Guest Column

UN Ambassador Saga Spotlights China’s Cautious Approach to Myanmar

By Bertil Lintner 18 September 2021

The decision to defer the decision on who should be Myanmar’s representative to the United Nations until November may seem like a partial victory for the country’s pro-democracy movement. But while it will prevent a delegate appointed by the junta from addressing the UN General Assembly this month, the deal that the United States has brokered with a host of other countries, including China, also includes what almost amounts to a gag order on the current representative, U Kyaw Moe Tun.

According to a Sept. 13 report in Foreign Policy, a US global affairs magazine, U Kyaw Moe Tun, who was appointed by the ousted democratically elected government, has “to hold his tongue” when addressing the General Assembly. He must also, according to the informal agreement, refrain from using “the tough rhetoric he deployed last year in denouncing the military’s power grab.” The UN has now appointed a nine-member committee on UN credentials, which will be charged with determining the rightful representative of Myanmar. It is chaired by Sweden and includes delegates from Bhutan, the Bahamas, Chile, China, Russia, Sierra Leone, South Africa and the United States.

It is anybody’s guess what will happen in November, but the general rule is that the government that controls the capital and holds territory will represent that country at the UN. There have been some exceptions, though, like the Republic of China on Taiwan, which represented the whole of China until 1971 when the government in Beijing and the People’s Republic of China took over the post. After the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia during the new year of 1978-79, the ousted government, called Democratic Kampuchea, continued to represent the country at the UN, although it was based only in some remote areas along the border with Thailand.

But since “Democratic Kampuchea” was the name of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime that the Vietnamese had ousted, a coalition had to be formed, including two non-communist factions, one led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk and the other by Son Sann, a former prime minister. The enlarged Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea was allowed to retain the country’s seat in the UN mainly because Western states and China were opposed to the Vietnamese intervention. That coalition was dissolved only when the UN intervened in Cambodia in the early 1990s, elections were held and a fully legitimate government took over in Phnom Penh.

A similar situation existed in Haiti after a Sept. 30, 1991 coup that ousted the elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. On Oct. 11, the General Assembly adopted a resolution that condemned the coup, demanded the restoration of the legitimate government of President Aristide, and called for full observance of human rights. The UN also intervened there and a year later, Haiti was once again properly represented in the General Assembly.

In October 1997, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions against a military junta in Sierra Leone and demanded the return of the country’s elected government, which happened in February 1998. The UN’s Credentials Committee has also on two occasions deferred making any decision at all, as it did with Afghanistan’s representation after the Taliban’s takeover of power in 1996, and with Cambodia’s after a coup in 1997 when it, for a while, was uncertain who actually represented the country.

But all those cases are entirely different from what has happened in Myanmar after the Feb. 1 coup. Taiwan and Cambodia were issues high on the West’s security agenda, while those who had seized power in Haiti and Sierra Leone had no foreign friends and no one was opposed to punishing them until some semblance of democracy had been restored. In Afghanistan, Ravan A.G. Farhadi, a veteran diplomat, was appointed UN representative in 1993 and simply continued to represent his country until 2006. The Taliban, another body with few foreign friends apart from various terrorist networks, never represented Afghanistan in the UN although it controlled the capital and most of the country from 1996 until the US invasion in 2001.

Myanmar UN Ambassador U Kyaw Moe Tun attends the closing session of the 75th General Assembly on Sept. 15. / Permanent Mission of Myanmar to the the United Nations

The Myanmar junta, however, does have foreign allies, among them China, Russia and its partners in ASEAN. In particular, Russia, which is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has no interest in isolating the junta in Naypyitaw. On the contrary, its defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, told junta leader and coup maker Senior General Min Aung Hlaing during the latter’s visit to Moscow in June that his government was “committed to strengthening military ties” based on “the mutual understanding, respect and trust that have been established between our countries.” Reuters reported at the time that defense ties between Russia and Myanmar “have grown in recent years with Moscow providing army training and university scholarships to thousands of soldiers, as well as selling arms to a military blacklisted by several Western countries.”

Russia would definitely prefer to have Min Aung Hlaing’s coup government representing Myanmar in the UN, and it is highly unlikely that ASEAN would establish relations with the National Unity Government (NUG), which is made up of ministers, MPs and others who were ousted in the coup. But then comes the big question: China. Why did China agree to support the deferral of Myanmar’s UN representation until November? There is no easy answer to that question, but the leaders in Beijing must be aware of the rise in anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar since the coup. Many people have noticed that China refers to the Min Aung Hlaing regime as “the government” and called sanctions imposed by Western nations “inappropriate”—which has further angered the population at large.

It is possible that the leaders think supporting the US proposal might smooth those sentiments. And the Chinese don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past when they threw in their lot with previous juntas and put all their eggs in one basket. What happened after 2011, when Myanmar opened up to the West and attracted visitors like then US President Barack Obama, then British Prime Minister David Cameron and other Western leaders, took China’s security planners by surprise. It was almost a year before Beijing had adjusted to the changes and began courting Myanmar’s new government.

Myanmar is of utmost strategic importance to China as it is the only neighbor that provides it with a reasonably safe link to the Indian Ocean. China is also one of the top foreign investors in Myanmar and has numerous important infrastructure projects in the country as part of its global, multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative. For that reason, China’s Myanmar policy comes in different shapes. On a government-to-government level it maintains relations with whoever is in power in Naypyitaw. Then comes party-to-party relations, a peculiar distinction as the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) controls the government as well as the military. But it enables the rulers in Beijing to deal with governments as well as all sorts of political parties and even insurgents. For years, China gave massive support to the now defunct Communist Party of Burma while it as the same time had cordial relations with the Ne Win government in the then capital Yangon.

Likewise, today, China’s security services provide political support to ethnic armed groups in northern Myanmar and make it possible for them to acquire Chinese weaponry. And when the National League for Democracy (NLD) sent a congratulatory message to the Communist Party of China on the 100th anniversary of its founding on July 1, it answered back to its Myanmar “party-to-party friends” with a polite thank-you letter.

The present turmoil in Myanmar is not in China’s interest and no one knows what the future holds. It is therefore wise for China to keep all options open, but it would be very surprising if Beijing decided to support U Kyaw Moe Tun even after November. Such a decision would definitely anger Min Aung Hlaing’s junta, and put into jeopardy China’s investments in Myanmar—and, possibly, make it difficult for the Chinese to develop their economically as well as strategically important China-Myanmar Economic Corridor from Yunnan down to the Bay of Bengal.

While standing primarily behind the junta, China will surely also continue to maintain “party-to-party” relations with the NLD and perhaps, on a much lower and discreet level, also the NUG—as well as with the ethnic rebels in the north. No Western country can match that kind of warped foreign policy, and that makes China the most powerful foreign player in internal developments in Myanmar. But it is, in the end, the people of Myanmar who, for better or worse, will shape the future of their country.

Bertil Lintner is a Swedish journalist, author and strategic consultant who has been writing about Asia for nearly four decades.

You may also like these stories:

Myanmar Shadow Govt Claims 580 Junta Troops Killed Last Month

Myanmar Junta Steps Up Arrests of Striking Civil Servants

US Sanctions Pose Huge Risks for Myanmar Businesses