EUROPE ASIA FOUNDATION - INSIGHTS
Myanmar and China: Power Asymmetry and Political Instability
Despite strong resistance, the military junta are still in control in Myanmar two years after the coup d’état when it took over. With support from China, both diplomatically and militarily, Myanmar has a very strong ally at its side.
On the first of February this year, the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) will complete two years since it took control of the governance process through a coup d’état. The Tatmadaw argued that irregularities in November 2020 elections necessitated a coup. The State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other senior civilian leaders were arrested. The military constituted the State Administrative Council (SAC) to govern the country. The coup was met with a wave of protests, which saw the participation of all sections of Myanmar society. The demonstrations have morphed into an armed struggle against the military in the past two years.
The SAC Chairman, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, admitted that he was surprised by the scale of resistance. However, unstinting support from China must have come as a relief to the Tatmadaw leadership. Immediately after the coup, the Chinese official media played down the political developments as nothing more than a cabinet reshuffle in which a set of “new union ministers [was] appointed for 11 ministries while 24 deputy ministers were removed.” This raises pertinent questions about China's interests in the political developments of Myanmar.
Beijing extended sustained diplomatic support to the Myanmar military on various international platforms. For instance, in April 2021, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, in his interactions with foreign ministers of Thailand and Brunei, urged ASEAN members to ‘fend off external interference’ and ensure a “ ‘soft landing’ of the situation in Myanmar.” Moreover, while the rest of the international community hesitated to interact with the Tatmadaw leadership, in 2021, Myanmar’s foreign minister travelled to China to interact with his counterpart. Subsequently, in July 2022, China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, attended the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) meeting in Myanmar.
In the past two years, the bilateral defence relationship consolidated with China supplying a wide range of defence equipment to Myanmar. In December 2021, China provided Myanmar with a “Ming-class” diesel-electric submarine. At the moment, there is no clarity if the Myanmar navy has agreed to the conditionality of allowing the presence of Chinese technicians onboard. In October last year, China reportedly delivered FTC-2000G light combat aircraft to Tatmadaw. However, the Chinese supply of military equipment to Tatmadaw has come in for considerable criticism. For instance, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, in his report, noted that China, along with others such as Russia, has transferred weapons systems to Myanmar “with the full knowledge that they would be used to attack civilians.” To circumvent international criticism, Beijing reportedly uses Pakistan as an intermediary to supply weapons to Myanmar. In addition, various international news agencies reported that China enhanced the public surveillance capabilities of the Myanmar military by providing facial recognition and other digital technologies aimed at containing mass protests.
Understandably, China’s sustained diplomatic and military support to the Tatmadaw aggravated the anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar. There were large-scale protests in front of the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar immediately after the coup. In March 2021, Chinese news agencies reported that approximately 32 Chinese factories were vandalised in Yangon, resulting in property losses amounting to approximately $ 36.89 million. Subsequently, an off-take station on the Myanmar-China gas and oil pipeline was targeted. There are concerns that crude tactics such as installing landmines to protect the pipelines may result in civilian casualties. Despite such harsh tactics, sporadic attacks on Chinese business interests, such as the blowing up of electricity pylons at the nickel-processing plant in the Sagaing Region, continue to persist, demonstrating the anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar.
Notwithstanding this growing anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar, it is unlikely that Beijing will scale down or alter the trajectory of its engagement because Myanmar is a vital land route to access and increase the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean region. Further, the Tatmadaw dependence on China’s diplomatic and military support considerably expands Beijing’s influence in continental Southeast Asia.
For China, Myanmar also provides a steady supply of natural and energy resources. It is estimated that almost half of China’s rare-earth minerals come from Myanmar. In addition to oil and gas pipelines, China invested heavily in mega projects such as the Kyauk Phyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and a deep-sea port on the Bay of Bengal coast. After the coup, Chinese investment proposals, such as the natural gas power plant in Ayeyarwady Region, were fast-tracked. Similarly, in the recent past, land acquisition processes related to the Chinese-backed New Yangon City project reportedly got expedited. In addition, there is a possibility of operationalising the Muse-Mandalay railway project as part of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). Myanmar also assumes a critical role in internationalising Chinese currency in the ASEAN region. Using the Renminbi as an official settlement currency for cross-border trade, which started as a pilot project, has picked up momentum.
In addition to extending diplomatic support to Tatmadaw and its economic activities, China has close relations with various ethnic armed groups in Myanmar. Such relationships give China enormous leverage to exert influence in Myanmar. Yet, the concern that growing instability in its neighbour will have a spill-over impact has prompted Beijing to construct a high-tech wall along its border with Myanmar. Further, numerous reports suggested that China, in 2021, had scaled up its military presence close to the Myanmar border, purportedly to protect the oil pipelines.
In the realm of international politics, many sovereign states are in an asymmetric power relationship with their neighbours. However, power asymmetry between China-Myanmar merits special attention. China has a significant presence in Myanmar’s political, economic and ethnic landscape and benefited significantly from the bilateral relationship. Yet, with a $ 17 trillion economy, a permanent seat in UN Security Council and growing international clout, China has not been able to create conditions for genuine political dialogue in Myanmar. This discussion also raises an important question as to whether the will of the people in a country can prevail despite the presence of a powerful external actor who has not contributed to political stability.
The EU and other global powers should act strategically, both to call out and take action against the human rights abuses being committed in Myanmar by the military junta. It must also carefully consider how to counter China’s influence and support for Myanmar’s current regime.
Sanjay Pulipaka is the Chairperson of the Politeia Research Foundation. The views expressed here are personal.