[Analytics] China’s ties with Myanmar shouldn’t be mistaken for confused diplomacy

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi attend a signing ceremony of a memorandum of understanding (MOU). Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Contrary to much external commentary on China’s role in Myanmar, it neither enjoys unconditional leverage over the country nor has it lost complete control. Beijing has oscillated between full-throated recognition of the coup regime and publicly communicating with the political opposition led by the NUG. Angshuman Choudhury specially for the South China Morning Post.

On January 7 this year, Myanmar’s civilian militia opposing the junta bombed three electricity pylons supplying power to the Tagaung Taung nickel-processing plant in the country’s northwestern Sagaing region. It was the first attack by a civilian militia – or People’s Defence Force, as many of them are now known in Myanmar – to have forced a China-backed industrial facility to stop operations since the coup on February 1 last year.

It came nearly seven months after a bomb exploded at a Chinese-backed clothing factory in Pathein, the capital of Ayeyarwady region in southwestern Myanmar, and eight months since a group of unidentified assailants in Mandalay region killed three security guards monitoring pipelines carrying crude oil and natural gas from Myanmar’s southern coast to China’s Yunnan province.

These incidents reflect China’s complex and arguably besieged fate in post-coup Myanmar – a country that remains absolutely vital to Beijing’s geostrategic calculus in the Indian Ocean region.

Since the Myanmar military snatched power from the civilian government in a highly-denounced takeover, Beijing has oscillated between full-throated recognition of the coup regime and publicly communicating with the political opposition led by the National Unity Government (NUG). For lay observers, this might look like confused diplomacy, but for those watching China-Myanmar relations for years, it’s hardly anything out of the ordinary.

Newfound stability

China has long maintained a multidimensional footprint in Myanmar, underpinned by the pair’s vaunted “Pauk Phaw” (fraternal) relationship. Their layered bilateral ties are, in large part, shaped by an uneven history – marked sometimes by extreme tension and at others, unprecedented cooperation.

The vacillating pattern sustained through the last decade as Myanmar embarked on a historic transition from military rule to a negotiated parliamentary democracy. It began with bitterness, as armed conflict along the country’s northern borders spilled over into China, and the former quasi-civilian administration of President Thein Sein pulled the plug on the big-ticket, Beijing-backed Myitsone dam project. But, with Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), taking charge in 2016, Beijing discovered new roads to Naypyidaw.

Largely ditched by the West after the Rohingya crisis in 2017, Suu Kyi’s administration found an all-weather partner in Beijing who was not only willing to use its veto at the UN Security Council to shield Myanmar from any punitive resolutions, but also nudge the powerful ethnic armed groups in Myanmar’s north to participate in her flagship national peace process – even if only nominally.

In return, Beijing introduced its Belt and Road Initiative to Myanmar and negotiated a slew of big-ticket projects with her government, of which the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor was the most prominent.

After years of unpredictability, China had finally found a modicum of stability in Myanmar. It allowed Beijing to create renewed goodwill in a country that had a long history of anti-Chinese resentment and even violence.

Then came the coup.

A forked strategy

As the junta took back power from the civilian government by force, an act that was instantly met with countrywide resistance, China suddenly found its boat in the middle of rough seas.

Just two days after the coup, Burmese social media erupted in anti-Chinese anger after Beijing blocked a UN Security Council resolution to condemn the takeover, which China initially called a “cabinet reshuffle”. This was followed by widespread allegations that China was helping the Myanmar military to build an internet firewall, which the Chinese embassy in Yangon had to categorically refute.

Weeks later, work came to a grinding halt at the Chinese-owned Kyisintaung copper mines in the Monywa district of Sagaing region after more than 2,000 miners joined the anti-coup Civil Disobedience Movement. In March, Chinese factories in Yangon were set ablaze. That same month, the junta’s police shot dead two ethnic Chinese protesters, galvanising large sections of the Sino-Burmese community against not just the coup regime, but also Beijing.

China’s much-cherished stability in Myanmar was going up in smoke.

Amid the raging chaos, Beijing began to put its other foot forward. In mid-February, the Chinese ambassador in Myanmar called for “dialogue and consultation” while noting that both the NLD and military had “friendly relations with China”. One month later, China expressed concern at the growing death toll in Myanmar. In April, it opened an official channel with civilian lawmakers deposed by the military, iterating its concern for the safety of Chinese citizens and investments in Myanmar.

Then in June, Beijing did something that caught everyone’s attention. When China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi met his junta counterpart, U Wunna Maung Lwin, in Chongqing, he stressed Beijing’s support for “resuming [Myanmar’s] democratic transformation under the constitution and legal framework”. Just a month earlier, the military-appointed Union Election Commission had announced that the NLD would be dissolved. In August, Beijing told the junta that it didn’t want that to happen. A month later, a Global Times editorial referred to the NLD as the “legitimate party in Myanmar”.

Even on the international stage, China began to play the double game. In a rare diplomatic move in September, Beijing chose not to support the Myanmar junta’s appointee to the UN, instead making a back-door deal with the US to preserve the seat for the pro-democracy ambassador who had served in the role since 2018, Kyaw Moe Tun. That same month, China’s Communist Party reportedly invited the NLD to participate in a virtual summit for Asian political parties.

It was clear, both to the junta and the opposition, that Beijing hadn’t yet given up on democracy in Myanmar. This might have looked surprising during the Cold War when the Chinese staunchly supported nothing but communism in other countries. But times have changed, and so has China – it is now more pragmatic about its external political outreach.

None of this means that Beijing has ditched the junta. In fact, it has continued to embrace the coup regime through the past year.

In June, it assured the junta that China’s support would remain consistent regardless of domestic developments in Myanmar. In August, it went one step further and used the term “government” for the coup regime while pledging to transfer US$6 million to Myanmar for 21 development projects under the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation framework.

Also in August, Sun Guoxiang, China’s Special Envoy for Asian Affairs and the key mediator between Naypyidaw and the northern ethnic armed groups, made an undisclosed weeklong trip to Myanmar. Just days after, China and the junta jointly undertook a trial run for a cross-border freight corridor from Yangon to Chengdu. In November, Guoxiang made another trip to Myanmar to meet the junta, this time publicising it beforehand. The month afterwards, China obliged the junta by arranging a meeting with some of the ethnic armed groups who rejected the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.

Meanwhile, Beijing continued to defend the generals from international sanctions and pushed forward with belt and road projects. Despite the coup, it transferred to Myanmar a Ming-class diesel-electric submarine, which was officially commissioned into the country’s navy in December. China has also been providing Covid-19 vaccines to the junta, transferring a total of 40 million shots, or almost 90 per cent of the jabs administered by the coup regime so far.

Stability over all else

As per the current Chinese playbook in Myanmar, implementation of strategic and developmental projects is paramount. For that to happen, Beijing wants maximum stability and minimum volatility next door. If that means courting the political opposition, even at the cost of angering the junta leadership, so be it.

This strategy works well for Beijing not because it has some divine carte blanche in Myanmar, but because the generals – who today find themselves sinking deeper into a quagmire of revulsion and revolution – simply cannot afford to alienate the Chinese. They are no longer in a position to relay even tacit discontent towards Beijing, like they did two years ago over what they believed was covert Chinese support to the Arakan Army and other non-ceasefire ethnic armed groups.

This is even more the case because of the critical economic imperative. The coup regime’s glorified promises to rebuild Myanmar’s economy will remain a pipe dream without Chinese money. No wonder the junta, since the coup, has rapidly restructured all relevant bodies to ensure that the belt and road projects move ahead in earnest. It has also tried to convince the Chinese that normalcy is returning to Myanmar, even as attacks by anti-junta militias rise in frequency, intensity and spread across the country.

The Chinese, however, are not to be fooled by anyone about the situation in Myanmar. They remain highly concerned about potential attacks against critical assets, which Beijing has repeatedly conveyed to the generals. In April, China even scrambled its own forces along the border to secure vital gas and oil pipelines. The junta, which is currently preoccupied in a multi-front countrywide battle with both anti-coup militias and ethnic armed groups, hasn’t been able to do much. Some recent reports suggest that junta troops have been laying landmines close to the China-Myanmar pipeline in northern Shan State, but that’s all.

Beijing knows it can’t rely on just the military to secure its investments in Myanmar. Following the latest attack on the nickel plant, the Chinese embassy in Yangon this month reached out to the NUG, and urged it to prevent attacks by the armed resistance on China’s projects inside the country. This is China’s modest recognition of two emerging realities – the military is not the sole security guarantor in Myanmar; and the NUG is a key political force in the country.

That Beijing contacted the NUG despite the latter not commanding influence over all of Myanmar’s anti-junta militias may also indicate that the Chinese do not have any other channels of communication with the country’s growing armed resistance. In fact, China no longer enjoys the kind of leverage over Myanmar’s politico-security landscape that it did before the coup. The only war the military was fighting beforehand was with the various northern ethnic armed groups, most of which were squarely in Beijing’s sphere of influence. But this sphere does not extend to the militias, many of which are based in the heartland of the Sino-Tibetan Bamar people.

This makes it even more imperative for Beijing to maintain a working relationship with the NUG, Civil Disobedience Movement and other influential pro-democracy entities in Myanmar who might be able to influence the many anti-junta militias in operation today and protect Chinese interests.

Trusting old players

Yet China is unlikely to pull its horses from the military’s stables any time soon. The junta, despite facing a bulging armed resistance, continues to enjoy relative military and economic advantage over the pro-democracy forces. It might be losing territory, but remains in control of the overall state structure – including its key revenue streams and industrial-level defence production and acquisition.
The junta is also an eager customer of Chinese military hardware, which keeps it valuable for Beijing. But there are now more competitors in this domain. According to some observers, the generals have started to show a greater interest in Russian weapons over Chinese ones of late. Two months before the coup, the junta also took possession of a Soviet-built, Kilo-class submarine from India. These developments make it even more imperative for China to keep the junta appeased and on a tight leash.

One way China is trying to secure better command over the situation is through Asean. The regional grouping, under internal and external pressure, had progressively hardened its stance on the coup over the past year – until finally it took the historic step of snubbing the junta at two high-profile summits, including one hosted by China in November. This was primarily because junta chief Min Aung Hlaing continued to stall the implementation of Asean’s “Five-Point Consensus” by refusing to allow a special envoy to meet Suu Kyi.

While Beijing backed the Asean process on Myanmar from the very beginning, the bloc’s hardening stance was making it difficult for China to protect the junta. But things changed when Cambodia replaced Brunei as the organisation’s chair in December and Prime Minister Hun Sen paid a working visit to Myanmar on January 7-8, showing much eagerness to reinstate the junta in Asean processes.

China wasted no time in throwing its weight behind Cambodia’s chairmanship of the organisation. It obviously believes that through Phnom Penh, it can exercise greater leverage over both the Five-Point Consensus process and the junta, which is desperate for international legitimacy. However, for Beijing, the ground remains shaky as several other influential Asean members, such as Singapore and Malaysia, have expressed serious concerns over Cambodia’s approach to Myanmar. What’s more, Hun Sen already appears to have made a volte face from his earlier stance, revealing on Tuesday that he would invite the junta to future meetings only if it made progress on the Five-Point Consensus.

For the Chinese, Myanmar is not an easy puzzle to crack, contrary to what many might believe. Most of the external commentary on China’s role in the country straddles the extremes – that it has unconditional leverage, or that it has “lost” Myanmar. The reality is somewhere in between, and Beijing knows that all too well. The situation remains fluid and the ice thin.

For China, there will be no substitute for cautious diplomacy that helps retain all its cards on the table.

Angshuman Choudhury is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, where he also coordinates the South East Asia Research Programme. He is also a former GIBSA Visiting Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin.

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