Yesterday, I wrote an article noting the difficult position that China had been placed by the intemperate decision of Myanmar’s military high command to launch a coup and remove the elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government from office.
This became particularly clear this past weekend, when Chinese factories in the industrial outskirts of Yangon were vandalized and damaged during confrontations in which as many as 51 anti-coup protesters were killed by Myanmar security forces.
With many protesters accusing China of taking a side (i.e. the wrong one) I argued that it was in China’s interests to make an exception to its principle of non-interference and help bring about a resolution to the harrowing crisis that has followed the coup of February 1.
Today brought news that China may indeed feel moved to intervene – but for much more selfish reasons. An unsigned editorial, published on the website of the state-run CGTN network this morning, suggested that China might be “forced into taking more drastic action” in Myanmar if its interests are not more firmly safeguarded.
The article started by noting the damage sustained by Chinese factories during what the outlet referred to as “Sunday’s spree of vandalism and arson,” in which it claims a total of 32 Chinese-funded enterprises were damaged, inflicting some $37 million worth of damage.
The editorial then underlined China’s repeated insistence that the political turmoil in Myanmar “should be resolved by Myanmar people through peaceful dialogue.” The government “has no intention of putting its thumb on the scale and swaying the country to choose one side or the other,” it went on. “However, rapidly rising China-hating-and-destroying sentiment won’t sit well with China, especially when the rise has an unshakable scent of foreign influence.”
The article concluded that stating that the Chinese government has called on Myanmar authorities to “provide protection for its assets and personnel” – including the oil and gas pipelines that run from the Bay of Bengal across Myanmar into China’s Yunnan province – and for Myanmar’s protesters “to express demands in a lawful manner.”
“China won’t allow its interests to be exposed to further aggression,” the editorial warned. “If the authorities cannot deliver and the chaos continues to spread, China might be forced into taking more drastic action to protect its interests.”
In its mix of reluctance and resolve, the editorial bore a notable resemblance to a statement issued by Huang Huikang, the Chinese Ambassador to Malaysia in 2015, following a series of Malay ultra-nationalist rallies marked by an undercurrent of anti-Chinese sentiment.
In his comments, Huang took pains to emphasize that the Chinese government “has always pursued peaceful co-existence in international relationships and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.” But Beijing would “not sit idly by” over any “infringement on China’s national interests, violations of legal rights, and interests of Chinese citizens and businesses which may damage the friendly relationship between China and the host country.”
The ambassador’s comments prompted no small degree of controversy, insofar as they were widely seen as having broken a decades-long taboo against Chinese interference in Malaysia’s ethnic politics. But like the Chinese state media’s warning about the situation in Myanmar, it was also notable for suggesting that there are limits to Beijing’s much-vaunted “non-interference principle,” even in the fairly narrow way that the Chinese government defines it.
While the Chinese government puts great store by the principle, as an ideological dictum and a practical tool of influence, this principle only extends so far as it chimes with core interests. Like the United States’ avowed commitment to democracy, practice diverges from reality when perceived national interests are at stake.
And of all the many nations concerned about the increasingly violent, chaotic situation in Myanmar, none have as much direct material interest as China. Sharing a 2,200-kilometer shared border with its southern neighbor, China is deeply involved in Myanmar’s economy. Since the 1980s, moreover, Chinese strategists have viewed Myanmar as a potential corridor to the Indian Ocean. For years, the Chinese state has sought to develop infrastructure projects, including roads, railways, and oil and gas pipelines that can help develop China’s poorer southwestern provinces and help reduce China’s heavy reliance on the narrow Straits of Malacca.
This project has naturally involved significant investments in Myanmar under a succession of governments both military and civilian, and an unsurprising desire to see these investments safeguarded. The CGTN article does not suggest that a Chinese intervention in Myanmar is imminent, merely that such a situation cannot be ruled out.
If the Chinese government has a natural concern about the fate of its investments in Myanmar, it’s judgments about the situation there seem clouded by its own obsessive concerns. The coverage in Chinese state media demonstrates little awareness of the fact that Beijing’s stance of supportive silence on Myanmar, despite its clear concerns about the coup, is viewed by many in Myanmar as complicity.
Just as self-defeating is its tendency to view the protesters’ anti-Chinese orientation not as the result even in part of Chinese actions and decisions, but as the outgrowth of nefarious and usually imagined Western machinations. While the CGTN editorial noted the “scent of foreign influence” in the current anti-coup protests, the Chinese government tabloid Global Times aired the possibility that “the suspected arsonists [of Chinese factories in Myanmar] are possibly anti-China locals who have been provoked by some Western anti-China forces, NGOs, and Hong Kong secessionists.”
All this suggests that if China does take a more active role in Myanmar, it will not be in the interests of returning the country to a state of normalcy (let along democracy); rather, it will be purely aimed at safeguarding its own narrow interests.