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China’s Risky Strategic Game in Myanmar

A demonstration, against Myanmar's military coup, outside the White House in Washington, DC. Credit: Unsplash/Gayatri Malhotra

BRUSSELS, Nov 8 2021 (IPS) - Before the February 1 coup, China was among the top international partners of the now-in-opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). From 2015 to early 2020, when China closed its borders due to COVID-19, NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi made five trips to China and met the Chinese President Xi Jinping five times.

During one such visit, Xi announced that he would work with the NLD leadership to “jointly create a China-Myanmar community with a shared destiny”. President Xi Jinping himself visited Myanmar in January 2020.

This visit was the first state visit to Myanmar by a Chinese president after a 20-year hiatus, demonstrating the high level of bilateral ties. Xi stated that China “fully supports Myanmar in a development model that meets national conditions”.

Just days after the November 2020 elections, Xi sent a congratulatory message to Aung San Suu Kyi. In the statement, Xi, in his capacity as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), pledged that China would work with San Suu Kyi, particularly in promoting inter-party and inter-government relations.

When tensions between the NLD and Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, escalated in late 2020 and rumors of a coup d’état rose, diplomatic discussions took place behind the scenes. For example, on 12 January 2021, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with army chief Min Aung Hlaing in Nay Pyi Taw.

Wang Yi said: “China will continue to support Myanmar in protecting its sovereignty, national dignity and legitimate rights and interests, support the country in pursuing a development path appropriate to its own national circumstances and Myanmar’s military in playing an appropriate role in and making a positive contribution to the process of transformation and development of the country.”

Min Aung Hlaing replied: “Myanmar is very pleased to witness the increasing international status and influence of China, will remain committed to deepening Myanmar-China friendship and strengthening of all-round cooperation with China, and will continue to support China’s position on issues related to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang.”

After the coup, China declined to condemn the coup, while also rejecting any involvement in the coup. It urged all parties in Myanmar to “resolve their differences”.

The UN Country Team in Myanmar remains “deeply concerned over the humanitarian impact” of the country’s ongoing crises stemming largely from the military coup in February, the UN Spokesperson said on October 21. Credit: World Bank/Markus Kostner

However, China immediately reversed contacts with the NLD. A series of letters from the NLD party and the parallel opposition National Unity Government (NUG) went unanswered for months. Only in July, after a congratulatory letter from the NLD to the CPC on the occasion of its 100th anniversary, Beijing finally broke the silence.

However, this did little to change China’s stance with the junta. On the contrary, in the weeks that followed, China expanded working-level ties with the junta’s State Administrative Council (SAC) and invited them to participate in important bilateral and multilateral meetings.

China’s Janus Face

The Chinese government states that “the friendship between China and Myanmar is open to all people in Myanmar”, and claims to maintain strong relations with the NLD. But looking closely at the actions of Chinese stakeholders over the past few months it reveals a rather ambiguous image: a Janus face.

As Chatham House’s Gareth Price puts it, “China may feel that regardless of the outcome, it will remain Myanmar’s most important partner. But that sentiment may be a misjudgment because if the military is forced to withdraw, it could result in a more pronounced anti-China tilt, threatening its strategic interests.”

This begs the fundamental question: What are China’s true intentions regarding the NLD? Jason Tower, Burma country director at the US Institute of Peace (USIP), tries to answer this question in a well-documented article.

Also, the policy letter from Chatham House, — “Who decides China’s foreign policy?” –, challenges conventional wisdom that China functions as a unitary player in its foreign policy-making process. In reality, Beijing’s approach to external issues is the result of intense negotiations between sub-national authorities with a wide range of objectives.

The number of central government agencies, provincial authorities and large state-owned enterprises with influence over the country’s foreign policy has increased as China’s international relations have become more complex.

Economic cooperation

Following China’s decision in early August to work more closely with the junta’s SAC, local and national Chinese officials quickly pushed ahead with initiatives that deepened economic ties. Everything is part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Myanmar.

The center of this activity was Lincang City, in China’s Yunnan province, across the border of Myanmar’s Kokang Special Autonomous Zone (SAZ) and home to a huge cross-border industrial zone.

Chinese government documents show that the zone had generated more than $31 billion in investments by the end of 2020. The main selling point for the mainly Chinese investors is the access it provides to the Indian Ocean through the port of Yangon and the planned Kyauk Phyu Deep Sea Port Project in southern Rakhine state.

In late August, Lincang signed an agreement with the junta’s commercial authorities to open the trade route to Yangon, the China-Myanmar New Corridor. It links a new 201-kilometer rail line that starts at Lincang and connects to China’s national rail system with a highway that goes to Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, and its port.

In September, neighboring Guangxi province followed Lincang’s lead and struck new business deals with the junta through a separate China-ASEAN Expo. The Expo hosted an exhibition of a major China-backed industrial zone in Mandalay and saw the signing of key deals on e-commerce between Chinese companies and junta-affiliated Myanmar companies.

Mutual political support

According to some international observers, China was initially reluctant to fully embrace the junta. Therefore, China made a deal with the United States not to offer Myanmar’s seat at the United Nations (for the time being) to the delegate elected by the generals. Should this be understood as a Chinese concession to the NLD? Not when the representation agreement is read in full; because, after all, it leaves the current representative, an outspoken pro-NLD supporter, effectively muzzled, notes the South China Morning Post.

Other key political developments reinforce the perception that the emerging alliance between China and the SAC goes beyond the economy.

First, just two days after announcing the UN deal between China and the US, China’s foreign ministry stressed the role Myanmar had accepted in August as coordinator for the China-ASEAN relationship.

The statement, which made no mention of the political crisis, also emphasized China’s desire to proceed with the implementation of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, clearly reassuring its southern neighbor following the deal with the US at the United Nations.

Second, in early September, the SAC Ministry of Health expressed its support for China in the controversy over the origin of COVID-19. Beijing gave the announcement prominent coverage on state CCTV.

Third, when the UN Human Rights Council met in Geneva in mid-September, Myanmar was one of 40 countries to sign a declaration submitted by China condemning foreign interference justified by “human rights or democracy.” This is especially significant as China has argued since the coup that “Western forces” are behind much of the violence, and has repeatedly expressed the need to “prevent foreign interference in Myanmar.”

As a side note on this last point, it should be said that ‘human rights and democracy’ are under pressure as universal values in many Asian countries. Leaving aside the question of how many ASEAN countries are ‘democratic’, the West, and especially the US, often gets a lot of bang for the buck with references to its own ‘past’.

The reality of party-to-party engagement

The resumption of ties between the CPC and the NLD followed a letter sent by the NLD commemorating the 100th anniversary of the CPC. Subsequently, the CPC invited the NLD’s liaison officer for relations with China, to participate via video link in a seminar for South and Southeast Asian political parties ahead of the China-ASEAN Expo.

While the military’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) was also invited, only the NLD was featured in the video of the event broadcast by Chinese state media. While China is once again more lenient on the NLD, there is no indication of Chinese warmth to the parallel NLD-dominated NUG.

On the contrary, Chinese commentators have argued since the founding of the NUG that Aung San Suu Kyi and the other detained NLD leaders may disagree with the path taken, and question the legitimacy of the NUG on this basis.

The CPC has also warned NLD leaders to avoid revolutionary or destabilizing activities. Instead, it has encouraged the NLD to distance itself from the NUG, especially its September 7 Declaration.

Meanwhile, Chinese state media are repeating the junta’s propaganda about the coup, rejecting all of the NUG’s proposals. For example, a crucial step of the NUG was the annulment of the 2008 constitution, which allowed the military to retain significant powers. Many ethnic armed organizations and civil society figures fully support this NUG position.

However, China’s official position calls for an end to the post-coup violence through a political solution based on that constitution.

Is China playing with fire?

A closer look at China’s position that “the friendship between China and Myanmar is open to all the people of Myanmar” provides additional clues to Beijing’s calculations against the NLD.
Beijing remains concerned about the risks to its strategic investments in Myanmar from growing anti-China sentiment.

Since March, Chinese projects have been targeted by protesters and have caused tens of millions of dollars in damage.

Keeping lines open with the NLD could facilitate China’s relationship with the people of Myanmar, who largely continue to support the party. China is therefore warning the Tatmadaw to refrain from banning the NLD, which would cause a popular reaction and further destabilization.

But China is playing a complicated game. Maneuvering in such a way as to provide the NLD with a layer of legitimacy while ignoring the wider NUG movement by China carries risks. Ethnic armed groups, civil society and political parties collaborating with the NUG were already suspicious of the previous NLD government’s compromises with the military. A shattering of their unity could blow up any successful political settlement.

In sum

Interpreting China’s delicate dance with Myanmar’s dictators is complicated at best. China continues to maintain contacts with both the NLD and the junta. But where the NLD connection does not provide material support, Beijing has since August engaged in economic, diplomatic and humanitarian activities that strengthen and directly benefit ties with the military junta.

The Chatham House policy document and Richard McGregor’s “The Party” seem to confirm this. Far from being a well-orchestrated unit, the formulation and implementation of Chinese foreign policy in Beijing’s power corridors is prone to clashes between central government agencies, provincial-level governments, and large state-owned enterprises, each working for their own greater authority and budgetary power.

“Consensus-seeking remains one of the most common forms of decision-making in the Chinese political system. As China has become a major player on the global stage, foreign policy decision-making now requires more time and expertise than has been necessary in the past… Despite President Xi’s rock-solid approach to party control, the foreign policy decision-making process of China continues to be fluid in nature, opaque in execution and erratic in coordination.”

If China is seriously concerned about its long-term interests in Myanmar, it must radically rethink its approach. The declared policy of friendship between China and Myanmar could be a starting point, but it must recognize that the military is effectively waging a war with its people.

There is no way for China to maintain this friendship with the general public while showering the junta with recognition, aid and new business deals. China must also realize that these deals could ultimately fail if the junta proves incapable of governing the country.

Jan Servaes is editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change


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