Before Monday’s military coup in Myanmar, the nation’s relations with China were already complicated by Chinese investments in its infrastructure and the Burmese military’s campaigns along their shared border.
The coup deposed Burmese State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi a little over a year after Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) made a show of support to her with the first visit by a head of state from Beijing to Myanmar since 2001 and signing 33 agreements on a wide range of issues.
Burmese Army Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has taken charge of the new government under a one-year state of emergency.
Illustration: Tania Chou
Even if China played no role at all in ousting Aung San Suu Kyi, Beijing is likely to gain still greater sway over the nation, analysts say. That is especially likely if the US and other Western governments impose sanctions to try to punish the military regime.
At a news conference on the situation at the UN Security Council on Tuesday, the UN envoy for Myanmar condemned the coup and urged the council to support democracy in the nation, but it was unclear if the council would issue a statement calling for restoration of democracy and the release of all those detained by the military because the UN missions of China and Russia said they had to send it to their capitals for review.
Beijing’s initial reaction to the coup was measured.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Wang Wenbin (汪文斌) on Monday said that China was studying the situation, describing Myanmar as a “friendly neighbor.”
He urged Myanmar to properly handle the situation according to its laws and constitution, and “maintain political and social stability.”
China has invested billions of dollars in Burmese mines, oil and gas pipelines, and other infrastructure. It is the nation’s biggest trading partner.
However, while the Chinese Communist Party tends to favor fellow authoritarian regimes, it has had a fractious history with the Burmese military, sometimes related to its campaigns against ethnic Chinese minority groups and the drug trade along their long, mountainous border.
It was partly a backlash against China’s growing dominance of Myanmar’s economy a decade ago that led the previous military junta to shift toward democratic reforms that enabled Aung San Suu Kyi to join parliament and become the nation’s de facto leader, even as the military retained ultimate power.
Aung San Suu Kyi has shifted closer to Beijing in the past few years as she defended the Burmese military against condemnation of atrocities against the Rohingya in Rakhine state. That might have deepened military leaders’ distrust, especially after their party suffered a resounding loss in last year’s elections.
“It was always a risk that the military would step in to try and shore up their power,” Champa Patel, director of the Asia-Pacific Program at Chatham House in London, said in an e-mailed statement. “Their insecurity has deepened as [Aung San Suu Kyi] consolidated her power within the country and deepened ties with countries such as China.”
The coup came just three weeks after a visit by Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅), who met with Aung San Suu Kyi and military officials in the capital, Naypyidaw.
The visit was seen in part as an endorsement of the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party in last year’s election and partly as a signal that Beijing would like to see faster progress on projects agreed a year earlier.
Some have speculated that Beijing might have given a covert nod to the generals, but while the coup might lead Myanmar’s leaders to lean more heavily on support from China, supplier of most of their weapons and one of the nation’s biggest sources of foreign investment, researcher Zhao Gancheng (趙干城) at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies said that it was an unwelcome disruption.
“As a neighboring country, I can’t see anything good for China, given that all of China’s investments and infrastructure construction need a stable environment,” Zhao said. “China is concerned about this development.”
Regardless of what internal politics, antagonisms and personal ambitions might have driven Min Aung Hliang and other military leaders to seize power, China is bound to continue to expand its influence in Myanmar, given the huge projects already under construction, as well as the depth of Chinese involvement in businesses ranging from casinos, factories and property development to pipelines and ports.
BELT AND ROAD
The Chinese consortium leading a deep-water port project in Kyaukphyu, on Myanmar’s northwestern coast, last week began seeking bids for environmental assessments of the project.
An anchor of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative to build infrastructure across much of Asia linking its economy to the rest of the world, it would give China coveted overland access to the Bay of Bengal.
China has massive commitments to projects in mining, hydropower and other construction, part of the US$21.5 billion it has pledged to invest in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi’s government had been slowly moving ahead on such projects, some of which face strong local opposition.
“China has strategic, vested interests in keeping Myanmar as stable as they possibly can,” said Chris Ankersen, a professor at the New York University School of Professional Studies’ Center for Global Affairs. “It works to China’s advantage to be seen as someone who has to be consulted.”
After nearly a decade of reforms and gradual opening of Myanmar’s long-isolated economy, US and other Western businesses have made only tentative investments, usually with local or Asian partners.
Western governments that already have imposed sanctions against Min Aung Hliang, other top military leaders and businesses over human rights abuses therefore have relatively scant leverage in persuading Myanmar’s leaders to restore civilian rule.
The military might have decided, ultimately, that the cost of defying Western public opinion by staging a coup was outweighed by its own domestic considerations — a determination to push Aung San Suu Kyi aside, Ankersen said.
In the past, the military has at times sought to counter growing Chinese influence over the economy, showing “a more independent streak that sought to balance against Chinese influence,” Patel said.
The generals control big chunks of Myanmar’s economy and are likely to maneuver to maximize what they can gain through dealings with their Chinese partners.
Min Aung Hliang is a major investor in Myanma Economic Holdings, a conglomerate set up by the military in 1990 that has major joint projects with Chinese corporations, including the Letpadaung copper mine.
“China will have greater leverage to pull Myanmar further into the orbit of its own plans for economic development,” said John Dale, a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
Japan, Singapore and other nations that are more heavily invested in Myanmar are likely to balk at harsh measures against the new military regime, said Gregory Poling and Simon Tran Hudes of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“And the largest foreign player in Myanmar’s economy, China, will be all too happy to recalibrate its engagement to recognize the new facts on the ground. That will likely soften the blow of any US sanctions, which Min Aung Hlaing has doubtless already anticipated and dismissed,” they said in a report.
Additional reporting by Yu Bing in Beijing and Victoria Milko in Jakarta
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