In late February, as the protests in Myanmar against the military’s Feb. 1 coup deposing the civilian government were gaining steam, Timothy McLaughlin of The Atlantic reported on the belief among protesters that the Chinese must be behind the coup. The military wouldn’t have dared act, claimed one student protester, without China’s blessing.
This narrative has found widespread support in the protest movement, which has selectively targeted and burned Chinese-owned businesses, such as clothing and shoe factories, in Yangon and other cities. According to the Washington Post, dozens of Chinese companies have suffered tens of millions in damage. The people are angry — rightly so — and they are aiming their anger at China.
This storyline is straightforward and convenient in its simplicity. After all, the Chinese are no great supporters of democracy, routinely turn a blind eye to massive human rights abuses, and generally prefer authoritarian regimes. Why wouldn’t Beijing, which has maintained a warm relationship with the military junta for decades and remains its largest arms supplier, be pulling the strings in the background?
Turns out, it’s not quite that simple.
CHINA: MYANMAR’S #1
Defying expectations, China embarked on a strategy of cultivating ties and allies across the breadth of Myanmar’s political spectrum. This includes the military, but also Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). This relationship has worked for Beijing because the NLD has proven to be the more stable and willing governing partner with China on economic cooperation. For instance, in January 2021, the NLD signed several bilateral agreements with China for the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, a massive series of infrastructure projects valued at $100 billion. As such, China has become a surprisingly strong supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi and the democratic transition in Myanmar over the last ten years.
Since Myanmar started transitioning to democracy in 2011, China has positioned itself as the country’s largest trading partner, its biggest lender, and one of the top sources of foreign direct investment. China is bankrolling a number of big-ticket infrastructure items, such as the multi-billion dollar Myitsone Dam, which has faced significant opposition under the rule of the junta before 2015. Former military dictator Thein Sein suspended the project in 2011 over national pride and self-determination. The dam also sparked protests among ethnic groups living along the Irrawaddy river, who almost certainly would have been economically impacted by the construction of the dam. Ironically, the military, known as the Tatmadaw, has felt threatened by China over its alleged support for armed militia groups in northeast Myanmar. Meanwhile, the NLD government has embraced an enhanced relationship openly. Yun Sun, a China expert at the Stimson Center, noted recently, “It turns out that China can work very well with the NLD government. Probably even better than with the military government.”
The relationship with the NLD paid off for China in unexpected ways, beyond just economic development. Most notably, Myanmar recently aligned with China on Beijing’s priority issues — those on which it receives international condemnation, such as Tibet and the treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. In July 2020, Myanmar even lent its support in defense of Beijing’s implementation of a national security law in Hong Kong, a law designed explicitly to extinguish peaceful pro-democracy protests. One can only imagine how close the relationship must be for Suu Kyi, who rode to power herself on the backs of peaceful protesters, to support China’s suppression of democracy.
HEDGING ITS BETS
Since the coup happened, China has made clear that it is not happy with the situation and most certainly doesn’t bless it. In fact, China’s ambassador to Myanmar gave an interview expressing China’s displeasure and lack of support on February 16, 2021, only two weeks after the coup.
No doubt that Beijing is feeling burned at having supported the NLD so strongly, only to see it be deposed so easily. Unless the civilian government is restored within a few months, which seems unlikely, Beijing is likely to conclude that supporting democracies brings only headaches and grief.
For China, the return of military rule brings the kind of instability it has avoided for ten years, and throws into question all its economic plans with the NLD. Suspicion and mistrust of China still run strong within the Tatmadaw and some speculate this had something to do with the coup in the first place. Having to deal with the Tatmadaw once again as the sole power in Naypyidaw is not something the Chinese relish. Furthermore, the coup cast China back into the role of villain on the streets of Myanmar, a role which it thought it had shed. As evidenced by the protesters and public opinion, nefarious Chinese influence is now seen everywhere, even where it doesn’t exist. And thus far, its proclamations of innocence have fallen on deaf ears. Though they may be relatively blameless here, actually avoiding blame is not something the Chinese do well.
All of this has led to the strange expectation from some that China will somehow restore democracy in Myanmar and push for the release of Suu Kyi. One Hong Kong-based scholar in particular called on the Chinese to press the Myanmar military to release all political prisoners and issue official statements condemning the coup. Others suggest that Beijing should press Myanmar to restore democracy through open and fair elections. Unfortunately, such exhortations, while well-meaning, are fanciful at best. If people are looking to somebody to save Myanmar, they will have to look elsewhere. Beijing may not be the villain this time. But it is certainly not the savior.
Recognizing the fact that China has never in history openly supported democracy or human rights globally — or in any country — it almost certainly will not do so in Myanmar. Such overt meddling in another country’s internal affairs would be inconsistent with the messaging it has put out for decades and with its general approach to great power politics, which is to form transactional relationships that can later be exploited for political gain. In addition, by pushing for democracy and human rights in Myanmar, it would open itself up to charges of rank hypocrisy, given its own dismal record on these issues. Whatever global goodwill it could possibly gain from assisting Myanmar, therefore, will be more than outweighed by the undermining of its own governance structure.
Just as importantly, China does not want to make the Tatmadaw an outright enemy. As much as the two regard each other as difficult partners, they are still partners. Trashing that partnership would make life difficult for both of them, certainly for Beijing. For the Tatmadaw, losing Beijing as a partner would dry up their arms supply and also put a massive enemy just across the border. And with the Tatmadaw now back in charge in Naypyidaw, China knows it will have to deal with them to maintain its influence and access to the country. An antagonistic relationship, therefore, doesn’t help the situation on either side.
This reluctance to take on the military can be seen in China’s subsequent actions. While it may have conveyed a message about not being happy with the situation, it has notably refrained from criticizing the Tatmadaw or calling on it to reverse its actions, much less hold elections. In the recent discussions at the United Nations about this crisis, Beijing carefully sought language that would achieve a balance between the Tatmadaw and the NLD. This indicates that China is hedging its bets. It may prefer to deal with the NLD, but it knows that the Tatmadaw is still the most powerful institution in the country.
Beyond these practical considerations, Beijing will also not get involved because it always chooses power over money. For Beijing, money and economic cooperation are just means to power, to achieve political influence and control. The perfect example of this is Hong Kong. Before 2020, the city was an economic powerhouse, bringing in billions of dollars every year, much of which went straight into Beijing’s coffers. But Beijing threw it all away at the first hint of democratic stirrings. In Hong Kong, it clearly chose power over money. The same principle applies in Myanmar. For Beijing, saving their economic investments in-country is not enough to outweigh the loss of power that would come from supporting democracy. In other words, this is a trade that Beijing is just not willing to make.
FEELING THE BURN OF SUPPORTING DEMOCRACY
Unfortunately, the broader implication is that the coup will likely make Beijing even less supportive of democracy in the future, whether in Myanmar or in another country. No doubt that Beijing is feeling burned at having supported the NLD so strongly, only to see it be deposed so easily. Unless the civilian government is restored within a few months, which seems unlikely, Beijing is likely to conclude that supporting democracies brings only headaches and grief. With time, the decision to do so again in the future becomes harder and harder.
As a result, the world should not expect Beijing to set things right in Myanmar, despite its clear economic interest to do so. China may have welcomed democracy in Myanmar. But it won’t lift a finger to save it.
Anish Goel is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at New America. He previously served in the White House’s National Security Council as senior director for South Asia. He is currently an employee of the US Department of Defense. The views expressed here are strictly personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the US government.