In Geopolitical Wrestle Over Myanmar, China Has an Edge

Less than three weeks before Myanmar’s military overthrew its elected government, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a hastily planned visit to the country and praised its generals.

During a meeting with Major General Min Aung Hlaing, the army chief in charge, the Chinese official expressed his support for the “deserved role of the military in the course of national transformation and development.”

This week’s coup put China back into the uncomfortable position it had for years with Myanmar: as the main defender of a military dictatorship exposed to criticism in an international firestorm.

The coup made a geopolitical battle over a country that had recently emerged from diplomatic isolation difficult. China has tried to make it a lithe neighbor, while the United States has looked for the right mix of pressure and encouragement to promote a transition to democratic rule. It is also unclear to what extent outside influence from East or West will affect the generals, whose bunker mentality cut Myanmar off from the world for half a century.

The United States and others have urged the generals to reverse course, respect the outcome of last fall’s elections, and release the leaders they arrested, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. “We will work with our partners to support the restoration of democracy and the rule of law and to impose consequences on those responsible,” President Biden vowed on Thursday.

The United States, however, is not the dominant moral arbiter in world affairs as it once saw itself, and other forces in Myanmar could test Mr Biden’s ability to form coalitions to address foreign policy challenges, as he has promised.

While China remains Myanmar’s largest trading partner, Singapore was the largest foreign investor last year. Japan, South Korea and Thailand have also poured money into the country, making it much less isolated than it was during decades of military rule.

Japan, along with the United States and other Groups of 7, condemned the coup, but the Biden administration is unlikely to support any new sanctions against Myanmar’s military rulers that it is considering.

“It’s not just China and the West,” said Richard Horsey, a political analyst from Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital. “There’s another world out there and that makes figuring out how to get ahead a lot more complicated.”

For the time being, China has more leverage in shaping events than the United States and other nations.

The Chinese, together with the Russians, have so far blocked significant measures by the United Nations Security Council against Myanmar and complained on Wednesday about leaks in which the discussions there are described in detail. A day later, the Security Council issued a statement expressing “deep concern about the declaration of a state of emergency” in Myanmar and calling for those arrested to be released.

In their public statements, the Chinese have made extraordinary rhetorical efforts to avoid even hinting at criticism. The state news agency Xinhua described the coup as a “major cabinet reshuffle”. China’s refusal to denounce the generals could bolster their power by diverting some of the global condemnation.

“They undoubtedly see it as their sphere of influence,” said Derek Mitchell, a former American ambassador to Myanmar who is now president of the National Democratic Institute, an organization that works for democracy. “They are very wary of American influence in the country.”

The Chinese government, he added, sees the coup as “a moment of opportunity” to undercut the progress of the United States and other Asian nations in ending the democratic opening of Myanmar.

The coup presents China with its own challenges. The country’s leader, Xi Jinping, had closer political ties with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy. As a civilian leader in Myanmar, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi visited China more than any other foreign country.

Mr. Xi traveled to Myanmar in January last year – his last overseas trip before the coronavirus pandemic freeze most travel – and signed a number of agreements, including rail and port projects that are part of China’s Belt and Road program the program to expand economic corridors to the Indian Ocean.

The fate of such projects is now one of uncertainty, and the Chinese loathe uncertainty, said Bilahari Kausikan, a former Singapore diplomat who chairs the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.

“You have put a lot of energy and time into cultivating Aung San Suu Kyi – with some success,” he said. “Now you have to start again with a new group of generals, and these generals are difficult not only for the West. They are difficult for everyone. “

Although China defended Myanmar’s junta for decades, the relationship was far from warm.

Many of the generals spent their formative years fighting communist rebels, who received generous, albeit covert funding from Beijing. While ethnic insurgents are no longer part of the socialist brotherhood of the time, they are still receiving arms and tactical support from China, according to high-ranking members of ethnic armed groups.

When Mr. Xi visited Myanmar last year, the military complained to him about China’s funding of these rebel armies. The military justified its first coup in the midst of ethnic uprisings in 1962 as necessary to hold the country together, and ethnic conflict has erupted in the border areas of Myanmar in recent months.

As Western sanctions weighed on Myanmar’s economy in the 1990s, the military began planning economic liberalizations that would free it from reliance on China’s generosity, and it has resisted its powerful neighbor in recent years.

In 2011, U Thein Sein, a former junta member who ran a transitional government, stopped building a China-backed dam that would have flooded a holy site while sending almost all of the river to China. The project remains suspended.

In contrast, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi defended a China-invested copper mining project that was torn by human rights abuses.

“If the military made China its economic partner, it would have done it before 2011,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington. “But under international isolation, the junta always felt that China was exploiting them because they had no other options. That’s why they decided to reform China. “

When these reforms began, the United States saw an opportunity to show that democracy can thrive on authoritarian soil. This resulted in high profile diplomacy, including visits from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2011 and President Barack Obama in 2012 and 2014.

Those headlines soon faded. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, once an international human rights icon, was outraged when she refused to condemn the military’s ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims.

Veterans of that starry-eyed American public now hold prominent positions in the Biden administration, including Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Kurt M. Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state who now leads China’s policy on the National Security Council.

Myanmar has changed significantly since then. China is no longer the only economic alternative to the West for the generals, as it was during the years of diplomatic isolation. Myanmar’s reforms resulted in economic – and increasingly political – ties to other Asian countries, particularly Japan.

“They are on very good terms with everyone in Burma,” Mitchell said of the Japanese, using Myanmar’s former name.

A Japanese special envoy has mediated between the military and an armed ethnic group in the western state of Rakhine, raising hopes that Tokyo’s delicate treatment of the generals could produce more results than harsh criticism from the West. Japan could also bring its economic influence to bear. Japanese beer maker Kirin announced on Friday that it would end its joint ventures with two companies in Myanmar because of the coup.

For its part, China has in recent days called for calm and stability, stressing that other countries should not interfere in Myanmar’s internal affairs.

It is not clear whether Mr. Wang, the foreign minister, picked up any signals during his January 11-12 visit that a coup was in the works.

As a year before, Mr. Xi met with military and political leaders to reflect on the fragile balance of power before the generals regained full control.

During their meeting with Mr. Wang, held in a large, gilded room, General Min Aung Hlaing and other commanders complained about the November election, which increased the power of the civil government, citing “mistakes and inaccuracies that would lead to election fraud being able to lead”. according to a statement from the military.

Despite the economic agreements with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, China has not signaled support for her. It seems to calculate that there is little chance that the coup will be reversed.

“China’s relationship with Myanmar does not depend on who is in power,” said Ms. Sun of the Stimson Center. “Whoever is in power always has to work with China. The difference lies in the quality of the partnership and the costs that China has to bear for it. “

Claire Fu contributed to the research.

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