Opinion: China’s Involvement in Myanmar

Protesters hold coffins displaying a picture of Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing during a demonstration in New Delhi on March 3, to protest against the military coup in Myanmar. (Photo: AFP)
  • Seun Sam
  • May 2, 2021 9:12 AM

Since the Myanmar military seized power on Feb. 1, 2021, countries all over the world have been paying close attention to the situation in that country. All eyes have been on major countries and especially China. Geographically, China shares borders with Myanmar and has maintained closed relations with both the democrats and the military group. More importantly, it is that there also are Belt and Road Initiative flagship projects in the country.

China was expected to quickly play a role in mediating conflicts and stabilizing the situation in Myanmar. But for those who are familiar with China's foreign policy, they knew it was difficult. That non-interference in affairs of other countries is its consistent principle and practice. This is one of the five basic principles for handling relations between nations that was put forward by the former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai when he met with the Indian delegation in 1953. In the past few years, China has repeatedly asked other countries not to interfere in its own internal affairs and has always followed its own principle.

However, this difficulty has not been understood by many people and has even become a tool for some to incite anti-China sentiment. Much unverified information, pictures and videos soon appeared on the internet, and they overwhelmingly accused China of supporting the military coup. That included the information on Chinese experts who helped Myanmar build the firewall as well as information about China providing weapons and equipment or even sending troops directly to Myanmar. All kinds of pictures and information clearly have been circulated as an effort to prove that China knew in advance about the coup and has provided all kinds of support to the military.

As all of this information has been denied by China or deemed falsified by fact-checking agencies, some rational Myanmar democrats also urge supporters not to spread fake news to get sympathy. But as we all know, rumors spread faster and wider than the truth. Anti-China sentiment in Myanmar has been incited, and dozens of Chinese factories were burned down. The military and the democrats accused each other of being the perpetrators. But no matter who the real perpetrator was, the ongoing conflict has affected China's interests. This should not be what China wants to see.

It also explains why China, which has a huge investment in Myanmar, avoids acting hastily. For China, these investments are difficult to use as pressure levers, and they are more like hostages. So, who is continually creating and spreading these rumors, who can benefit from this conflict against China? Some Chinese official media believe that Western countries have played a disgraceful role in this.

It is natural and very normal when neighboring countries have conflicts, clashes, misunderstandings, or citizens dislike each other. It is the same as in Cambodia where many Cambodian citizens have negative perceptions toward Vietnamese citizens because of the history of the two countries. Thailand and Myanmar have frequently raised controversy on border issues.

As a neighboring country, China is the largest trading partner as well as one of the most important sources of investment for Myanmar. More and more state-owned and private Chinese enterprises have been investing in Myanmar with a focus on oil and gas exploration and production, oil and gas pipelines, hydropower and mining resource development, as well as processing and manufacturing industries

Under the military rule before the 2015 democratic election, there were many investment cooperation projects between China and Myanmar, some of which were aborted due to civil opposition. Many people believed that, after Aung San Suu Kyi took office, China-Myanmar relations would face major adjustments and more projects would be cancelled. However, development has contradicted people's expectations. After taking office, Suu Kyi traveled to China several times for state visits or meetings. Chinese President Xi Jinping also visited Myanmar on the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 2020. This was the second visit of the Chinese President in 19 years. It appeared that China-Myanmar economic and trade relations have experienced greater development.

With no evidence to support it, the rumors claiming that China supports the Myanmar military coup began to fade away. After that, there was some criticism of China for not being a responsible power, pointing out that China was obstructing sanctions against Myanmar. Meanwhile, China was also blamed for participating in the Armed Forces Day on March 27.

In fact, China has also joined in with the United Nations Security Council that, the UN statement read, “strongly condemns the violence against peaceful protestors, including against women, youth and children. It expresses deep concern at restrictions on medical personnel, civil society, labour union members, journalists and media workers, and calls for the immediate release of all those detained arbitrarily.”

Although in recent years, Chinese diplomats are considered pursuing wolf diplomacy, this is mainly when they believe that other parties are interfering in its internal affairs. On multilateral occasions such as the United Nations, "strongly condemns" might be the strongest term for China. Opposing unilateral sanctions was not new. China believes that sanctions are not only useless, but also complicate matters. Participating in the Armed Forces Day, Russia, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Thailand, Bangladesh and Lao PDR were also there. China did not send high-level delegations like Russia. In reality, taking into account those “hostages,” maintaining relations with the military is still very important.

Many scholars have pointed out that the relationship between China and the Burmese military government is not that simple. There were also some contradictions between them before. And after the coup, a lobbyist even claimed that the Myanmar military hopes to improve relations with Western countries and distance itself from China. How could it be possible if China has supported the Myanmar coup from the beginning?

With the development of the situation, China has become more and more active in supporting ASEAN to solve the Myanmar crisis. During both press conference and the face-to-face meeting with the ASEAN foreign ministers, State Councilor Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China supports ASEAN’s effort.

Wang emphasized the importance of restoring peace and stability at the press conference of the two sessions on March 7 [2021], and supported ASEAN’s principles of non-interference and consensus. He also pointed out that China's friendly policy towards Myanmar is open to all the people of Myanmar.

At the end of March, when Wang met with the foreign ministers of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines in Fujian [China], he expressed his support for the convening of a special ASEAN summit to seek a solution to the Myanmar crisis. Demonstrating full support for ASEAN to constructively participate in Myanmar’s domestic reconciliation process in the ASEAN way, Wang also pledged that China is willing to exchange views with related parties at any time and provide the necessary support.

Following the first special ASEAN physical summit in Jakarta on April 24 [2021], during which concerning parties, including the Myanmar military, reached five consensuses on resolving the Myanmar issue, Chinese Ambassador to ASEAN Deng Xijun voiced praises, saying that it was a “good start for deescalating the situation in Myanmar in the ‘ASEAN way.’

“China will keep close communication with ASEAN, support ASEAN's efforts for mediation and continue to work with all parties in Myanmar in its own way so as to make the ‘soft landing’ of the situation in Myanmar at an early date,” Deng said.

“The ASEAN way” is very important for ASEAN countries. There are many conflicts and contradictions around the world, and the approaches major powers deploy are usually war or sanctions. But any problem we see is usually very complex in nature, let alone the Myanmar crisis, which has very deep roots in historical, cultural, ethnic and religious foundations. War or sanctions can only suppress the problem on the surface, but it cannot solve the problem fundamentally. This can be seen with the United States' sanctions against Iran and North Korea, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Has the problem been successfully solved? Of course, it has not. What about the incidental casualties of innocent civilians, and especially women and children? Things can never be just looked from the surface, or just looked as to who is resolute and decisive. Do the Burmese people really need a war in Burma or imposing sanctions on Burma? Can it solve the problem? No.

In Myanmar’s case, a speech by the Philippines Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin Jr. in February 2021 was very enlightening.  He slammed the West for “tearing down” the reputation of Myanmar civil leader Suu Kyi in recent years. “I pour scorn on the Western world for destroying Aung San Suu Kyi and making her a victim of the military,” he said. “With Burma, we work with the powers around Burma to see if we can convince the great powers there. Forget the United States! We talk to China; we talk to India.”

In addition to supporting ASEAN’s mediation, China has also begun engaging with Myanmar democrats. According to the Irrawaddy’s report on 8 April 2021, the Chinese embassy’s representative in Myanmar has spoken with members of a committee representing elected lawmakers from the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government, amid its repeated calls for all parties in Myanmar to seek a political resolution to the current crisis through dialogue.

So, is this indicating that China has got involved in Myanmar affairs? Yes, it is. But it's not as the rumors say or what some media expect. China has its own way.

Both ASEAN and the United Nations have been criticized for being too soft in their handling of Myanmar affairs. But hard methods are not really useful. Moreover, if it is not handled properly, risks may spill over to all neighboring countries, including China and other ASEAN countries. At the moment when the epidemic is hitting, no one wants to bear such pressure.

In terms of investment, there are more than 340 Chinese enterprises registered with the Myanmar-China Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 30 percent of which are in the textile and clothing industry. When there are more companies and enterprises come to invest in Myanmar, there are more job creations, stopping the local people from migrating to Thailand or other countries to seek jobs.

Happiness, prosperity and development of a country derive from peace and political stability. The Chinese government and Chinese private companies’ dream is to maintain peace and political stability in Myanmar as they have invested in development projects and other important projects in the country. What they want is to make money from their businesses, and it is undeniable that they do not want war or internal clashes, which could cause a disruption of their investment.  

It is arguable that some countries promise to offer pizza while citizens in Asia eat rice as their staple food. Some countries promise great development in Myanmar while they did not encourage their own investors to invest in Myanmar.

It could be a mistake that the Chinese government has heavily focused on business opportunities and avoided discussing the internal affairs of Myanmar. But China believes that it is very important to let people of that country make a decision on the fate of their nation.

Since many Chinese companies were affected and [facilities] destroyed due to the crisis as the protestors accused China of [being] the main supporter of the junta regime, this major power appears to be a victim. It, moreover, is likely a victim of the media reports particularly in the Western world as they have treated the Chinese Communist Party as the symbol of evil.

By mentioning this, it can be well understood that the root cause of the problems and negative perception toward the Chinese government happen due to the misinterpretation of its system and what it really means for each nation, which has different culture, tradition, ways of living, level of education, periods of war and peace, and particularly differences in the political system.

Just as Wang Yi said at a video conference of the US Council on Foreign Relations, democracy is not Coca-Cola that promises the same taste everywhere in the world. Citizens of a nation should choose one doctrine that fits with their national core value and context.

All in all, China has really been involved in Myanmar’s development and job creation for Myanmar’s citizens since there are many state-owned companies and private companies from China that have been investing in Myanmar, and those companies are investing for benefits, not for the crisis. There should be the correct interpretation between investment and coup: The investment has been injected by Chinese investors as well as other foreign investors, but the coup was staged by the Myanmar’s junta, not by investors.  

Dr. Seun Sam is a policy analyst at the Royal Academy of Cambodia. All views in this article are his own.

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