Rohingya return: China struggles in new diplomatic role
In a muddy field in western Myanmar, hundreds of Chinese shipping containers fitted with single narrow windows stand in neat lines, empty of the refugees they were designed to host.
The gray boxes were sent by China two years ago as quick and cheap housing for some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled Myanmar for Bangladesh during a military-led crackdown in 2017 that the United Nations said was conducted with genocidal intent.
The empty containers, situated near the town of Maungdaw in Rakhine state, reflect months of failed efforts to entice the Rohingya to return to Myanmar despite a diplomatic drive by the country's close ally and neighbor, China.
In a sharp departure from its official policy of non-interference in the affairs of other countries, China has positioned itself as the key mediator in resolving the protracted crisis. But like the Indonesian and United Nations envoys who previously attempted to mediate between the parties, China is finding the business of diplomacy tough going, with little signs that the crisis will soon be resolved.
The main sticking point is a disagreement over whether the refugees will be safe in Myanmar.
Myanmar says it has created safe conditions for the Rohingya's return, but Bangladesh and the United Nations say that fighting in Rakhine and a lack of human rights guarantees make a return for the refugees dangerous. The Rohingya, meanwhile, say they will not go back without guarantees of rights they are currently denied, including citizenship and freedom of movement.
Over the past two years, Chinese officials have brokered three meetings between leaders of the two countries, made multiple visits to the sprawling refugee camps housing the Rohingya in Bangladesh, hired cattle trucks to bring returnees home and even offered cash inducements, all to no avail.
Still, China says it has made progress, even if only a few hundred Rohingya have returned home so far.
The issue received fresh attention when President Xi Jinping traveled to Myanmar on Friday for a two-day state visit. In a joint statement from both countries published after the visit, China reaffirmed its willingness to continue to mediate, while Myanmar thanked China for "its understanding of the Rakhine problem, its difficulty and complications".
The main focus of Xi's visit was the massive Chinese infrastructure projects, including a controversial hydropower dam and a deep-sea port in Rakhine, that make Myanmar a vital link in his flagship Belt and Road Initiative aimed at expanding trade links across the world.
The two countries signed dozens of deals covering trade and infrastructure, with Myanmar agreeing to speed up implementation.
Western Myanmar, sitting between booming India and Southeast Asia, is strategically important to Beijing, offering China's landlocked western provinces potential port access to the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal.
"We have facilitated and hosted three foreign minister meetings between China, Myanmar, and Bangladesh to work for an early repatriation," Luo Zhaohui, China's vice foreign minister told reporters on January 10 in a press conference ahead of Xi's trip. "Our efforts have paid off," he said.
But Bangladeshi officials, Western diplomats in Yangon, and security analysts say that China is mainly concerned with shoring up its key interests in Rakhine.
In discussions with the Bangladesh government, Chinese officials emphasize the importance of developing the state rather than resolving human rights issues, according to a Bangladeshi official familiar with the discussions.
"China wants to resolve the crisis," said another Bangladeshi official. "At least, they want to start repatriation as early as possible. But they are not doing enough to oblige Myanmar to create a conducive environment for them to return."
UN officials and diplomats in Yangon also say that China's efforts to broker a quick solution ignores the human rights concerns.
"Their approach is wildly simplistic," said one Yangon-based diplomat. "What we hear is China has been pushing Myanmar and Bangladesh to just get it done. What does that mean when the conditions aren't there?"
China's Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters.
The Myanmar government, responding to questions from Reuters, defended the Chinese efforts.
Ko Ko Naing, a Myanmar official at the Ministry of Social Welfare, said China had been "helping continuously", citing its development efforts in Rakhine.
"The lack of development is more important than social cohesion," he said. "We are doing many investments there. The roads are better."
While more than 730,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in 2017, hundreds of thousands are still in Myanmar, confined to camps and villages where they are denied access to healthcare and education.
Fresh fighting between government troops and an ethnic armed group comprised mostly of majority Rakhine Buddhists has also displaced tens of thousands of people.
Despite the concerns over the security situation in Rakhine, China's position is that Myanmar is ready to take back the refugees.
It is also advocating resolving the issue through bilateral talks between Myanmar and Bangladesh, and minimising the role of parties like the United Nations, which runs the refugee camps, officials from both Myanmar and Bangladeshi told Reuters.
China has presented its diplomatic work in Myanmar and Bangladesh as humanitarian, but analysts and diplomats in Yangon say those efforts have broader geopolitical aims.
"I'd say that China is not involved in the Rohingya crisis for humanitarian reasons, but for political and economic considerations," said Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington.
"China would like to be the new peacemaker in the region," she said, adding that China wanted to show how its approach to resolving the crisis could succeed where Western powers had failed. "It's a competition for leadership."
Nowkhim, a refugee leader in Kutapalong, one of the camps in Bangladesh, said the general perception among the Rohingya was that China was merely pressing Myanmar's official line and was unwilling to push it to accept their demands.
A video from a meeting between refugee leaders and Chinese diplomats, which was seen by Reuters, shows a Chinese official saying that the Rohingya should drop demands such as the right to be recognised as an ethnic group in Myanmar.
Myanmar's position is that the Rohingya are Muslim migrants from the Indian sub-continent and not one of the country's ethnic groups – which would technically grant them citizenship.
"They are not willing to solve our problem easily," said Nowkhim. "They are just showing the world that 'we meet with Rohingya'."
Beijing's last major effort to kickstart repatriation was in August after Myanmar compiled a list of 3,000 Rohingya approved for return. But that effort failed after hundreds of the refugees on the list went into hiding to avoid being sent back.
Standing in one of the refugee camps in Bangladesh at the time, a Chinese diplomat said that someone needed to make the first move to send the Rohingya back.
Myanmar officials waited on the other side of the border, but not a single refugee volunteered to return. Only about 400 refugees have since returned separately, according to Myanmar authorities. Rohingya leaders say that most of returnees are those with close ties to the Myanmar government.
Myanmar has also rebuffed some of China's efforts, last year rejecting a proposal that refugees be allowed to visit Rakhine to assess conditions.
A local businessman tasked with assembling the donated containers, who asked not to be named, said he saw little point in continuing with his work.
"People haven't stayed in the houses for two years," he said. "I will stop building this year," he added.
"The situation has not changed, right?"