For weeks, every speech from Chinese officials on Myanmar has been essentially the same: China is Myanmar’s “friendly neighbor,” and the current crisis is nothing more than an “internal affair” that needs to be resolved by the “people of Myanmar.”
If this approach to a political and human rights crisis that has demanded the world’s attention since the military takeover on February 1 comes across as tone-deaf, it is. It is also fully in line with China’s unyielding approach to country-specific action at the United Nations, which privileges sovereignty and “non-interference” over basic rights, freedoms, and accountability. As the situation in Myanmar worsens, and global pressure grows, is this approach in China’s interest?
At the Security Council in New York, and the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, China has clung to its position calling for dialogue and national solution – and, with small exceptions for ASEAN and other regional actors, urged the international community to back off.
These lines of advocacy are hallmarks of the Chinese authorities’ approach to a “new model of international relations.” They reinforce Beijing’s preferred approach of global governance, one characterized by signature concepts like “mutually beneficial cooperation” and a “shared future for mankind.” These concepts also allow China to defend its friends and allies from unwanted scrutiny, and – most importantly – to shield itself from inquiries into its repression of Uyghurs, harsh policies toward Tibetans, silencing of dissent on the mainland, and the erosion of rule of law in Hong Kong.
Put simply, Chinese policy on international relations has been essentially about building barriers to block criticism of its rights record. When it comes to Myanmar, though, those barriers are working now as bars. Hemmed in on all sides by its own rhetoric, Beijing’s actions are increasingly looking bad for business.
Literally ceding governance in Myanmar to the corrupt cronyism of the military, known as the Tatmadaw, could imperil China’s significant economic interests in the country and the broader region. As many observers have noted, relations between the two countries were warm (and lucrative) under the National League for Democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi both saw the benefits of Chinese investment and engagement, while also burnishing Myanmar’s international image and boosting its potential to integrate into global markets. All this despite her willingness to negotiate with the military, and to defend its reprehensible and genocidal treatment of the Rohingya.
The Tatmadaw, in addition to being more volatile toward investment than the civilian government, has its own reputational and legal risk. It has come under intense scrutiny for its economic holdings. In 2019, a U.N. fact-finding mission dedicated a hundred-page report to assessing the commercial ties of military-backed entities. The experts recommended that “no business enterprise active in Myanmar… should enter into or remain in a business relationship of any kind with the security forces of Myanmar, in particular the Tatmadaw, or any enterprise owned or controlled by them (including subsidiaries) or their individual members, until and unless they are re-structured and transformed.”
These remained, at the time, mostly words on paper. But following the coup, swift bilateral action by the United States, United Kingdom, and others has made doing business with the Myanmar military not only complicated, nor simply unseemly, but flat-out risky for CEOs and shareholders. From China’s perspective, military control of the economy would make continuing “business as usual” a hard sell, and could imperil efforts to further expand their market footprint and integrate into global supply chains.
Explicit support to the junta seems also to be “bad for business” politically. Were Chinese authorities to offer such support, they could risk alienating ASEAN government allies at a time when their regional aspirations are key to managing what Beijing sees as U.S. encroachment in the Asia-Pacific. Active opposition by Myanmar’s citizens to China’s role – real or perceived – in backing the Tatmadaw could turn the tide on carefully-cultivated outreach that had largely improved views of China in recent years. In early March, leaked documents alleged that Chinese officials had secret meetings with members of the military regime to guarantee the security of their oil pipeline; in response, protestors used China’s own language against them, asserting that disruptions or attacks on the pipeline would be “Myanmar’s internal affair.” Public anger has culminated in attacks on Chinese-owned factories in Yangon, much to Beijing’s chagrin.
So why doesn’t the Chinese government give in, and support concrete action from the U.N. – like a Security Council resolution that calls for the release of political prisoners, an end to violence against peaceful demonstrators, and a return to democratic governance, with penalties if the military regime does not act?
It would be easy to find cause in the argument that these are, as concepts, anathema to the Chinese state. Their own actions domestically to silence dissent, charge pro-democracy activists with “subversion,” and redefine democracy run completely counter to this call. However, this is overly simple. The Security Council’s February 4 and March 11 consensus statements – which, by definition, had the backing of China – indicate that opposition to language per se isn’t the problem.
Instead, the more likely and far thornier challenge for the Chinese authorities is to be able to adapt their “principled” defensive position in the face of grim realities – including now an estimated more than 100 civilian deaths and widespread global condemnation of the violence.
Non-interference in internal affairs is central to the Chinese political project internationally – and to maintaining social stability, with an iron fist, at home. Calling it into question, even when doing so would be a far smarter move for China’s economic interests, risks undermining years of careful ideological construction. Officials could also face personal risk by backtracking on policies laid out by President and Chinese Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping – and expectations of uncompromising loyalty to the party line.
There is promise, and precedent, for a different approach, however. The Chinese mission in Geneva watered down the February Human Rights Council special resolution on Myanmar, reining in its ambitions; they “dissociated” from the consensus, but didn’t take the hard line of calling a vote. In 2018, in a dedicated session much like that held on Myanmar, China even voted to support a Commission of Inquiry into “violations of international law in the context of large-scale civilian protests” in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Sometimes, selectively, the constraints on diplomacy are loosened.
China’s efforts to build an international framework that would protect itself and others from scrutiny, in the field of human rights or otherwise, have resulted in a cage that limits room for maneuver and jeopardizes competing efforts at economic and political expansion. If it fails to manage the contradiction between ideology and interests, and allows the military regime to steamroll its way to power, China should clearly understand that it’s not just the people of Myanmar but the whole neighborhood that will be worse off.