In early February, military leaders in Myanmar, located on the southwestern border with China, led a military coup against the National League for Democracy government where it was headed by Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Ms. Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and other senior government and party officials were arrested. In January, Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing sent signals alluding to the possibility of a military coup and the disruption of the constitution as it happened before in 1988, following what he considered “election fraud.”
The NLD swept the general elections held last November, contrary to the army’s expectations. The coup’s timing was remarkable, as a few hours preceded the first legislative session of the parliament that was elected in November 2020. Min Aung Hlaing felt that the army’s privileges are clearly shown in constitutional articles that maintain a balance between the interests of the military and civilians, were in danger. Min Aung Hlaing’s assessment has justifications, as the relationship between the military and Aung San Suu Kyi has worsened since 2018, and the two sides have not met face to face since then. The NLD victory was based on an electoral plan in which the party leaders pledged to limit the army’s influence on the country’s political life.
A coup confuses the cards of China
It was clear that the military coup in Myanmar took China’s leadership by surprise. This was reflected in a kind of confusion of cards that appeared in Beijing from the first day of dealing with the crisis. China’s relationship with the military goes back decades. Since the early 1990s, during the years of tremendous Western pressure on the military rulers in Myanmar, China is the most important force in the Security Council to defend the Myanmar military. Chinese companies played a significant role in easing the impact of Western sanctions on Myanmar’s economy, to the point where it came close to achieving complete control over it.
This background led analysts in the West to believe that the coup might serve China’s strategic interests. But this perception overlooked China’s investment in strengthening relations with the NLD since 2013 when Beijing felt that the party was a candidate for a significant victory in the 2020 elections. The coup occurred days after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Myanmar, where he met Aung San Suu Kyi. The two sides agreed to activate the development corridor between the two countries as part of the Belt and Road Initiative to export Chinese vaccines against Coronavirus and to receive assistance from China in finding solutions to the high level of poverty in Myanmar as a result of the economic crisis resulting from the spread of the virus. During the visit, Wang met with the military leaders, headed by Min Aung Hlaing.
China’s relationship with the military leadership, especially Min Aung Hlaing, is tinged with suspicion and declining confidence, based on China’s support for some armed ethnic groups with Chinese roots on the borders. In parallel, the army has tried over the past years to reduce dependence on importing weapons from China and heading towards Russia and India.
It can be said that China, contrary to the belief that it achieves more significant gains under authoritarian governments, and suffers losses in dealing with democratic countries, is one of the big losers from the February 1 coup in Myanmar. The unilateral vision of the equation of democracy against dictatorship as a determinant of China’s foreign policy lacks precision, especially in relations with Southeast Asian countries. For example, the democratically elected populist President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, brought his country closer to China. Simultaneously, the military-backed government in neighboring Thailand remained a vital ally of the United States.
Beijing diplomatic maneuvers
However, China resisted pressure from Washington to force it to “condemn” the coup. On February 2, China and Russia resorted to veto to prevent Western countries in the council from issuing a statement condemning the coup. However, at the same time, it did not welcome the coup or express its open support for it. It was noticeable that China was hesitant to condemn the coup and to try to stand at the same distance from all sides. On February 3, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that assumptions that China supported the coup or gave it tacit approval were incorrect, expressing Beijing’s wishes “for all parties in Myanmar to resolve their differences properly and support political and social stability.” With the onset of the coup, the official Chinese Xinhua agency described the coup as a “broad government reshuffle” as it was a semantic step that reveals Beijing’s intentions. On February 4, however, it was noted that China did not object to the Security Council’s statement, which demanded the speedy release of Aung San Suu Kyi and its aides, and expressed concern about the state of emergency imposed in the country.
It was clear that China resorted to diplomatic maneuvers to realize that forcing its leaders to condemn the coup is an American policy aimed at a wedge between Beijing and the leaders of the Myanmar army to ensure that the country is completely isolated and that China, as in the past, does not turn into a way out that guarantees the nullification of the Western economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union. Although the US sanctions initially avoided the inclusion of the Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MESHL) and the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), two commercial entities of the military that dominate Myanmar’s economy, in the list of sanctioned entities, in an attempt from Washington, it seems, to preserve the possibility of the return of the generals from the coup, and to give American officials an opportunity for themselves for possible communication with the leaders of the army in Myanmar. Still, the US Treasury Department soon included these two entities with sanctions in the first week of this March, in an indication of the Biden administration’s intention to increase its pressure on the military authority in Myanmar.
Escalation of protest and Chinese anger
During the last two weeks of February, protests against the military coup in Myanmar began to widen, and violence and calls for nationwide civil disobedience escalated. In addition to the deaths and the continuation of the demonstrations, despite Min Aung Hlaing’s pledges that the military coup would be “different” this time, the phenomenon of repeated protests appeared in front of the Chinese embassy. The demonstrators raised slogans including “Support Myanmar, do not support the tyrants,” and “Stop helping the military coup.” This phenomenon constituted the most significant pressure on China to take a clear stance. The demonstrators accused China of sending soldiers to help the army suppress the demonstrations, along with hackers to build an “electronic wall” and prevent people from communicating via the Internet and isolate them from the outside world.
The spread of these rumors on social media created anxiety in Beijing and pressured officials to respond. Indeed, on February 10, the Chinese Foreign Ministry described the allegations as “false information and rumors.” Later, the Chinese ambassador to Myanmar, Chen Hai, responded expressing the closest perception of China’s official position on the military coup, saying that “China is not happy with the current situation” in the country, and called on the demonstrators to differentiate between “right and wrong” and not fall between the two peoples.
This position confirms China’s anger at the loss of diplomatic efforts and public relations campaigns over the past five years. Beijing tried to win over Aung San Suu Kyi and invest in long-term and long-term relations with its party. Moreover, the coup happened at a difficult time for China, trying to improve its ties with the United States after Joe Biden entered the White House. The cautious behavior of Chinese companies towards the strict US sanctions imposed on Iran shows the dilemma that the Min Aung Hlaing coup put China in, as it is difficult to imagine that China will find an opportunity to unilaterally control Myanmar’s economy if Western countries decide to expand the economic sanctions imposed on the army and its affiliates in the future.
But for China, the extreme caution in dealing with the military coup aims to reach the optimal way out of the crisis, which is greater dependence on Myanmar, which is suffering from a significant economic crisis due to the spread of the Coronavirus on it. This scenario, if it happened, would increase China’s power in the Southeast Asian region, which many Asian countries fear. Japanese Defense Minister Yasuhid Nakayama said, “If we do not deal with this matter well, Myanmar can move away from free democratic countries. Politically, you join the Chinese camp.”
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