Since the military coup in Myanmar on 1 February 2021, there have been reports and allegations that China approves of or is able to spin the military takeover to its advantage. This is unlikely to be true.
Beijing has always considered the Tatmadaw to be incompetent and corrupt. Its mysterious behaviour and unpredictable nature has not sat well with the Chinese government in the past. When the military-backed Thein Sein government came into office in 2011, for example, the generals turned their backs on China, even though Beijing had previously tried to protect the government from international sanctions.
It was military men who turned out to be most damaging to China’s economic and strategic interests. Cancelations and threats to renegotiate existing contracts for Chinese investment in Myanmar, as well as warming relations with the United States during the Obama administration’s ‘Pivot to Asia’, sidelined China. A case in point is the shelved Myitsone Dam, where the Chinese company that invested in the initial stage of the project suffered massive financial losses. Beijing tends to view the Myanmar military as ungrateful, rapacious, greedy and a poor business partner.
Meanwhile, the past five years of National League for Democracy (NLD) rule under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi led Beijing to realise potential in working with her government. Aung San Suu Kyi visited Beijing relatively frequently and has remarked on the need to pursue friendly relations with China for the sake of Myanmar’s economic development. Bilateral economic relations have improved tremendously under the NLD government, with Myanmar actively participating in the China–Myanmar Economic Corridor as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Recently, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government also signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade agreement that China has a strong interest in.
Myanmar has experienced significant economic growth under the NLD. This is in line with China’s economic interests in the region. China today is not only interested in the country’s natural resources, but is also looking for a market to sell its products.
China’s investment in the country is dependent on whether Myanmar has a stable, internationally accepted government. It would not be logical for China to support a military government sanctioned by the international community. If Myanmar comes under international sanctions again and its economy deteriorates, China loses a market for its products. China does not seem to benefit from a military coup in Myanmar.
Yet it is not possible for China to openly condemn the military’s actions because it has set no such precedent. The Chinese government does not condemn regime changes in other countries and Beijing is in no position to make an exception in Myanmar’s case.
Officially, non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries has long been a core principle of China’s foreign policy. There is no reason to expect China to make exception now. The recent statement issued by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Myanmar may be interpreted as urging all parties to peacefully solve the problem in accordance with Myanmar’s Constitution, a relatively soft statement.
While the UN Security Council (UNSC) released a press statement on 4 February expressing ‘deep concern’ at the coup, China and Russia blocked stronger language condemning the military takeover. This is consistent with China’s previous practices. Beijing has never supported any such condemnations at the United Nations and this time is no exception. This may not look good for China, particularly in the context of the negative portrayals its government faces in international media as well as domestically in Myanmar. But the UN statement does call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and others in detention, expressing support for the democratic transition in Myanmar. It says UNSC members ‘stressed the need to uphold democratic institutions and processes, refrain from violence and fully respect human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law’ and encourage ‘the pursuance of dialogue and reconciliation in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar’.
Explit language in support of Aung San Suu Kyi and her government and the disapproval for the coup indicates that China has come around to offer its tacit agreement that the coup is not the right thing.
While China may not like the events unfolding in Myanmar, it is unlikely to openly condemn the military’s actions. There is simply no precedent as non-interference in other countries’ domestic politics is a core value. However, the recent UNSC statement indicates that Beijing has made a step forward in line with global support for democratic governance in Myanmar.
Enze Han is Associate Professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Hong Kong.