China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang stopped in Myanmar on May 2, en route to India for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. In doing so, Qin further cemented Beijing’s willingness to work with the military regime that seized power via a coup in February 2021 – even though Myanmar has been wracked by civil for much of the time since then.
According to a statement from China’s Foreign Ministry, Qin’s trip “aimed to further follow through on the outcomes of President Xi Jinping’s historic visit to Myanmar in January 2020.” The statement gave no acknowledgement that Xi’s counterpart during that 2020 visit was Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the since-ousted National League for Democracy government. Aung San Suu Kyi herself is now in jail.
Beijing seems to be pretending that the coup, in effect, didn’t happen. Qin’s visit made clear that China expects to carry on with its previous plans for Myanmar.
In particular, China will “deepen practical cooperation [with Myanmar] in such fields as economy and livelihood, and support Myanmar’s efforts to maintain stability, revitalize the economy, improve people’s lives, and realize sustainable development,” the Foreign Ministry spokesperson said. In the context of ongoing armed resistance against the coup, the pledge to “support Myanmar’s efforts to maintain stability” is key, as it could hint at arms sales or other practical support to the junta’s brutal use of force against opposition forces (and civilians).
Qin’s visit continues a steady trend of solidifying China’s support of and engagement with the military regime. Last July, Qin’s predecessor, Wang Yi, visited Myanmar for the first time since the junta seized control. Wang’s trip was taken as a sign of China’s recognition of the military regime – by both the junta itself and its opponents in Myanmar, who sharply criticized the move. Earlier in the year, Wang had pledged that China would support Myanmar’s military government “no matter how the situation changes”
Notably, however, in July 2022 Wang did not meet with the junta’s leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. Qin did meet with Min Aung Hlaing, effectively bolstering China’s previous support of the military regime.
During their talks, according to China’s Foreign Ministry, Qin said that “China sincerely hopes that the situation in Myanmar will stabilize and that the country will develop.” He added that China “supports Myanmar’s search for a development path that suits its national conditions and has Burmese characteristics.”
As for the ongoing crisis, Qin called for all parties in Myanmar’s conflict to “settle their differences and achieve reconciliation under the constitutional and legal framework.” But he did not explicitly call for an end to the violence, and he also urged the international community to “respect Myanmar’s sovereignty,” which seems to be an oblique call to recognize the rule of the junta.
On China-Myanmar ties specifically, Qin pledged that China will continue to invest in the war-torn country and “speed up the promotion of key cooperation projects under the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.” In a separate meeting with the junta’s foreign minister, Than Swe, Qin promised “major aid projects” for Myanmar, as well as China’s “active support” for improving people’s livelihood – a tall order in a country on the verge of economic collapse.
Indeed, amid the chaos following the 2021 coup, China has had to rethink its approach to projects in the country. The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which seeks to link China’s Yunnan province with Myanmar’s west coast along the Bay of Bengal, involves gas and oil pipelines, industrial and trade zones, a deep-sea port in Kyaukphyu, and the traditional railways and roads that are the linchpin of China’s Belt and Road Initiative around the world.
As Timothy Millar, the founder of Engaged Development, noted in a February 2023 article for The Diplomat, instability in the rest of the country has forced China to focus on CMEC projects “in the geographical periphery of Myanmar. These areas are the calmest and/or border China.” Millar continued:
Although the projects are moving forward at very different rates they include the deep-sea port, SEZ, and power plant at Kyaukphyu; two border trade zones (one of which is approved, the other still in the planning phase); the Mee Ling Gyaing LNG terminal in Ayeyarwady Region on the Bay of Bengal; and possibly the New Yangon Development City, though this remains at the planning stage. Projects that have stalled or stopped include the railway from Muse to Mandalay, related road systems, and multiple industrial zones planned for construction along the transportation routes.
While China sounded a positive note regarding economic cooperation, there were also sign of China’s concerns regarding the unrest in Myanmar. Qin made a point of stopping by the China-Myanmar border before actually entering the neighboring country. From the Wanding-Ruili border crossing, he called for both maintaining the stability of the China-Myanmar border and advancing China-Myanmar friendly cooperation.
Qin said local Chinese Communist Party branches, government departments, the People’s Liberation Army, police, and civilians must make “joint efforts to strengthen the border defense system, maintain clear and stable borders, and severely crack down on cross-border criminal activities.”
China has cause to worry about the border. In the past, instability in Myanmar has led not only to streams of refugees seeking shelter in China, but even the occasional spillover of violence. In 2015, an airstrike by the Myanmar Air Force landed on the wrong side of the border, killing four Chinese citizens in Yunnan. Qin’s visit made clear China’s bottom line for its relationship with Myanmar before he even left China, allowing him to avoid embarrassing his hosts upon arrival in their country.
At the same time, speaking from Ruili, Qin also stressed that “It is necessary to coordinate border management, border trade development, and bilateral relations,” including promoting “normal border trade and personnel exchanges between China and Myanmar… speed[ing] up the construction of cross-border economic cooperation zones, and promot[ing] the construction of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.” In other words, China is well aware of the risks, but is determined to move forward anyway.