As the west scrambles for realistic and effective options in response to the recent coup in Myanmar, eyes are increasingly falling on its large neighbour to the north. What, if anything, is China prepared to do to de-escalate tensions, including bringing violence to an end?
Myanmar’s relations with China have been shaped by domestic factors such as the south-east Asian country’s decades-long commitment to neutrality and widespread concerns over Beijing’s economic dominance. International factors such as China’s push for greater influence in the region and the rivalry with the US have also been important.
Relations between the two countries have been referred to as “kinsfolk” (pauk-phaw in Burmese), a term first used in the 1950s. Though clearly asymmetric, the China-Myanmar relationship is not a simple story of patron and client.
Mutual recognition in the late 1940s was followed by warm relations in the 1950s and a border treaty in 1960. But the political climate changed for the worse in the 1960s, due to Beijing’s support for the Burmese Communist Party and China’s intention to export its own revolution. Anti-Chinese riots in Yangon in 1967 did little to improve ties.
Under Deng Xiaoping, relations improved, but the 1988 takeover by Myanmar’s military – the Tatmadaw – ended the socialist era (1962-1988) and opened the way to repression, sanctions and some degree of isolation. Yet, China stood shoulder to shoulder with the generals at the same time as supporting some rebel “ethnic armed organisations”, making Beijing a winner whatever the outcome of the conflicts.
China’s relations improved significantly when Myanmar’s National League for Democracy formed a government. Its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was regarded as a stable and reliable partner. Along with Singapore, China is now Myanmar’s main commercial partner and a leading provider of foreign direct investment.
Military ties also exist, although in recent years the country has shopped for arms supplies and training in Moscow and New Delhi. Beijing, meanwhile, has been traditionally unimpressed with the generals’ xenophobia and nationalism and the army’s often obscure modus operandi.
Beijing’s reaction to the recent coup was unusually fast (it does not usually provide a running commentary on government implosions or power grabs). The Xinhua news agency referred, in an extraordinary feat of euphemism to the coup as a “major government reshuffle”.
On February 2 China – and Russia – blocked strong wordings of condemnation by the UN Security Council on the coup. But on February 4 Beijing agreed to a statement that voiced “deep concern at the declaration of the state of emergency imposed in Myanmar by the military and the arbitrary detention of members of the government including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi”. The UN called for immediate release of all those detained and pressed for continued support of the democratic transition in Myanmar.
Some observers note how China could benefit from the coup, while others point to risks and possible losses for Beijing. But there is one simple reason why China should care about Myanmar, and that is not the reputational damage that comes from siding closely with the State Administration Council, as the junta calls itself now.
Instability is bad for China’s flagship project, the Belt and Road Initiative. An internationally isolated Myanmar would put a spoke in the wheel of the central idea of the BRI – connectivity.
An economy brought to a halt and instability fuelled by street violence will lead to Myanmar returning to being an economic cul-de-sac, not a crossroads and link to other markets. Critical infrastructure such as the Sino-Myanmar oil and gas pipelines could be exposed and suffer in a dramatic surge in violence.
What can China do?
There are certain positions China won’t take. It won’t issue rebukes, it won’t back UN sanctions, nor will it support external intervention. So expecting Chinese endorsement for UN action is probably a non-starter.
There are at least three things that China could do to help that are not incompatible with the country’s past record or at risk of jeopardising its political and economic interests in Myanmar. The steps below are consistent with the BRI’s aims of enhancing regional connectivity.
Beijing could help bring about a reduction of tension on the streets by requesting – solely or in conjunction with UN partners – that political prisoners detained since February 1 be released.
China is unlikely to express its position in the form of open general rebukes. But specific actions and events can be condemned – the use of live ammunition on protesters can be referred to as “not acceptable”.
China could press for the state of emergency to be lifted before February 2022 (as currently expected). But this does not resolve the disagreement as to the legitimacy of the November elections, the official rationale for the coup.
Although Beijing has pressured Myanmar to repatriate the Rohingya people who fled ethnic cleansing in the country in 2017, China did little to halt the crisis in the first place. Stability in the region was paramount and the Rohingya were regarded as collateral damage.
The other issue is COVID-19. Due to measures isolating the country from the rest of the world and recurrent curfews, the previous authorities managed to cushion some of the public health effects of the pandemic – at a considerable economic cost. China could score some diplomatic points by supplying vaccines and playing a greater role in addressing the combined public health and economic crisis, which would be a win-win for both countries.
China has the opportunity to turn its diverse economic, security and political linkages into leverage, and to a good end (ceasing violence). This should not be wasted.