Yesterday, a Myanmar-based think-tank released a survey report examining elite attitudes toward China and the current state of Sino-Myanmar relations.
The report by the Institute for Strategy and Policy (ISP-Myanmar for short) surveyed 215 representatives from civil society organizations, political parties, business associations, and ethnic armed organizations, in February and March, a year after the military’s coup d’etat. The surveys unsurprisingly identified a considerable degree of skepticism about China’s activities in Myanmar, including its de facto support for the military government that seized power in last February’s coup. But it also seemed to suggest that discontent with Chinese actions was situational, and could be improved if Beijing adjusted its policy toward the country.
The survey, which was released in English translation yesterday, found that a majority of survey participants (55 percent) expressed a negative view of China as a neighbor, which is only to be expected given China’s proximity to Myanmar, and its predominant economic role in the country. At the same time, and more surprisingly, another 40 percent of respondents described China as a “good neighbor.”
A similar breakdown of opinion was reflected in attitudes toward China’s policy toward post-coup Myanmar, which has seen Beijing effectively recognize and work with the military-run State Administration Council. A slight majority of 54 percent perceived China’s role in Myanmar’s political crisis as either “not positive” or “not positive at all.” Here, again, a slightly surprising total of 40 percent said that the country’s role was either “positive” or “very positive.”
When asked about their most pressing concerns posed by China, 39 percent said its economic dominance, followed by its geopolitical influence (31 percent) and China’s interference in the country’s internal conflicts (19 percent).
China’s status as Myanmar’s largest trading partner was a concern for more than half (58 percent) of respondents, while 26 percent responded that this was a welcome development, presumably because of the economic benefits that Myanmar could derive from the relationship. But the survey results evinced a sense that Myanmar’s economic engagement with Beijing – especially in terms of large-scale China-backed infrastructure projects – benefited China overwhelmingly.
This was reflected most clearly in attitudes toward the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a catch-all term for various infrastructure projects designed to connect China’s Yunnan province with the Indian Ocean. Eighty-three percent said that most of the benefits of CMEC would go to China, while only 12 percent saw that the project could bring mutual benefits to both countries. None said that Myanmar would derive the most benefit.
Given the white-hot public anger that has been directed at the Chinese government by those resisting the military coup, these findings are surprisingly ambivalent. Indeed, they contrast considerably with the findings of the 2022 State of Southeast Asia survey report, the annual survey of regional elite opinion produced by Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
This report found that 87.3 percent of Myanmar-based respondents were worried about China’s “growing regional economic influence,” compared to the regional average of 64.4 percent. Even more – 93.5 percent – said that they were “worried” about China’s “growing regional political and strategic influence,” compared to the regional average of 76.4 percent. Just 1.4 percent of Myanmar-based respondents expressed confidence in China’s ability “to provide leadership to maintain the rules-based order and uphold international law.”
The discrepancy can probably be put down to the sample selection. Both survey samples were small: 350 in the case of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute report, and 215 in the case of ISP-Myanmar’s research. The main difference is the constitution of the sample: 18.6 percent of those who participated in the ISP-Myanmar survey represented business associations and organizations, including those involved with the implementation of CMEC, while the corresponding figure for the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute report was just 2.6 percent. It is natural to assume that figures involved in business would have a more sanguine view of China’s economic influence, and the extent to which Myanmar might benefit from it.
Moreover, it is unclear which ethnic armed groups’ representatives participated, and whether the anti-coup resistance was represented in the survey in any way. There are also questions to be asked about how elite opinion is impacted by anecdotal evidence that there is deep popular discontent toward China for placing itself in league with a hated military government.
Nonetheless, the ISP-Myanmar survey results seem to suggest that negative elite sentiment toward China is elastic compared to nations like Vietnam, where anti-Chinese sentiment is conjoined closely to dominant notions of national identity, and that proper management on the part of Beijing could ameliorate these concerns. Whether China has the desire and ability to incorporate local perceptions into its policy toward Myanmar remains very much in doubt, if history is any guide.