Will China Provide Cover for Myanmar’s Coup Makers?

By Aung Zaw 2 February 2021

The Myanmar military’s seizure of power from the elected civilian government brought swift condemnation from Washington and other Western capitals, with US President Joe Biden threatening to reimpose sanctions and calling for a concerted international response to push the generals into relinquishing power.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Biden’s remark that the US was “taking note” of how other countries respond to the military takeover was “a message to all countries in the region.”

Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, proposed that Washington and other countries “should impose strict economic sanctions, as well as other measures” against Myanmar’s army and the military leadership if they did not free the country’s elected leaders and remove themselves from government.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who had close ties with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, called the arrests “horrifying” and said the US needed to “impose costs” on those behind the coup. It’s clear that many in Washington want the generals to feel the heat.

In stark contrast, Thai Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwon—who himself came to power in Thailand’s 2014 military coup—said only that Myanmar’s military takeover was a “domestic issue”.

The response from governments in the region has been feeble; the Singapore Foreign Ministry’s expression of “grave concern” is about the strongest language we have seen. In the Philippines, Harry Roque, a spokesman for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s office, said simply, “We expect that at the soonest possible time things will go back to normal, though the situation in Myanmar is an internal matter we won’t interfere with.”

Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry said it was concerned over the political situation in Myanmar, and urged self-restraint and dialogue in order to find solutions and avoid exacerbating the situation.

Neighboring India, the world’s largest democracy, echoed the expressions of “deep concern” and voiced support for Myanmar’s process of democratic transition. “We believe that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld. We are monitoring the situation closely,” the Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement.

Japan, Myanmar’s largest donor and one of its top investors, has also been soft on the new regime so far.

Calling for the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and others detained in Myanmar, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said, “The Japanese government has up to now strongly supported the democratic process in Myanmar, and opposes any reversal of that process.”

He added, “We strongly call on the military government to restore democracy as soon as possible.”

Japan recently played a constructive role in negotiating ceasefire talks between the military and the Arakan Army in Rakhine State. Before the coup, Japan’s special envoy Yohei Sasakawa and Yangon-based ambassador Ichiro Maruyama also made several attempts to unlock the political stalemate between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the military leaders.

A senior Myanmar military officer said the top brass are keenly aware of the international criticism, and of the response from key allies including China, Japan and India, as well as from some Myanmar-friendly governments in the region. The officer, who is now based in Naypyitaw and in his late 50s, insisted that Monday’s takeover “is not a total coup”, as described in the media. But his comment was unconvincing and, frankly, bizarre. Myanmar’s citizens have seen armored vehicles and troops deployed on the streets, seizing the Presidential Palace and detaining senior government leaders. What is this if not a “total coup”?

He said the new regime would reach out to governments around the region, as well as to Western countries, to explain the situation. For the time being, however, conditions remain tense inside Myanmar and the new regime has ordered all of the ruling party’s offices across Myanmar to be closed. The West will stick to its position and insist that the new junta hand power back to the government.

China ‘concerned’, but …

It is understood that military leaders have explained their move to Beijing and kept the leadership there updated on the unfolding situation. Just three weeks before the coup, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar, where he separately held high-level talks with President U Win Myint, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. The government touted Wang’s visit, saying he was “the first foreign minister to visit Myanmar after the country’s general election.”

Song Tao, the head of the International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China, meets with Myanmar’s former dictator Than Shwe in August 2016 in Naypyitaw. (Right) Then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (left) meets with Snr-Gen Than Shwe in Nay Pyi Taw in Decmber 2009. / Xinhua

Interestingly, in his meeting with future coup maker Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the Chinese minister was “stunned” to learn of the military’s “findings”—reportedly based on its examination of voter lists from the Nov. 8 general election—of irregularities and inaccuracies with the potential to allow people to vote more than once, and “voting malpractice”. The Chinese left Naypyitaw with the impression that the military and the government were headed for a political confrontation.

Now, as expected, China has taken a completely different approach to the coup in Myanmar than have Western governments.

Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said China had taken note of the situation in Myanmar was seeking further information.

“China is a friendly neighbor of Myanmar, and we hope all parties in Myanmar can properly handle differences under the constitutional and legal framework and safeguard political and social stability,” Wang said.

A day after the coup, Global Times, Beijing’s official mouthpiece, published an editorial headlined “Democracy in Myanmar faces uncertain future.”

“The actions taken by Myanmar’s military cannot break the current dilemma the country is facing. Political struggles are expected to intensify in a short period of time, and Myanmar is bound to face pressure from the international community. Suu Kyi has already urged Myanmar people to protest. Countries including the US have demanded the military release the detained political leaders. Uncertainties are looming over Myanmar,” the piece reads.

In the same publication, another article headlined “China hopes for a stable, peaceful Myanmar through domestic negotiations, not external interference” amounted to a shocking apologia for the coup makers in Myanmar.

The paper said, “The military’s actions, therefore, can be viewed as an adjustment facing Myanmar’s imbalance[d] power structure”, citing unnamed experts in China.

The paper went on to say that Myanmar should be wary of possible external interference. Then it said the aim of US policy on Myanmar was to “put pressure on China”, but did not say how or why.

The paper also quoted Yin Yihang, a scholar from the Taihe Institute, a Beijing-based think tank founded in 2013, as saying that “although the US had limited official exchanges with Myanmar during the Trump administration, US civil rights groups have maintained a presence in northern Myanmar, radicalizing local people”, suggesting an increased US influence on Myanmar’s northern border with China.

Fan Hongwei, director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Xiamen University, told the paper, “The situation in Myanmar is likely to be an opportunity for the Biden administration, which has multiple members from Team Obama, to repair relations with Myanmar, to make Myanmar problematic and use Myanmar to put pressure on China.” It predicted that the US would impose sanctions on Myanmar, and added that military pressure cannot be ruled out. Military pressure? This definitely shows a degree of unease on China’s part over the political disruption in Myanmar and potential US involvement.

Yin of the Taihe Institute said, “As per the current situation, the US may also adopt a ‘color revolution’ approach to Myanmar.” The scholar did not elaborate further, however.

Added Fan: “Myanmar is a country that does not welcome interference by big powers. China has maintained good relations with both the current government and the military, so it still hopes that the two sides can negotiate a compromise to maintain peace and stability.”

The unintended irony of Fan’s comment is amusing. China is one of the “big powers” that is constantly interfering in Myanmar’s internal affairs.

China, US to contest in Myanmar

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a Thai political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, told The Irrawaddy, “Myanmar’s military coup is an early test for the Biden administration. It may well err on the side of not overreacting.”

“It’s early days but the Biden team seems to have broadly taken lessons from the Obama era where they spent a lot of ammunition early and came up short in the end.

“I think the US response under Biden will be more nuanced,” he said.

In 2016, during Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s official visit to Washington, the Obama administration lifted economic sanctions against top Myanmar generals and their cronies—a decision that then-US President Barack Obama could not have taken without Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s consent. In the past, Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize winner had long defended sanctions as a way to keep pressure on the powerful military.

Announcing the decision to lift sanctions, Obama said at the time, “It is the right thing to do in order to ensure that the people of Burma see rewards from a new way of doing business and a new government.”

Sitting next to Obama in the Oval Office, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said, “We think that the time has now come to remove all the sanctions that hurt us economically, because our country is in a position to open up to those who are interested in taking part in our economic enterprises.”

Minister of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Song Tao (left) and Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw in August 2016. / Xinhua

Now she and her leaders are under detention and the US and other Western governments are pondering what action to take.

Myanmar citizens and all democratic forces within the country and abroad, including NLD members, will ask the US and its allies to take tougher actions against the coup makers, bringing us full circle. Beijing will discourage efforts by the Biden administration to influence the political stalemate in Myanmar.

In July last year, a war of words broke out between the Chinese and US embassies in Myanmar; the tense exchange was reminiscent of the Cold War period.

Myanmar is committed to implementing China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure projects. It was the first country to welcome President Xi Jinping on an overseas visit in 2020, with the Chinese leader making his country’s southern neighbor the first item on his well-choreographed diplomatic calendar for the year. At the time, visiting Chinese officials confided that they respected Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her political stance. They also said that compared to the notoriously corrupt generals that ran the previous regime, the Chinese found the State Counselor pragmatic and believed she would keep her promises on Chinese-funded projects in Myanmar.

Nevertheless, China’s projects in Myanmar are still on the drawing board and have yet to be implemented. This has created unease in Beijing.

As the US and other Western countries threaten to impose sanctions on Myanmar’s coup makers and their associates, Beijing ultimately doesn’t mind who runs the government in Naypyitaw. As long as they protect China’s geopolitical and business interests, China will back them.

We can therefore expect China to defend the coup makers, who have also expressed support for BRI projects in Myanmar.

In July last year, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing assured China that the armed forces would continue to guarantee the implementation of the BRI in the country, saying he believes it will support the peace process and national development.

The regime has appointed U Win Shein, a former finance minister, to its cabinet, in the same ministry. In addition, U Aung Naing Oo, former director general of the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration (DICA) and subsequently director general of the Office of the Union Investment and Foreign Economic Relations under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, has been named minister for investment and foreign economic relations. The widely popular former army officer is known to be media savvy and a key architect of Myanmar’s economic reforms.

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing is said to have anticipated the pressure; a high-ranking military officer said the new regime is prepared to weather incoming Western sanctions. But the new junta lacks legitimacy. Where are they going to seek support? The road to Beijing is clear. This is exactly how the former regime survived in the face of Western sanctions in decades gone by.

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