With the future of democracy in Myanmar to be decided in the coming days, Beijing will likely wait for the situation to play out and hope that it doesn’t affect their interests in the region.
Much of the world watched with anger and disappointment as Aung Sung Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient and democratically elected leader of Myanmar, was overthrown in a military coup on February 1.
Despite attracting criticism in recent years for failing to protect Myanmar’s Rohingya minority from what has been labeled an ethnic-cleansing campaign by the very military that removed her from power, Suu Kyi was still hailed as an icon of peaceful resistance to authoritarian rule.
Suu Kyi’s overthrow has been met with global condemnation from a number of countries, including the United States, Australia and Japan. In what may come as a surprise to many, one of the nations to express concern over the coup was China.
Following the coup, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said, “We have noted what has happened in Myanmar and are in the process of further understanding the situation. China is a friendly neighbor of Myanmar’s. We hope that all sides in Myanmar can appropriately handle their differences under the constitution and legal framework and safeguard political and social stability.”
Beijing’s concerns with the events in Myanmar originates from a different place than the concern expressed by the democratic world. China has forged a strong relationship with the Southeast Asian nation and, like many countries in the Indo-Pacific, Myanmar has been the recipient of heavy Chinese investment and political cooperation.
One of Beijing’s partners in Myanmar is the scion of the Burmese democratic movement, Aung Sung Suu Kyi.
Part of the deal that came with Myanmar’s transition from military to democratic rule in 2011 was the guarantee that the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, retain at least a quarter of the seats in Myanmar’s parliament, along with ministerial control of the armed forces, border affairs and police.
Ang Sung Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, enjoys massive support and won a landslide victory in last November’s election. Because of the tense power-sharing agreement between the military and the civilian government, Beijing has maintained ties with both factions.
Lucas Myers, an associate of the Wilson Center’s Asia Program, told TMS that Beijing’s main concerns in the wake of the coup are completing the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor and maintaining stability in Myanmar. The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) helps to alleviate some of Beijing’s most pressing strategic anxieties.
The corridor is set to connect China to the Indian Ocean and would likely be served by another Chinese project in the region, the development of the deep-sea port at Kyaukpyu. This access point will allow oil and other critical imports to bypass the vulnerable Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea.
The CMEC also contributes to China’s offensive posture toward India. It serves as Beijing’s eastern flank against India, while its western flank is covered by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the north is mainland China.
Along with the CMEC, Myers of the Wilson Center told TMS that “maintaining stability in Myanmar” is important to Beijing because “it borders China’s Yunnan province and Myanmar’s government has long been struggling with ethnic armed organizations (some of whom allegedly receive support from China).”
The escalation in tensions within Myanmar could lead to instability and complicate the completion of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor and other projects.
The border between China’s Yunnan province and Myanmar has not always been a safe one and it has been plagued in the past with drug-related violence.
Ethnic conflict and insurgency have also characterized the history of the region. A 2015 clash between insurgents and the Tatmadaw left four Chinese civilians dead across the border due to a misplaced airstrike.
Relations between the People’s Republic and Myanmar have not always been smooth, nor has progress on the CMEC advanced as fast as Beijing would have hoped. A US$3.6 billion dam project was canceled in 2011, while work on the CMEC has occasionally stalled in the past and been replaced with less ambitious projects due to fears of succumbing to debt.
The Tatmadaw also remains wary of Beijing due to China’s past support of insurgent groups that have warred against the military.
Nonetheless, the Sino-Burmese relationship remains a strong one. Both nations have supported the other in controversial areas. Myanmar has voiced its support for China’s position on Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan, while China supported the Tatmadaw’s actions directed at the Rohingya minority.
Washington’s influence in Myanmar has waned since its height in 2012, which followed the democratic transition and opened Myanmar to American investment. The US State Department initially refused to label the coup a coup, which under US law would sever most forms of aid to Myanmar.
While the Trump administration cut some aid to Myanmar due to the Rohingya crisis, the country still received US$216.4 million in American support in 2019. The American position on the coup has strengthened since the State Department’s initial reluctance to speak forcibly on the subject and President Joe Biden released a written statement threatening to reimpose sanctions.
While the future of democracy in Myanmar is likely to be decided in the coming days, Beijing will likely wait for the situation to play out and hope that it doesn’t affect their interests in the region.
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