The Platform

Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh. (Ramazan Nacar)

The United States and China have a lot of disagreements, but solving the Rohingya crisis shouldn’t be one of them.

For the past six years, the repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar has been a contentious issue between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Myanmar has consistently refused to recognize the Rohingya as their own nationals, prolonging their exile. However, there seems to be progress as Bangladesh and Myanmar have initiated a pilot program to return a small number of Rohingyas to Rakhine State, where most of them reside.

The decision to repatriate Rohingyas has raised concerns, particularly due to the ongoing turmoil in Myanmar under the current government. While China has been facilitating this development, the Western world has been less receptive. The Rohingya repatriation program has become a scapegoat in regional geopolitics and great power competition. China’s expansion in the Indo-Pacific region and the United States’ efforts to counteract that growth has turned every significant issue in the region into a target for competition and influence. It is crucial for the world’s major powers to understand that the lives of these stateless people are at stake and work together to ensure a safe return to their homes.

After the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the United States remained the sole superpower in a new unipolar international system. However, the rise of new powers indicates a shifting balance of power. The United States acknowledges its waning influence, and the Biden administration has expressed concerns about China’s threat to international stability. Yet, China’s geopolitical goals seem more focused on becoming a major power in its own backyard. Understanding how the Rohingya community fits into the strategies of these countries is an important question to consider.

The answer lies in the geopolitical importance of Myanmar. The United States, China, Russia, and even India have their own agendas for Myanmar, which often leads to half-hearted approaches to the Rohingya issue, without wanting to upset the status quo. Myanmar’s strategic location provides valuable opportunities for China, including naval access to the Strait of Malacca, a crucial water passage between the Persian Gulf and China, as well as access to the Indian Ocean. China is interested in the vast markets of South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, and Myanmar serves as a gateway. Consequently, China has shielded Myanmar from international sanctions and condemnation due to Myanmar’s history of human rights violations.

During his presidency, Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar. Engagement with Myanmar mainly centered around countering China’s assertiveness in Asia by interfering with its neighboring countries. Beyond geopolitical considerations, Myanmar’s narcotic exports have been problematic for the United States, as it is a major destination for these illegal drugs. Thus, it has always been crucial for the United States to see Myanmar return to democracy and stability. On the other hand, for China, Myanmar’s chaos allows it to consolidate its influence over every sector of the country. The end goals and rivalry between China and the United States regarding Myanmar have spilled over into the Rohingya repatriation program as well.

China has been involved in the Rohingya repatriation process from the beginning. In 2017, it proposed a three-phase plan for resolving the crisis, which was welcomed by Bangladesh and Myanmar but ultimately failed. In 2019, another attempt was made with a “tripartite joint working mechanism” involving Bangladesh, China, and Myanmar, but it also reached a stalemate. Efforts for repatriation faltered due to the pandemic and the coup in Myanmar in 2021, despite continuous delegations from China to Naypyidaw.

The U.S. approach to Rohingya repatriation has been based on its insistence that the United Nations and its organs are the appropriate channels to ensure the safety and dignity of the community. However, after the 2021 coup, it appears that the U.S. focus has shifted towards restoring democracy in Myanmar rather than solely addressing the Rohingya issue.

Now that the repatriation program is set to begin before this year’s monsoon season, both China and the United States must recognize the importance of this development. They should exert pressure on the Myanmar government to repatriate the 1,176 Rohingyas under the pilot project as soon as possible and provide necessary financial assistance. As a confidence-building measure, a delegation of 20 Rohingyas has already visited two out of the 15 villages in Rakhine State, at the invitation of the Myanmar government.

In addition, the involvement of UN agencies such as UNHCR, which require permission from countries to assist refugees, can be crucial if China and the U.S. utilize their connections with Bangladesh and Myanmar to ensure the safe repatriation of Rohingyas.

The international community, especially China and the United States, must take collaborative responsibility to repatriate the Rohingyas and share the burden that Bangladesh has shouldered for years. The U.S.-China rivalry should not hinder efforts to find solutions for one of the world’s most persecuted refugee populations.

Sadia Aktar Korobi is currently studying Peace and Conflict Studies at Dhaka University. Since 2019, Sadia has been a member of the Right to Peace Foundation.