Historically, Myanmar has always had an appeasing behavior vis-à-vis China, which remains the key economic partner for the Southeast Asian country. The February 1st coup has raised some worries in both states, as the military junta fears the excessive dependence on Beijing. Is there a chance that Myanmar will distance itself from the Beijing?
Since 2011, Myanmar has been undergoing a gradual, albeit limited, process of democratization. The military-led party State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) won the 2010 elections, but it started a political transition by forming a quasi-civilian government and by appointing Thein Sein as President of Myanmar. In 2016, the civilian-led National League for Democracy (NLD) and its de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi acquired power after winning elections, and the democratization of the country seemed to have reached a turning point. However, the February 1st military coup has brought dictatorship back to life in the country. The return to power of the military junta, however, might not entail any change in the country’s foreign policy vis-à-vis China.
MYANMAR-CHINA: THE “KINSHIP” RELATIONSHIP
In the Sino-U.S. competition that unfolds throughout Southeast Asia, Myanmar has officially pursued a non-alignment policy. Nonetheless, it is widely acknowledged that the country has always had a paukphaw (i.e., kinship) relationship with China since the 1950s.[i] Two main factors have led the country to pursue a policy of appeasement vis-à-vis Beijing. First, Myanmar has been in need of diplomatic protection and support within international fora for years. Since the violent crackdown of the 1988 political protests, sprung from the population’s weariness of the serious economic crisis and the harsh military dictatorship, the United States has been pelted the country with sanctions. Moreover, Washington has been repeatedly calling for democratic reforms and the respect for human rights. The U.S. tough stance towards Myanmar was echoed by other states, hence isolating the country from the international system. It can be said that Myanmar became a pariah state. Meanwhile, China offered the military government diplomatic protection at the UN Security Council, as well as establishing strong economic relationships that soon transformed into a form of dependence for the Southeast Asian state.
China is the key economic partner for Myanmar. It is both the first destination of Myanmar’s export (31.7%) and the first country of origin of the import (34.7%).[ii] Along with Singapore, China is also the main foreign investor in the country. In fact, Myanmar is the recipient of three Chinese mega-projects, despite they have encountered some hurdles during their realization. As often happens, recipient states of Beijing’s investment fear indebtment, increasing economic and political overdependence, and popular unrest. For example, the Myitsone Dam project, worth $3.6 billion, was blocked in 2011 by former President Thein Sein after a strong opposition by the population, who claimed that the dam would cause an environmental disaster in the areas inhabited by the ethnic Kachin. To date, works on the dam have not resumed yet.
The political gridlock sparked by the interruption of the project is a good example that witnesses the connection between the two countries. Both the government of Thein Sein and the subsequent government of Aung San Suu Kyi were aware that forcing excessively the hand of China would have caused friction between the two countries. The opposition to the building of the Myitsone Dam was understood as a “symbolic move against overbearing Chinese influence” by many Western countries.[iii] Indeed, Myanmar has often showed a certain degree of intolerance towards Beijing’s increasing leverage. However, Burmese government needs China’s money as well as and diplomatic support. Xi Jinping has repeatedly underlined the observance of the principle of non-interference in a state’s internal affairs.
In Myanmar’s case, China has been a key partner in this respect over the years. First, it provided for diplomatic support and protection during the tenure of the military government, which considered Chinese backing as crucial for the survival of the regime and for countering international isolation. Second, China is one of the few countries that buttressed NLD’s harsh crackdown on the ethnic Rohingya. “[China] supports Myanmar’s efforts to safeguard the peace and stability of the Rakhine State”, claimed Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang in 2017, “and sincerely hopes that the Rakhine State can restore stability as soon as possible and the local people can live a normal life again.”
The cautious Chinese declaration about Myanmar coup shows, once again, the measured behavior China maintains when the domestic affairs of another state is the point at issue. Wang Wenbin, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, few hours after the coup claimed that, “China is a friendly neighbor of Myanmar. We hope that all parties in Myanmar will properly handle their differences under the constitutional and legal framework and maintain political and social stability.” About ten days later, Wang Wenbin repeated the same exact words, signaling that China has not taken a stand yet. Many analysts argue that Beijing is not content about the situation, as it would have preferred to cultivate the thriving relationship that was settled with Aung San Suu Kyi’s government.
Bertil Lintner, an expert of Myanmar, asserts that, “Beijing had cozied up to her [Aung San Suu Kyi] and her party [NLD] before the coup because its policymakers and business groups found it easier to deal with them than the staunchly nationalistic military.” Indeed, the newly established military junta had already expressed some concerns in the past on the risk of overdependence towards the giant neighbor. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Lintner points out, is renowned for its distrust on China’s political and economic operations, which aim at achieving hegemony not only in Southeast Asia, but in the entire Asia-Pacific. However, the Sino-Burmese relationship will not undergo significant changes, even in case the military government will stay in power for more than the declared one-year term.
CHINA’S LEVERAGE IS NOT IN JEOPARDY
Myanmar needs China and China needs Myanmar. As already mentioned, Myanmar necessitates Chinese investment, economic aid, and diplomatic support. China wants to preserve the “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” that was forged in May 2011, when the then President Thein Sein visited Beijing.[iv] Myanmar is highly regarded by China, both from the economic and the strategic point of view. The Southeast Asian state is rich in natural resources, such as timber, jade and natural gas, that lure Chinese interest. It is not a novelty that Beijing is always in search of raw materials to sustain its gigantic economic needs.
Furthermore, it desires to enhance military cooperation in order to gain access to the Burmese ports that overlook the strategically purposeful Bay of Bengal. China wants a politically stable Myanmar in order to pursue its agenda in the country, thus proceeding with its flows of investment, the building of infrastructure, and the strengthening of political ties. As previously stated, the military-led SPDCA has been more hardheaded concerning China’s influence on the country than the democratic NLD. Besides Chinese preferences about who is in power in Naypyidaw, Beijing will try to set up solid ties with the new government.
In addition, the military junta must now face increasing popular demonstrations and international disdain. It seems that the tape has been rewound for Myanmar, which witnesses a similar situation that happened at the end of the 1980s. The international relations of Myanmar have been improving since the democratic transition that started in 2011. Western countries, like the United States, began to lift sanctions and to talk about restoring military cooperation. In particular, the U.S. policy in Myanmar has sought for an improvement of the bilateral relationship since 2011, albeit the key tenet has always remained the promotion of democracy and the respect of human rights. After the coup, the U.S. and other Western countries’ Embassies have jointly called for the restoration of democracy and have asked the military to refrain from violence against civilians, who are “protesting the overthrow of their legitimate government [emphasis added].” The statement also warns the illegitimate government that “the world is watching.”
Therefore, the military coup could frustrate all the efforts made by Western countries to reconcile with Myanmar and to give the country an alternative to China. Military-led Myanmar might find itself internationally isolated as it has been for decades. The only solution is to lean on China’s economic and diplomatic support, once again. Beijing’s clout on the Burmese is not going to ebb.
[i] Cox, Michael, Ang Cheng Guan, Jürgen Haacke, Tan Sri Munir Majid, Thitinan Pongsidurak, Johan Saravanamuttu, Rizal Sukma, Robyn Klingler Vidra, Odd Arne Westad, and Emmanuel Yujuico. Rep. Edited by Nicholas Kitchen. The New Geopolitics of Southeast Asia. London, United Kingdom: LSE, 2012, p. 56. https://www.lse.ac.uk/ideas/publications/reports/southeast-asia-geopolitics.
[ii] World Trade Organization, Myanmar’s trade profile. https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/statis_e/daily_update_e/trade_profiles/MM_e.pdf
[iii] Cox et al., “The New Geopolitics of Southeast Asia,” p. 57.