Whether China’s approach to Myanmar proves fruitful or not depends on the metrics used to consider success and on the outcome of the current stand-off in that country between most of the population, which voted for the National League for Democracy (NLD), and the military.
Much of the focus is on how China did not welcome the military coup and how it has improved relations with the NLD in recent years. But its actions since the coup – or in fact, apparent lack of them – suggest its approach to Myanmar purely reflects its own self-interest.
Any concerns China has about the coup seem to relate only to the resulting instability rather than the coup itself. But while China may be happy to deal with whoever wields power in Naypyidaw, it is increasingly clear the chain of events the coup unleashed could threaten its interests.
China is a vital export market for Myanmar’s raw materials – oil and gas, as well as timber and gems – but Myanmar’s importance to China is far more strategic than economic.
The oil and gas pipelines running through Myanmar diversify China’s sources of supply and helps avoid using the Malacca Straits, a hotspot for piracy. And the development of ports and overland connectivity between China and Myanmar also help facilitate a greater Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean.
China putting its own interests at risk
Protecting these interests is China’s paramount concern but its ‘laissez-faire’ attitude so far puts them under threat, as some Chinese factories have been burned down and protestors have threatened to blow up pipelines.
Even more alarmingly for China, various ethnic armed groups have come together in opposition to the Myanmar military. Difficult relations between these groups and the Bamar ethnic majority has made Myanmar’s existence fraught ever since it gained independence but, in their joint opposition to the coup, ethnic groups and pro-democracy protestors have found something they agree upon.
China’s position seems to be it supports some groups to a greater or lesser extent as a means of weakening the central government, but hopes for co-existence rather than any lasting peace agreements.
Myanmar’s ethnic Chinese population have not yet come under threat but anti-Chinese sentiment among protestors does make that a distinct possibility. China’s attitude towards Chinese communities overseas is gradually becoming more protective, which is of concern for several countries in South-East Asia with significant Chinese communities.
China may feel that, regardless of the outcome, it will continue to be Myanmar’s major partner. But that feeling may be a misjudgement because, if the military is forced to back down, it may result in a more pronounced anti-China tilt, threatening its strategic interests.
It is also worth considering the situation in Myanmar may yet descend into civil war, particularly given the stance taken by the ethnic groups. That too would threaten China’s interests. So far it is reported the military has killed more than 200 people and imprisoned countless more. Were China to take a more critical approach and encourage the military to back down, potentially the coup could be seen as a temporary aberration. The more people die, the less plausible this will be, increasing the likelihood of civil war.
The optics surrounding China’s de facto protection of the military are not good internationally. Coups are not uncommon in this part of the world with Myanmar’s neighbours Bangladesh and Thailand having endured periods of military rule and ‘technocratic’ government. But there does need to be some internationally-recognized problem to justify the coup – overt corruption for instance. Electoral malpractice, which international observers missed, along with importing walkie-talkies, does not meet this criteria.
The election outcome did demonstrate that the vast majority of Myanmar’s population want to be governed by the NLD, something which also supports the theory that things will get far worse before they get better. Sanctions may have some limited effect but must surely have been factored in by the military.
ASEAN’s more authoritarian governments have little reason to act and lack the leverage to be effective. But were China to stop ‘not interfering’ this could enable broader international action and, although it might threaten China’s interests in Myanmar in the short-term, it would likely advance them in the longer-term. Myanmar’s generals have no intention of ceding power but, without Chinese acquiescence, they face significant challenges trying to hold on to it.
Possibly China is interpreting events in Myanmar as part of a wider tilt to authoritarianism, in which case a policy of non-interference makes it well-placed to profit. But as its global role expands, China should be learning to differentiate between various types of authoritarian government and judge its response accordingly. China needs to be aware that a ‘one size fits all’ policy of non-interference will not win many friends, and any it does win are likely to be of the less salubrious kind.
Dr Gareth Price, Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme.