Myanmar under Military Rule: A Danger or an Ally for China?

Updated: Aug 22, 2021

by Nicolò Rizzo

1. Introduction: What is happening in Myanmar?

On 31 January, the Burmese army arrested State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi and other key figures including President Win Myint, declaring a state of emergency for a year. After the amendment of the 2008 constitution, the democratic power will be restored.

At elections held in November, the "National League for Democracy", led by Aung San Suu Kyi, triumphed over the "Union Party for Solidarity and Development", the political arm of the army. However, tensions have been on the rise. In fact, whilst the electoral commission has repeatedly declared the regularity of the elections, the army has consistently denounced frauds. The situation is even more serious due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The European Union and the Biden administration were quick to condemn the events in Myanmar as a "coup d’état". Other countries, including the People's Republic of China (PRC), maintain a more cautious approach.

This article examines the Chinese approach to current events in Myanmar. To this end, China's main geopolitical interests in the country will first be presented. I will argue that the PRC is adopting an extremely prudent approach and its attitude will not change in the near future.

2. China in Myanmar: (Un)safe Borders, Belt and Road Initiative, Investments and Development

Independent since 1948, Myanmar was among the first non-communist states to recognize the People's Republic of China as early as 1950. Before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, Xi Jinping travelled to Naypyidaw, where he celebrated the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations together with Aung San Suu Kyi. For the 2 leaders, this was an excellent opportunity to reaffirm their determination to further deepen bilateral ties.

Undoubtedly, love declarations do not exist in diplomacy. On the contrary, Beijing has excellent security, strategic, energetic and economic reasons for desiring the stability and prosperity of its neighbour and for maintaining excellent relations with Myanmar.

2.1. Unstable borders

One of Myanmar's most astonishing features is its incredible ethnic variety. The Burmese government officially recognises 135 ethnic groups. Bamar is the main ethnicity, which accounts for about 68% of the population, followed by the Shan ethnic group (10%). Unfortunately, the official classification does not include important minorities such as the Han (3%) and the Rohingya, now sadly known due to the persecution of which it is victim.