally, it has connections to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, which are crucial for trade, investment, and navigation.
The boundary between Bangladesh and Myanmar has not always been stable, both on land and in the sea. A border cooperation pact was concluded between the two nations in 1980. In March 2012, a decision was reached by the International Tribunal on the Law of the Seas regarding the determination of their shared maritime border in the Bay of Bengal. Both countries subsequently ac- knowledged the decision. However, in May 2022, tension along the 270 km land border had once more raised up.
The Myanmar military is engaged in a protracted war with the Arakan Army, the Cochin Army, and elements of the Shan, Karen, Mong, Shin, and Kaya peoples. It also aims to provoke Bangladesh to support its campaign against the insurgents. It has continuously violated the air space of Bangladesh and thrown mortar shells near Bandarban adjacent to the Chattogram Hill Tracts (CHT), which are strategically crucial for Bangladesh. Besides, the Bangladesh-Myanmar border is linked to India, the China border creates a tripod on the outskirt of the Bay of Bengal.
THE PRESENCE OF RAKHINE STATE AND ITS HISTORICAL LINKAGE
The geostrategic significance Rakhine symbolizes for the two competing regional powers, as well as the natural resources sheltered in the area, must be considered to comprehend the reasons behind this. Rakhine state, which spans 36,762 km2 of Myanmar’s western coast, is abundant in natural resources. Another much sought-after natural resource in Rakhine is oil. In 2008, China started constructing a crude oil pipeline parallel to its gas pipeline with the support of Myanmar’s military. Four months before the conflict in Rakhine escalated, the China-Myanmar pipeline finally started moving oil from the Made Island port in Rakhine towards Yunnan in April 2017 after a two-year wait. India, Myanmar’s other large neighbor, has taken notice of China’s aggressive growth of infrastructure projects and wants to make its influence known in Rakhine.
The Kaladan-Multi-Modal Transport Project offers India the best chance to balance off China’s sway in the area. A 539km shipping route through the Bay of Bengal would be used to connect the ports of Sittwe and Kolkata as part of the 2008-signed project. The following development milestones involve extending the land route via India’s Mizoram state and connecting Sittwe to Paletwa in Chin state. In addition, India declared in July 2016 that it would establish a 1000-acre Special Economic Zone in Sittwe to compete with China’s Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone, which is located south of the city.
The Kaladan-Multi-Modal Transport Project offers India the best chance to balance off China’s sway in the area. A 539km shipping route through the Bay of Bengal would be used to connect the ports of Sittwe and Kolkata as part of the 2008-signed project. Rakhine State, where the Rohingyas have primarily resided since antiquity, is seen as resourceful but politically precarious. Rakhine State has the Bay of Bengal to the west and the Chittagong Division of Bangladesh to the northwest which makes it geopolitically significant for the security of Bangladesh. Considering Rakhine the “geopolitical headquarters”, the Rohingya crisis prolongs due to strategic interests involved in the Rakhine state of many regional and extra-regional powers.
The location of the Chattogram Hill Tracts (CHT) has added geopolitical dimension to Bangladesh-Myanmar border. The border region has frequently been unstable as a result of violent conflicts including the Rohingya war in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and the CHT conflict (1977– 1997) in southeast Bangladesh. It is assumed that hostile relations with Myanmar can provide an advantage to small rebel groups, which are active in the CHT. The CHT region is still a source of unrest due to their topography and insurgency movement. The Bangladesh-Myanmar border adjacent to CHT can pose security threats for Bangladesh. Recent, mortar shells landing in Naikhyangchari in Bandarban is r an alarm bell for Bangladesh. It can trigger unrest in the CHT regions taking the opportunity of Bangladesh-Myanmar’s recent border clash.
Myanmar’s location allows it to serve as a bridge between the Indian Ocean basin, South East Asia, and southern China coupled with its energy resources incorporating oil and gas transforming the Bangladesh-Myanmar border as a geopolitical hotspot. The continuation of cordial ties with Myanmar benefits China and India, two of its neighbors. China and India both use the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal ports in Myanmar for imports and exports. They have also made significant financial investments in a variety of development initiatives, including those involving the Rakhine state’s special economic zones, and gas, electricity, and oil industries.
In addition to the apparent instances of border infractions, there have been numerous conflicts between the military of Myanmar and its civilian population near the border. Myanmar is bordered by Bangladesh, India, Laos, China, and Thailand, among other nations. There are tensions among residents on the other side of these conflicts at the borders of neighboring states. Exodus can also occur due to the conflicts taking place adjacent to the Myanmar border. Besides, it can also benefit the non-state actors to increase their illicit activities and infiltration into the borderland areas.
Insurgency, violent extremism, organized transnational criminal networks, and humanitarian crisis such as the Rohingya issue and a host of intrastate disputes in Myanmar are continuously fomenting instability and threats to peace. Alliance building, changed matrix of interests and relations have created new space for engagements of regional and extra-regional powers. The US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Ukraine War, and growing resources in Asia have pushed the major powers to redouble their efforts to expand their sphere of interests and influence. Consequently, regional security environment has been deteriorating to the detrimental interests of people in the sub-region region. The proximity of coastline has further complicated the scenarios for this region.
THE NEW THREAT OF EXODUS FROM CHIN-MIZORAM AND BANDARBAN FRONTIERS
Indian North Eastern provinces share borders with its neighbors including Bangladesh, Myanmar, China, Nepal, and Bhutan which make it strategically significant. The India-Myanmar border emerges as the most volatile of all of them. Bangladesh-Myanmar border makes a tripod with China in the south and India in the North. With armed conflict intensifying in Myanmar, Mizoram is anticipating more influx of people to the state. Since February this year around 11,500 Myanmar nationals has taken refuge in Mizoram. Most of the Myanmar nationals are from the Chin state, The Myanmar nationals are taking shelter in different parts of Mizoram. Bandarban is strategically significant for Bangladesh.
Therefore, any unrest adjacent to the Rakhine border can create a volatile situation for the Chin-Mizoram and Bandarban frontiers. A plausible influx of new refugees can also occur from the Bandarban frontier which can trigger the insurgency movements along the borderlands because it will be extremely difficult for the government to control the movements of people, money, and arms owing to the conflict situation prevailing to the border. Therefore, both Bangladesh and India will face the security repercussions of the Bangladesh-Myanmar border clashes.
MAJOR ACTORS IN THE RAKHINE STATE: MATRIX OF INTERESTS
Two major regional actors China and India have both demonstrated interests in developing megaprojects, connectivity, and energy explorations in Myanmar in response to these new trading networks and alliances. China and India both suggested creating a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in the Rakhine State, with India favoring the city of Sittwe. To lure foreign nations or investors to the SEZ. Both nations view Rakhine as their “geopolitical headquarters” to carry out mercantile plans and fulfill various political objectives in the future. Therefore, Rakhine has become a bone of contention in their strategic rivalry.
CHINA’S AMBITIONS IN THE RAKHINE
Myanmar is strategically positioned halfway between South Asia and Southeast Asia. Furthermore, the Rakhine coastal belts provide China with access to both the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal, providing a chance to expand both its commercial and military connections with Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. It appears that China wants to use the Bay of Bengal to enhance its defense connections with Myanmar, and only the coastal regions of Rakhine State offer such prospects.
The Chinese government is making significant investments in port and highway projects as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, which intends to reinvigorate land and maritime trade routes connecting China with Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Apart from geopolitical location, China has abiding interests in Myanmar in a couple of critical sectors. First, the country is deeply linked with the development of megaprojects as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Three planned routes are scheduled to connect China’s Yunnan province to ports in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, as well as a new border crossing with Thailand.
These highway expansion plans also mirror current crossborder trade trends in Myanmar. The proposed trilateral highway between Thailand, Myanmar, and India is another noteworthy effort. The future looks bright for the road’s development between Mandalay and the Chinese border. A primary government priority continues to be the overland rail integration that connects Myanmar to its neighbors. With 3,722 kilometers, Myanmar has the largest network of rail lines among the ASEAN Member States. There are plans in place to fix these railroad tracks, and work is expected to be finished in 2023. When complete, an uninterrupted connection between Yangon and Mandalay will be possible, eventually connecting the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone in Rakhine State, which is supported by China.
Second, energy exploration in Myanmar is a major source of China’s interests. Starting in 2008, the military government of Myanmar gave the China National Petroleum Cooperation (CNPC), the country’s national oil firm, permission to purchase gas from the Shwe resource, located in the offshore basin of Rakhine. When gas was delivered from Kyaukphyu to China’s Yunnan Province via the Myanmar-China Gas Pipeline in 2013, the project by China to harvest gas from Rakhine and bring it directly into its territory was realized. It is estimated that the pipeline, whose construction started in 2010, will provide up to 12 billion m3 of gas annually.
By providing China with an alternate shipping route to the Malacca Strait, the construction of pipelines in Rakhine State furthers this geopolitical agenda. Although this Strait represents China’s quickest route to the Middle East and Africa, it is also a popular spot for piracy. Third, China enjoys immense military and strategic benefits in Myanmar. In the case of hostilities, China is concerned about the prospect of a naval blockade of the Malacca Strait. For China, such a situation would be disastrous. Oil from Abu Dhabi, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia would reach China more quickly and safely if a pipeline crossed Rakhine.
Besides, Rakhine’s long coastline is the cherry on the top for the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative which can transform it into a global hegemon against its strategic rivalry with the West and its allies. China is reassuring and reasserting its strong grip in not only the infrastructural and economic affairs of the country but also at the strategic level at large. It is slowly pushing its influence in the region.
INDIA’S ACT EAST POLICY AND ITS STRATEGIC IMPLICATIONS
As a developing superpower in Asia, however, India’s objective is to enhance regional economic cooperation while also creating surveillance systems for the northeastern Indian provinces of Mizoram, Tripura, Manipur, Arunachal, Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, and Sikkim. These provinces have frequent separatist movements or insurrections, have inadequate connectivity to the Indian mainland, and border Bhutan, China, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. The Kaladan MultiModal Transit Transport already provides direct land and marine connectivity between India and Myanmar. Like China, India has three major sectors for its engagement in Myanmar.
First, connectivity reflects huge interests of India in Rakhine. The Kaladan multi-modal project that originates from the Rakhine state is a key connectivity initiative amid China’s BRI that plans to connect large parts of SE Asia including Myanmar. Through this route, it can also avoid its Siliguri corridor also known as chicken known to get access to the North East Provinces. A proposal that would link the seaport of Kolkata in India with the state of Mizoram in northeastern India via Sittwe in Myanmar’s seaport, the Kaladan River’s river route, and the road from Paletwa. With such an ambitious and carefully thought-out strategic transportation hub developing nearby, Bangladesh. Like China, India has interests in energy cooperation with Myanmar. India has always been interested in Rakhine. In 2004, Daewoo collaborated on an Indian project to further explore the coast of Rakhine for gas deposits.
This project involved the state-owned Indian businesses GAIL and ONGC Videsh (a subsidiary of India’s Oil and Natural Gas firm). Following Daewoo’s discovery of the Shwe gas deposit, an Asian business alliance led by GAIL and ONGC developed the region as a natural gas development project. The project calls for building the Rakhine-to-Yunnan Gas Pipeline between Myanmar and China. State-owned Indian businesses have also contributed to the MyanmarChina Gas pipeline. Third, India’s strategic interests in Myanmar are strong and long standing. Strategically, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Myanmar, the two sides shared the view that the situation in Rakhine state had a developmental as well as a security dimension. Any unrest in Rakhine can create a volatile situation in insurgency-prone un – holy trinity frontiers: Chin-Mizoram- Rakhine region. Apart from China and India, there are extra-region – al actors who have significant level of interests in Myanmar.
The geopolitical interests of Japan substantially influence its friendship with Myanmar. The ‘final frontier’ of Asia, Myanmar, is the subject of fierce rivalry between the two economic tigers of Asia – Japan, and China. To put Naypyitaw further away from Beijing, Japan has offered help to Myanmar. One of the leaders in this race is the state of Rakhine. As violence against the Rohingya continues in Rakhine state, Beijing is attempting to construct a deep-water port there. To promote investment in the state, Tokyo provided funding for the Rakhine State Investment Fair in February 2019. As Myanmar’s sixth-largest direct investor, the third-largest buyer of Myanmar goods, and the seventh-largest exporter to Myanmar, Japan has been a significant economic partner. Russia places a high premium on integration into the global economic pipeline and geo-economic considerations in seeking strategic interests in Myanmar. Russia continues to supply Myanmar with weapons and military hardware.
As America’s strategy has persisted from the Obama administration’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ to current policy of pursuing ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’, Myanmar comes as a major geopolitical attraction for the superpower. Both approaches fundamentally represent a redirection of US resources to confront China’s expanding capacity and a readiness to challenge the status quo in the area. Establishing a rule-based order in this region, strengthening the alliance with the US, moving southward to construct networks with new alignments with the countries, strengthening institutions in the Indo-Pacific region, and constructive engagement with China are considered critical for the US engagement in the region. Rakhine’s coastline has a geo-strategic significance for the Chinese BRI and therefore the Quad countries are trying to contain the Myanmar-China growing nexus. The West is trying to partner with like-minded countries such as India and Thailand, which have stakes in a peaceful Myanmar, the United States can leverage the political capital of regional countries that have been engaging with Myanmar.
Rakhine state in Myanmar has emerged as a geopolitical hotspot for regional and extra-regional powers owing to its strategic and political significance. It has become one of the cornerstones of China’s BRI whereas the west and India covet countering the Chinese rise in this region. The Rohingyas have just become the scapegoat of their geopolitical scramble where Bangladesh is forced to take the burden. However, Bangladesh has demonstrated extraordinary capacity to maneuver the evolving geopolitical scramble through its policy of maintaining autonomous and non-aligned positions amid economic inducements and strategic compulsions.
Bangladesh has retained friendly relationships with all competing powers in the sub-region. Bangladesh is striving not only to resolve the Rohingya crisis, but also maintaining working relations with Myanmar through a peaceful border. Bangladesh has expressed its interests to join India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) highway.
Bangladesh pursues the Friendship Line which will stretch from Taungbro to Kyauktaw in Rakhine, via Ramu and Gundam in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh initially built the 20 km road at a cost of approximately BDT 900 million with its own resources. From Ramu to Gundam and Taungbro to Bawli Bazar the road will continue inside Myanmar, opening new opportunities for Bangladesh and Myanmar to connect Southeast Asia and South Asia in the most meaningful way for mutual gains.
However, instability and insecurity in the Rakhine region, continuing Rohingya crisis and deadly armed resistance in Myanmar would pose major roadblocks towards larger strategic and security interests of Bangladesh. Bangladesh must formulate appropriate strategy to deal with the evolving geopolitical scramble in one of most complicated sub-regions on earth.