China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

What the Myanmar Coup Means for China

China will stick to its strict policy of non-intervention, but the military takeover has created a diplomatic headache for Beijing.

Shannon Tiezzi
What the Myanmar Coup Means for China

Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, right, greets Chinese President Xi Jinping at president house in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020.

Credit: Nyein Chan Naing/Pool Photo via AP

On February 1, a coup in Myanmar saw the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) ousted and NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, among other leaders, detained, whereabouts unknown. With that, Myanmar returned to military rule after 10 years of gradual, albeit limited, political opening.

The change in Myanmar will be closely watched in Beijing. And despite a long history of cozy relations with the Tatmadaw during Mynamar’s previous stint of military rule starting in the late 1980s, China will not be celebrating.

“A coup in no way is in Beijing’s interests. Beijing was working very well with the NLD,” said Yun Sun, a co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

“If Beijing has a choice, I think they would prefer the NLD over the military. But they don’t have a choice… so they have to deal with whatever comes along.”

The first official reaction, from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin, was decidedly bare-bones: “We have noted what happened in Myanmar, and we are learning more information on the situation.”

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“China is a friendly neighbor of Myanmar,” Wang continued. “We hope that all parties in Myanmar will properly handle their differences under the constitutional and legal framework and maintain political and social stability.” The implication, in accordance with China’s long-held principle of non-interference is twofold: The coup is Myanmar’s business, and China is ready to deal with whoever is leading the country in a “friendly” way.

China’s interests in Myanmar range from the economic to the strategic. Myanmar is a rich source of natural resources like timber, jade, and natural gas. It also offers China access to the ocean on its southwestern flank, something Beijing has sought to develop through the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, linking Yunnan province in China to the Bay of Bengal.

The return to military rule in Myanmar fueled the hypothesis that it will also bring a return to the old days, when Beijing was the country’s sole international backer. From the late 1980s until Myanmar’s opening in 2011, the Southeast Asian country was a pariah on the international stage, isolated from nearly every other country aside from China. But that is less desirable for Beijing than one might assume.

China “needs Myanmar to be a relatively normal and stable country,” Sun told The Diplomat. “If Myanmar is once again turning into the pariah of the international community, then what will [Chinese-invested] international connectivity projects lead to?”

Meanwhile, the China-Tatmadaw relationship is far from straight-forward. Myanmar’s military leaders are not keen on a full embrace of China, fearing that would amount to a de facto loss of sovereignty. In fact, it was the previous, military-backed government of President Thein Sein that bowed to the “wishes of the people” and scrapped the enormously unpopular Myitsone Dam project – to China’s continued chagrin.

It was also under Thein Sein that Myanmar began its process of opening to other partners, including the United States. In his book “In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century” Sebastian Strangio – now The Diplomat’s Southeast Asia editor – noted that the Myitsone dam suspension “catalyzed a remarkable program of political and economic reform” in Myanmar. The steps away from overreliance on China and toward political opening were inextricably interlinked; the reform was sparked, in part, by the sense that China’s influence was a “national emergency” best countered by opening up politically to better court the West. It worked: Thein Sein hosted then-U.S. President Barack Obama in 2012 and made his own visit to the White House in 2013.

As Strangio notes, even in the heyday of China-Myanmar convergence in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Tatmadaw “retained… a deep institutional suspicion of China,” born from China’s history supporting communist insurgents and ethnic armed groups in Myanmar. If anything, those frictions have grown since the democratic transition began. Just last year, Myanmar’s military voiced rare pointed concern about China’s role in ethnic conflict in Myanmar’s north.

All this is the say that the Tatmadaw does not have automatically favor China as an international partner.

Meanwhile, China eventually became quite comfortable dealing with Aung San Suu Kyi, despite early expectations that her government would embrace the West. The two sides were off to an uncertain start, both because of the lack of ties between Beijing and the NLD and the elephant in the room: China’s long-time support for the military regime that had imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi.

But once the democratic writing was on the wall, Beijing corrected course with high-profile outreach, inviting Aung San Suu Kyi for a tour of China before her NLD was voted into power. That marked her first meeting with Xi, even though she held no formal office at the time. That visit was followed by a steady stream of high-profile interactions, including a 2020 visit by Xi to Myanmar, his last trip abroad before the COVID-19 pandemic halted most international travel. Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Ministry Wang Yi was Aung San Suu Kyi’s first foreign guest after she assumed the position of foreign minister; he was also in Myanmar less than a month before the coup, seeking to advance CMEC projects. Last month’s visit saw the resurrection of the China-funded Muse-Kyaukphyu rail project, a deal that’s now in jeopardy with the ouster of the NLD.

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In fact, the agreement on the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor – highlighted by the proposed deep-water port and special economic zone at Kyaukphyu – was signed in 2017, under NLD rule. Aung San Suu Kyi made for a high-profile guest at the two Belt and Road Forums in Beijing, held in 2017 and 2019. Clearly, Beijing’s interests were not hamstrung under a quasi-democratic Myanmar – in fact, “Beijing had a better relationship with the NLD than the predecessor [government]” in Myanmar, according to Sun.

In part, that’s due to pragmatic calculations by Aung San Suu Kyi about China’s importance. But the growth in relations also was indirectly caused by the Rohingya crisis. The military crackdown – and ASSK’s refusal to denounce a campaign bordering on genocide – undermined any hope of renewed ties with the West. Liberal democracies abroad denounced the violence; the United States enacted sanctions on Myanmar’s commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing. The hoped-for wave of Western investment never materialized amid the looming threat of sanctions. Once again, China was Myanmar’s main partner by default.

The Rohingya crisis also won Beijing some rare goodwill among the Bamar ethnic majority, which largely resents the international condemnation over the Rohingya crackdown. Anti-China sentiment had been on the rise in China since the political space to express such ideas opened, but Beijing’s support on the Rohingya issue was much appreciated. China was seen to “take the side of the Burmese people,” Sun explained. Beijing can ill-afford to alienate the population once again by wholeheartedly backing a return to military dictatorship. China will try to remain neutral rather than choose between “the party that is in power in Myanmar or the mass public,” Sun predicated. But if mass uprisings or protests materialize, that balance will become more difficult.

China will also pay a reputational cost abroad for any perceived support of the Myanmar military – including shielding the country at the United Nations. On February 2, the United Nations Security Council convened for an emergency meeting on Myanmar. U.K., the Security Council president for this month, had drafted a statement that would, according to Reuters, “condemn the coup, call for the military to respect the rule of law and human rights, and immediately release those unlawfully detained.” The statement was not immediately adopted, however, and faces a steep hurdle in China’s reluctance to sign off on any criticism of Myanmar or the Tatmadaw. China holds veto power in the U.N. Security Council.

Ahead of the meeting, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang emphasized, “Whatever actions taken by the international community shall contribute to Myanmar’s political and social stability, promote its peace and reconciliation, and avoid escalating the conflict and complicating the situation.” Translation: China doesn’t want to see any major international response, like sanctions. But that comes at a cost to Beijing’s image as a responsible global player.

“The bigger the political response, the bigger political liability China has to carry for the Myanmar military,” Sun said. “China will carry it… but I don’t think China will be doing that happily or willingly.”