China is pulling the Myanmar junta closer to its chest. Why?
Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, recently met the junta foreign minister, U Wunna Maung Lwin, and extended full support to Myanmar's coup regime. What's behind Beijing's renewed outreach?
On 1 April 2022 – April Fool’s Day – the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, met with the foreign minister (FM) of the Myanmar junta – which calls itself the “State Administration Council (SAC)” – in Tunxi, the central district of Huangshan City in the eastern landlocked province of Anhui.
The junta FM, U Wunna Maung Lwin, met Yi on the latter’s invitation, which the Chinese foreign ministry announced on 28 March. The meeting also included delegation-level talks. Both sides signed an Agreement on Economic and Technical Cooperation and a protocol for the export of bananas from Myanmar to China. They also announced the opening of a new consulate for Myanmar in Chongqing.
Both sides put out their own press releases after the meeting – China on its foreign ministry website, and the junta on its mouthpiece daily, The Global New Light of Myanmar (GNLM). Interestingly, the news item on the meeting appeared only in the fourth page of the GNLM. Ordinarily, the junta likes to flash news about high level diplomatic meetings on the front page, because well, it is desperate for international legitimacy.
Both readouts are pretty much the same. There is only one minor difference – the junta copy mentions the “achievements made on the implementation of the five-point road map and the nine political, economic and social objectives of the SAC for all-round development of Myanmar”, which is absent from the Chinese copy.
One could argue that Beijing had, for all practical purposes, already recognised the junta as Myanmar’s legitimate government last year (see Wang Yi’s statement from June, outcomes of bilateral meeting in August, and developmental assistance given in December). But, this meeting marked the most explicit and comprehensive recognition by China of Myanmar’s coup regime.
The big picture takeaway from the meeting is this – China considers Myanmar to be an indispensable regional partner, and believes that the junta will be able to bring stability to the country.
I’m going to use the Chinese readout of the meeting for analysis because it is more detailed and shines light on Beijing’s vantage point. Here are a few salient excerpts with analyses:
No matter how the situation changes, China will always support Myanmar in safeguarding sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity and exploring a development path in line with its national conditions, and support the people of Myanmar in pursuing a happy and peaceful life.
This is China recognising, yet again, that Myanmar is absolutely crucial for its regional agenda. It is Beijing sending a clear message to the people of Myanmar and rest of the world that it is willing to work with whosoever is in power in Naypyitaw. If that happens to be the military, so be it. The unconditionality of the support expressed in these words is similar to the language used by Yi in June 2021 when he met the junta FM on the sidelines of the ASEAN-China Special Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Chongqing. The Chinese FM had said that Beijing’s support to Myanmar “is not affected by changes to Myanmar’s domestic and external situation”. This time, China was also careful to extend “support” to the “people of Myanmar”. Of course, the majority of the “people of Myanmar” reject the junta and voted in favour of democratic rule. China knows this full well, but wants to reframe the reality to suit its own foreign policy interests (won’t sell easy with the Myanmar people, though). The emphasis on Myanmar’s “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity” is a not-so-subtle message to foreign powers, especially the West, to not poke their noses in Myanmar. According to Beijing (and the junta), the coup is a purely internal matter.
China is ready to work with Myanmar to implement the outcomes of President Xi Jinping's historic visit to Myanmar, forge the four pillars of political mutual trust, mutually beneficial cooperation, people-to-people bonds and mutual learning in culture and people-to-people exchanges, and deepen exchanges and cooperation in various fields in a coordinated manner, so as to achieve the goal of building a China-Myanmar community with a shared future.
This is China recalling Chinese President Xi Jinping’s historic visit to Myanmar in January 2020. What makes this interesting is that it was the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi that was in power during that visit (which neither readout mentions, of course). It was, in fact, touted as a great diplomatic success for the Suu Kyi government, which had begun to embrace Beijing after being royally snubbed by the West over the Rohingya crisis in 2017. The “achieve the goal of building a China-Myanmar community with a shared future” part in this statement is literally lifted from Xi’s remarks from the 2020 visit. It is Beijing’s way of projecting continuity in China-Myanmar relations – as something that will endure irrespective of “internal developments” in Myanmar. It is China’s attempt to immunise its core agenda of development and strategic influence-building in Myanmar from the throes of political instability next door. Notably, the junta side too repeated the point about Xi’s visit, showing that it is willing to defer to the Chinese narrative of continuity.
China is ready to conduct experience-sharing on state governance and development with Myanmar's government and various parties and factions, so as to help Myanmar realize domestic political reconciliation and restart the process of democratic transition.
This is somewhat fascinating – China calling for a resumption of the process of democratic transition in Myanmar. But, this isn’t the first time it is doing so since the coup. For instance, Wang Yi said the same thing in a phone call to the Bruneian Second Minister of Foreign Affairs (and the then ASEAN Special Envoy to Myanmar), Erywan bin Pehin Yosuf, in August 2021.
This might surprise many, but one has to understand two things.
One, China has changed its diplomatic tact when it comes to democracy abroad. Unlike in the decades past, today’s Chinese Community Party (CCP) isn’t hard set on exporting its own political ideology to other countries. For the modern day Chinese state, ensuring stability and smooth bilateral cooperation precedes the imperative to export Communism. If a democratic system in a partner country is working well to ensure smooth operation of Chinese initiatives, there’s no need to tamper with it.
This brings us to the second point, which is that Myanmar’s negotiated half-democracy under Suu Kyi was working well for China. Under her leadership, Naypyitaw had reversed some of the frostiness that Thein Sein’s Myitsone dam project suspension in 2011 had introduced in the bilateral. The civilian government was eager to facilitate Chinese projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including the big ticket China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). Suu Kyi’s popular rule and peace process, with all their lapses, had brought some stability to the general political and economic environment in Myanmar – which is exactly what Beijing was seeking since long. The coup rocked that boat, with the junta pushing Myanmar into a renewed state of instability and unpredictability. Hence, China continues to insist – albeit in a low voice – on restoration of democracy next door. And to that end, it is willing to extend institutional support, even if in nominal terms.
The two sides should advance the construction of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, strengthen cooperation on industrial parks, cross-border power grids and connectivity, and implement well major landmark projects.
This lies at the heart of China’s approach to Myanmar today. Beijing is desperate to resume its infrastructure and development projects in the country, which were all abruptly stalled due to the coup and the ensuing violence. Just six months after the coup, it pledged US$6 million to fund 21 development projects in Myanmar under the Mekong-Lancang Cooperation framework. It is particularly eager to restart work on the BRI and within that, the CMEC, which is the crown jewel in the global mega-project’s Myanmar chapter. For China, connecting its landlocked Southeast to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar’s southern coast remains of paramount importance. In August, Beijing took another step forward in that direction by undertaking a trial run of a cross-border freight railway line from Chengdu to Yangon. The junta itself is pretty desperate to restart BRI projects, not least because it wants to give an impression of economic development and progress to the people. Just one month after the coup, it reorganised several committees that look after BRI and related projects. In December, following several months of ascendant countrywide insurgency, the junta appealed to Beijing to resume work on its stalled infrastructure projects. So, its a mutual give-and-take.
Wang Yi said, Myanmar is a member of the big ASEAN family, and China hopes that ASEAN countries adhere to the ASEAN way, safeguard ASEAN solidarity, send a common message, and work with Myanmar to constructively implement the ASEAN's "five-point consensus" based on the principle of non-interference in internal affairs.
This is China effectively telling ASEAN to stop isolating the junta and take a business-as-usual approach on the coup. It knows that the Five-Point Consensus is a toothless document that won’t do much harm to the junta and in fact, help normalise the coup regime. But, it also knows that ASEAN might use it as a stick against the junta – which it actually has, case-in-point repeated bans on the junta from its meetings. ASEAN member states have also grumbled against attempts by the current Chair, Cambodia, to normalise ties with the junta. These have made Beijing increasingly uncomfortable.
ASEAN showing too much autonomy on regional affairs isn’t something that floats China’s boat. Beijing wants more control over how Myanmar is treated within the regional organisation. Hence, it’s insistence on the “ASEAN way” – which can also be read as the good old way of looking away from the junta’s atrocities inside Myanmar.
Wang Yi stressed, joint efforts should be made to cope with the negative spillover effects of the Ukraine crisis, oppose unilateral sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction, and safeguard legitimate rights and interests of developing countries.
This is a topical point whose significance shouldn’t be understated. The mention of the Russia-Ukraine crisis (only “Ukraine crisis”, according to China) is important and illustrative of broader dynamics. Beijing’s renewed outreach to Naypyitaw cannot only be seen in a purely bilateral context. It has a wider geopolitical connotation.
For China, Myanmar is crucial not just as a strategic access point in the immediate region, but also as an entity that is vulnerable to being influenced by the West (especially, the US). In China’s view, the West can exercise its sway over Myanmar either directly or through ASEAN. This is even more so in the current context as the US continues to pressure ASEAN to take a strong stance against the junta, openly talk to the National Unity Government (NUG), and impose sanctions. China also remains deeply wary of the West dragging Myanmar to international bodies – such as the UN, International Court of Justice (ICJ) and International Criminal Court (ICC) – and setting it up for punitive action (as they are doing against Moscow). Hence, the reference to “long-arm jurisdiction”. Further, widespread speculations about the West potentially sending weapons to the political opposition in Myanmar makes China jittery – just as the West arming Ukraine makes Russia anxious.
It is a fact that the Russia-Ukraine crisis has sharpened the polarisation between the West and its key global competitors (Russia, China). In such a volatile landscape, it only makes sense for China to fortify the fencing around its neighbourhood and mend the weak points. Myanmar – which sits at a strategic sweet spot between South and Southeast Asia, with a direct opening to the Indian Ocean – is absolutely critical for that. Over the last few months, China had somewhat dithered on its support for the junta, stopping short of fully embracing it (and also opening channels with the NUG). But, the geopolitical flux triggered by the Russia-Ukraine crisis appears to have pushed Beijing to act swiftly and co-opt the junta as an all-weather ally. The junta, of course, is happy to acquiesce.
Further, the NUG has strongly condemned the Russian invasion, which could open new doors for the West to collaborate with it. The US’ National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) 2021 talks about providing “democracy assistance, including support” to the NUG – which might read vaguely to most, but raise eyebrows in Beijing.
The bottomline here is that China doesn’t want the West to exploit the current international situation to extend its umbrella over Myanmar. Hence, it is moving in decisively to stop that. But, whether hedging all its bets on the junta is the smart way of doing that remains to be seen. The junta, after all, is hardly a force for stability in today’s Myanmar. It has done everything to destabilise the country and damage prospects for material development. Chinese assets in Myanmar have already come under attack by anti-junta entities on more than one occasion. Its renewed push to embrace the coup regime could trigger many more such attacks, which would spell doom for Beijing’s dream projects in the country. The NUG, in an official statement, called the latest meeting between Yi and Lwin “deeply disrespectful and offensive” to the Myanmar people. And it is a fact that the NUG has several People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) under its command.
Just three months ago, following an attack by a PDF on a China-owned nickel plant in Sagaing Region’s Tigyaing Township, Beijing requested the NUG to spare its investments from harm. While the NUG may not have ordered that attack (as it itself claimed), it may not be so generous or passive in the months to come if China continues to entertain the junta so dearly.
There is no debate about the sheer immorality of China’s support to the brutal coup regime in Myanmar. It is selfish, dangerous and damaging for the people of Myanmar. But only time will tell if it is a prudent diplomatic move for Beijing.