Guest Column

Junta’s Use of China as a Shield Aggravates the Conflict in Myanmar

By Khin Oo 8 February 2022

The Myanmar military’s coup d’etat turned one year old on Feb. 1 amid an ongoing brutal and violent crackdown by forces of the State Administration Council (SAC) against the resistance, which has only intensified the conflict. The current conflict in Myanmar continues to have adverse impacts on our immediate neighbors, China and the ASEAN countries, which cherish stability and peace in the region. The anniversary also spotlights the shortcomings of China and ASEAN’s current cautious approach, which has failed to alleviate the conflict and restore stability and peace in Myanmar. While brutally cracking down on the people’s resistance to the coup and holding on to power at all costs, the SAC is using China as a diplomatic and military shield against the UN and the West, and to strengthen its diplomatic status and military position, further aggravating the conflict.

China’s current stand

Though China is not happy with the coup, it started normalizing its relations with the SAC in the middle of last year, mainly to resume its ongoing investment projects. While Beijing seems to have adopted a cautious policy toward Myanmar, worrying that siding with either the SAC or the civilian National Unity Government (NUG) would further aggravate the conflict, it also seems to be under pressure from its state-owned enterprises and local businesses in Yunnan Province, who have both new and old ties with local cronies in Myanmar and some ethnic armed organizations in the border areas.

China’s key strategic interests

Analysts and observers point out that China has three key strategic interests and concerns with respect to Myanmar: 1) border security and stability; 2) Chinese businesses and investments in Myanmar; and 3) anti-Chinese sentiment.

  • Border security and stability: While Western diplomats and analysts often say that China’s key interests in Myanmar are its geopolitical ambitions and economic interests, Chinese analysts view China’s priorities in Myanmar as being more about border security and stability than purely economic. This is mainly because Beijing approaches border security and stability in its western provinces through economic development, especially in Yunnan Province, which is one of the poorest provinces in China.
  • Chinese businesses and investments in Myanmar: The interest in border security and stability extends to protecting its businesses and investments in Myanmar.
  • Anti-China sentiment: In line with its political and economic strategies, China does not want anti-China sentiment or any public anger against China or Chinese investments.

Options, scenarios for China and Myanmar 

In dealing with the conflict in Myanmar, China has three very different options: 1) side with the SAC; 2) side with the Myanmar people and the NUG; or 3) remain neutral. Currently China may consider its position as neutral. China’s cautious approach and policy on normalizing the relationship with the SAC while maintaining a good relationship with the National League for Democracy (NLD) as the people’s representative may appear a safe and strategic move for China. However, China’s remaining neutral is interpreted inside Myanmar as siding with the SAC.

And over the course of time, the current conflict is likely to unfold as one of three scenarios for Myanmar: 1) the resistance wins; 2) the SAC wins; or 3) a prolonged stalemate. Currently, scenario No. 3 is unfolding.

What can China do to restore stability?

Myanmar military chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing (left) and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meet in Naypyitaw in January 2021. / The Irrawaddy

China’s current stand and approach are clearly unacceptable to the majority of Myanmar political elites and ordinary citizens alike. They are also not succeeding in restoring stability quickly in Myanmar. By remaining neutral or normalizing relations with the SAC, China is viewed as siding with the military. 

  1. Being viewed as one of the SAC’s very few friends could reverse recent positive developments and severely damage the hard-earned mutual understanding and relations China developed with Myanmar during the NLD government. Worse, the current situation has already reawakened existing anti-China sentiment, mainly rooted in the Myanmar people’s entrenched hatred towards the military, which comes from having experienced decades of poverty and persecution under its rule. China’s role as the military’s go-to shield, not to mention military propaganda touting the friendship and support of China, have only aggravated this sentiment.
  1. The SAC forces’ increasing brutality and frequent atrocities have broken the trust between the Myanmar people and the military; this will most likely be irreversible, certainly for the foreseeable future.
  2. While economic development is important for China’s border security and stability, as well as for Myanmar in the medium and long terms, engaging with the SAC for the sake of economic development to alleviate the current conflict is counterproductive and will only prolong it. Economic problems cannot be solved without addressing the political situation.
  1. Such economic relations with China will only embolden and empower the SAC to prolong the situation, while the Myanmar people continue to suffer and see little or no benefit—economically or politically—in either the immediate or the long term.
  1. China may choose to side with the SAC or remain neutral. Both of these options would have severely damaging consequences for China and Myanmar.

In either of these options, if the resistance side wins, the new Myanmar and its people will remember China as a disloyal friend who turned its back when they needed it the most. If the SAC wins, it will be even worse. The prolonged anti-Chinese sentiment, which is closely associated with our historic dark age of military rule, would severely damage the future of any China-Myanmar relations, and prolong the conflict in a region that needs stability and prosperity.

  1. China may choose to side with the people and the resistance. Whether China supports the Myanmar people or not, the people will not accept the military as a legitimate political institution due to its decades-long record of failing the country, as a driver of conflict and division, mismanaging the economy at the expense of poverty for the majority of the population. Since the coup last year, the incompetent but highly corrupt military has been killing unarmed Under military rule, the people have very limited options: they can become impoverished or get killed, or they can end the military’s political role once and for all.

While China may think that any coercive measures will aggravate the current conflict, taking the option of supporting the Myanmar people would bring more benefit than harm to China, and would be more effective in terms of restoring stability and peace in Myanmar quickly.

  • First, the 70-year-long civil war shows that the Myanmar military will never be able to bring stability or peace to Myanmar; this severely impacts China’s strategic interest in border security and stability.
  • Second, the SAC—with or without China’s knowledge—is using China as a diplomatic and military shield to protect itself from the UN and the wider international community, and to strengthen its diplomatic status and military position. China’s protection aggravates the current conflict by emboldening the Myanmar military.

Once the SAC’s China shield is removed, the Myanmar military will face immense pressure and realize that it cannot win alone, both in the diplomatic sphere and on the military front. Thus, removing the protection for the SAC will be a much more effective political tool and strategy to force the SAC to come to the negotiation table than any other means.

  • Third, for China’s border security and stability in the long term, establishing a good relationship with the Myanmar people and a people-supported civilian government at this critical time for Myanmar’s future is more important than ever.

Thus, the current situation creates a historic opportunity for China to strengthen its ties with the Myanmar people by supporting their resistance to the military’s brutal rule and helping to restore stability quickly and to sustain a better relationship. China’s border security and stability as well as its ambitious China-Myanmar Economic Corridor and Belt and Road Initiative schemes will benefit significantly from quickly restored stability in Myanmar. Such support from China for what the Myanmar people truly desire will be gratefully remembered and will plant the seeds of successful economic and diplomatic cooperation in the coming years.

Khin Oo is the pseudonym of a public policy analyst and researcher on the political economy of Myanmar.

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