Beijing is in a difficult position. Its refusal to explicitly condemn the military coup has made China the target of public anger in Myanmar, but exerting more pressure might look as though China is abandoning its traditional policy of non-interference in other countries’ governments, and throwing its weight around. Furthermore, if Beijing angers the military junta, it might endanger China’s existing economic and strategic interests in the country. Here’s what you need to know.
Beijing faces a dilemma in confronting the junta
Beijing used to support Myanmar’s military government. However, after Myanmar’s transition to civilian rule in 2010, it was these former military leaders who turned away from China and toward the United States, making them seem untrustworthy in comparison with the NLD government that came to power in 2015.
After the recent coup, Beijing supported a U.N. Security Council statement calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and demanding respect for human rights and the democratic transition in the country. The Chinese ambassador to Myanmar also clarified that “the current development in Myanmar is absolutely not what China wants to see,” and called for a peaceful resolution of the problems in Myanmar. At the same time, Beijing avoided explicitly condemning the coup, given that it hasn’t condemned any regime changes since at least the end of the Cold War. However, many Myanmar citizens do not trust China, and have continued to claim that China backed the coup.
This has led to widespread rumors
Rampant rumors circulating on social media continue to pinpoint Beijing as the culprit supporting the coup, and interpret anything related to China or the Chinese people as signs of China’s interference. For example, planes carrying seafood at the Yangon airport were accused of supplying military equipment, and Chinese nationals checking into in the Pan Pacific Hotel were immediately portrayed on social media as spies and even doxed. The Chinese government has denied claims that it provided technical support for the military’s attempt to put up a firewall on the Internet. The two major foreign-owned telecommunication companies in Myanmar are from Norway (Telenor) and Qatar (Ooredoo).
These fears may lead to a backlash from China’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomats, who have responded intemperately to other criticisms of China. China has responded better in the past when it is asked to act as a responsible great power, and might bring pressure on the military junta to solve Myanmar’s internal problems of economic underdevelopment and ethnic strife, as it did when Aung San Suu Kyi led the government.
Myanmar’s other neighbors in East and Southeast Asia, such as Indonesia, Japan, Singapore and Thailand, are among the country’s top trading partners — and may also bring pressure to bear on Myanmar’s reclusive rulers, as happened during the recent meeting of Indonesia’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, and Myanmar’s military-appointed counterpart. Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha also expressed the wish that peace and stability be maintained in Myanmar. The Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is also working on an action plan for Myanmar.
This isn’t about great power competition
Many international commentators have framed the current political crisis in Myanmar as a test of U.S. influence in a great power competition with China. However, domestic politics and regional politics also matter — not everything that happens in Southeast Asia is a tussle between the two great powers. China doesn’t back every authoritarian regime change, nor is every democratic movement initiated by the United States, even if politicians and pundits in both countries sometimes say otherwise.
Analysts who treat the crisis as a zero-sum competition between great powers could miss out on much of what is happening, and may help create a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which China openly defends the military because it fears losing to the United States. Right now, it’s hard to decipher what Beijing is doing, or plans to do, behind closed doors. But it is at least plausible that Chinese leaders will encourage ASEAN to take the leading role in resolving the Myanmar crisis, or that Beijing itself could try to broker a deal between the different parties, so long as the situation isn’t framed as a straightforward battle for domination. That might, after all, help Beijing to finesse the challenges that it faces if it either condemns the coup or backs the junta.
Enze Han is associate professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong, and author of Asymmetrical Neighbors: Borderland State Building between China and Southeast Asia (Oxford University Press, 2019).