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.
From a geopolitical point of view, it is interesting to look at where these entities are located in space. While the Bamar mainly inhabit the central area and the vast plain of the Irrawaddy River, the other ethnic groups populate the border areas the country shares with India, the People's Republic, Laos, Thailand and Bangladesh. In these mountainous regions the numerous armed groups and ethnic minorities find the ideal terrain to conduct a guerrilla war against the Tatmadaw, the Burmese army, and escape the control of the central government.
Since such clashes take place along the borders, they cannot be ignored by Myanmar’s neighbours, including China. Moreover, as many armed groups and ethnic minorities, such as the Wa and the Dai, live across the two states, it is not uncommon for Beijing to interact directly with them for both security and economic purposes, as in the case of the United Wa State Army, whose close ties with Beijing are well known. These interactions are all the more necessary as the central government of Myanmar only exercises a mere nominal control over these areas.
Chinese concerns are not limited to border crossing by guerrillas fleeing clashes with the Tatmadaw. There are also humanitarian concerns: a large-scale civil war would result in a humanitarian catastrophe, with large flows of refugees fleeing from Myanmar to neighbouring states.
In addition, elements capable of destabilizing the order at least in the province of Yunnan could hide beyond the borders. Historical experience confirms this: many Kuomintang militants took refuge in these mountainous regions at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, threatening to fight back, although this never happened. The Sino-Burmese border was definitely set only in 1960, after the ousting of the Kuomintang troops, through a bilateral treaty by which the PRC gave up all its territorial claims.
2.2. Myanmar and Belt and Road Initiative, or “how to bypass the straits and encircle India”
As Beijing’s interests in Myanmar are both strategic and economic, Naypyidaw has been included in China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) since 2017.
Thanks to its position in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, Myanmar has an important strategic value. In this respect, Chinese penetration in Myanmar has two main implications for Beijing: projecting power onto the Bay of Bengal and putting pressure on India. In recent years, the People's Republic has improved relations with countries surrounding India such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. This is why New Delhi feels China is trying to encircle the subcontinent. This suspicion is further fuelled by territorial disputes, exacerbated by the clashes in the Ladakh region in the summer of 2020.
From the point of view of energy security, Myanmar offers a potential solution to the “Malacca dilemma”. The PRC imports 80% of its crude oil from the Middle East and Africa through the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea. However, the straits are de facto controlled by the US Navy and its regional allies. The People’s Liberation Army is thus particularly concerned with the status quo, fully aware that if the United States decided to block the passage through the straits, Beijing would soon be strangled by an energy crisis. Myanmar could provide the solution to the problem, thanks to a system of oil and gas pipelines already approved in the framework of the Sino-Burmese economic corridor.
However, it is estimated that it will be impossible for such a supply system to deliver the same amount of gas and crude oil that China receives through the Strait of Malacca. First of all, the pipeline can supply only 5 million tons of crude oil per semester. Furthermore, the Sino-Burmese economic corridor runs through unstable regions over which the Burmese central government exercises no effective control. Nonetheless, thanks to Naypyidaw the PRC can diversify the provenance of its energy resources.
2.3. Chinese Investments in Myanmar and Economic Development in Yunnan
In addition to their strategic value, the projects of the BRI have a significant economic impact. In 2020, during Xi Jinping's visit to Myanmar, both countries agreed 33 new projects. Moreover, China is currently the second largest investor in Myanmar after Singapore, accounting for 25% of foreign investments in the country.
Since the 1990s, the Chinese administration has regarded Myanmar as the "port of Yunnan"; in other words, as an opportunity to develop the economy of the still relatively poor southwestern province. In this context, the Sino-Burmese economic corridor is even more important, as it is specially designed to connect the port city of Kyaukphyu to Kunming.
Finally, it is necessary to consider the illegal trafficking of counterfeit goods and drugs that reach the Chinese province of Yunnan from Myanmar. According to the "report on the drug situation in China in 2019" released by the government of the PRC, 27.3 tons of drugs (82.7% of the total, mainly methamphetamines, heroin and ketamine) arrive in China from the golden triangle, a region at the intersection of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. Especially in the Shan State there are extensive opium crops. However, Sino-Burmese cooperation to combat this phenomenon remains difficult, due to Naypyidaw's notorious difficulties in controlling what happens in these regions.
3. Beijing’s Difficult Choice: Aung San Suu Kyi or the military?
Given its many interests, it is not surprising that the PRC is prudent in its stance towards Myanmar. Beijing has shown prudence in speaking of a "government reshuffle" when referring to the moves of the Tatmadaw. Then, the PRC blocked a first declaration by the United Nations Security Council condemning the "coup", as Beijing feared that it could lead to sanctions. Furthermore, China has deployed additional 12,000 troops, 10 fighter-bombers and 1 reconnaissance plane along the borders.
However, Beijing's attitudes cannot simply be labelled as "undemocratic". The PRC perfectly knows that sanctions could have unforeseeable and even dangerous consequences. They would affect an unstable country and could even lead to the dissolution of Myanmar. Furthermore, a humanitarian crisis cannot be ruled out, as sanctions could increase the number of displaced persons and refugees fleeing the potential clashes between armed groups.
It is certain that Beijing is not enthusiastic about the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, a leader with whom it has always had excellent relations. A Nobel Peace Prize laureate, she has long been considered the champion of democracy in Myanmar. However, as support from Western countries waned following the Rohingya humanitarian crisis in 2017, Beijing stepped up its diplomatic efforts to court the leader of Myanmar. These efforts led to Myanmar joining the BRI in 2017 and culminated in Xi Jinping’s visit to Naypyidaw in January 2020.
Actually, we can see a clear convergence of interests between Beijing and Washington in supporting Aung San Suu Kyi in these days, although the essence of their support is different: the first wants to protect an ally, the second wants to defend democracy and the November electoral outcome. If US-China relations were healthier, the two nations could have cooperated to put pressure on the Burmese army. Unfortunately, this is currently impossible.
For its part, the Burmese army thinks of itself as the guardian of national unity. The Tatmadaw looks with suspicion at the PRC and it openly accused Beijing of supporting independence groups in the past. A recent example is the Ta'ang National Liberation Army, from which the Tatmadaw seized Chinese-made weapons in 2019. However, the Tatmadaw now finds itself in need of international support and recognition and, given the tough attitude of the European Union and the United States, it can only rely on China.
Secondly, as the army is disliked by the Burmese ethnic minorities, it has to strengthen its military power. Once again, faced with Western condemnations, the Tatmadaw will be forced to woo China, which could easily expand its influence in the country by providing the necessary weapons.
Finally, although this may appear paradoxical at the moment, should the 12-month transition announced by the military take place without obstacles, Beijing's propaganda could claim credit for having contributed to the solution of the difficult crisis in Myanmar. From a regional and global point of view, this would be a great opportunity for China to promote itself as a responsible power, a supplier of global public goods and a contributor to regional security.
While remaining true to their values, when thinking about their strategy towards Myanmar, Western governments will have to take these facts into consideration.
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