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Charles Dunst

February 16th, 2021

Myanmar’s Coup: A blow to democracy, a headache for China

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Charles Dunst

February 16th, 2021

Myanmar’s Coup: A blow to democracy, a headache for China

0 comments | 10 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

  • China’s relationship with the Tatmadaw, instigators of Myanmar’s coup, has often been acrimonious. Assertions Beijing approves of the coup are therefore misplaced, and China’s future actions should be viewed in terms of careful realpolitik.
  • Above all, China values political and regional stability within Myanmar in order to protect its investments within the country, many of which are in Rakhine state – home to the Rohingya, as well as a major BRI port and pipeline project.
  • For now, China will wait to see if the Tatmadaw can govern Myanmar competently, all while covertly strengthening ties with rebel groups throughout Myanmar in order to hedge its bets and protect its economic interests within the country.

Since Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, seized power of the country in a coup on 1 February, more than a few scholars have alleged that China approves of, and perhaps even supported, the Tatmadaw’s takeover. China may be able to wield the coup for its own advantage, but Beijing almost certainly did not give the Tatmadaw its blessing ahead of the coup, which is actually an immediate impediment to China’s interests in Myanmar.

This is in no small part because China has long considered the Tatmadaw to be incompetent, corrupt, and distressingly unpredictable and, accordingly, preferred dealing with the ousted Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party. In January 2020, for instance, Chinese President and Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping travelled to Myanmar, meeting with Suu Kyi, promising a “new era” of Burmese-Sino relations, and signing a number of agreements, including for railroad and port projects to be financed by China’s multi-billion dollar Belt and Road Initiative global development scheme. Having invested so heavily in Suu Kyi and the NLD, and having its investments dependent on whether Myanmar has a stable and internationally accepted government, Beijing is likely far from pleased with the Tatmadaw’s takeover.

But China is today’s high church of realpolitik: the country has no permanent friends, but only permanent interests. Indeed, China, despite its track record with the NLD, has consistently tried to hedge its bets by arming various rebel groups throughout the country, particularly those operating in regions where Chinese investments are present. This suggests that Beijing will pragmatically play ball with whoever controls Myanmar, or even parts of the country, as long as these governments and militias keep the pipelines pumping oil and gas, the roads open for trade, and the ports open to Chinese ships and exports. The upshot, then, is that while the Tatmadaw comes under increasing international pressure, China will keep its options open by refusing to impose sanctions on Myanmar, boosting relations with local militias, and laying the groundwork for fruitful collaboration with whoever eventually emerges in control of Myanmar, whether that be the Tatmadaw or NLD.

Historically, however, the Tatmadaw has been anything but favourable to Chinese interests. In fact, these military men have previously been most damaging to China’s economic and strategic interests, cancelling and threatening to renegotiate existing contracts for Chinese investment in Myanmar and choosing to warm ties with the United States during the Obama administration. If the Tatmadaw wanted to upgrade Myanmar’s relationship with China to the level that China wanted, it could have done so before agreeing to moderate democratization reforms in 2011. But it didn’t. Instead, even “under international isolation, the junta always felt China was exploiting them because they had no other options,” as Yun Sun, the director of the Stimson Center’s China Program, puts it. “That’s why they chose reform over China.”

Today, the Tatmadaw remains similarly distrustful of China, taking particular issue with Beijing’s aiding of various insurgent groups throughout Myanmar. Unsurprisingly, when Xi visited Myanmar last year, Tatmadaw leaders complained to him about China’s financing of rebel armies like the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and United Wa State Army. Yet as of April 2020, a state-owned Chinese manufacturer was still arming the Arakan Army, a major insurgent group in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, presumably because the group has promised to not disturb the Chinese deep-sea port at Kyaukphyu that likely serves Beijing’s military interests. It was thus no surprise that after seizing power in February 2021, the Tatmadaw embraced Russian arms specifically to offset China’s influence.

Yet China will not let this unsavoury history undermine its proposed “community of common destiny”—its Sino-centric regional order that includes Myanmar, along with the rest of Southeast Asia. China wants a stable Myanmar and thus would prefer to not support an isolated military government sanctioned by the international community; but if the Tatmadaw proves stable, Beijing will nonetheless court this military, despite past bad blood between them.

But as I’ve written elsewhere, Tatmadaw leaders—who are still somewhat disconnected from modern Myanmar’s society—may not find it possible to run a changed Myanmar, which since opening up to the world from Tatmadaw dictatorship in 2011 has seen the widespread proliferation of technology and enthusiasm for democratic elections. The Tatmadaw will very likely disastrously struggle (as it previously did) to govern the country, leading Myanmar, which remains awash in weapons and marred by ethnic and religious resentment, into chaos.

China is wary of this scenario; chaos is good for nobody, especially not for a Chinese regime keen on expanding its strategic and economic footprints in Myanmar, or for Chinese businesspeople hoping to make a pretty penny in the country. As such, Beijing will not soon put all its eggs in the Tatmadaw’s basket. Instead, citing its promised non-interference in partners’ internal affairs—a Chinese foreign policy principle dating back to Premier Zhou Enlai’s proclamations at the 1955 Bandung Conference—China will officially stay out of the fray while the United States and others impose sanctions on Myanmar, rather than coming to the Tatmadaw’s defence.

Yet as long as the Tatmadaw’s success is in question, Beijing will intensify its links with groups like the Arakan Army to secure access to projects of strategic interest like the Kyaukphyu port. China has already done this in Pakistan, bypassing the ineffective Islamabad government to communicate directly with insurgents threatening Chinese investments in that country’s Balochistan province. It is not hard to see why Beijing would do the same in Myanmar, particularly if the Tatmadaw’s ability to govern deteriorates.

China’s response to the coup is thus far from dependent on the United States or the international community at large. Beijing may beat the drum of non-intervention, and stay away from imposing sanctions on the Tatmadaw or anything to that effect. However, its goals—a stable government in Myanmar—are not so different from those of the United States, European Union, Japan, and other leading democracies. Yet unlike these democracies, China does not care about the character of Myanmar’s government, as long as it is stable. Therefore, while China now sees the coup as an impediment to its interests, Beijing could very well in the coming year or so concede to and improve its rapport with the Tatmadaw leadership if the military proves itself able to run the country and, more importantly, to protect Chinese investments.

For now, though, China will wait to see if the Tatmadaw can actually govern, all while covertly strengthening ties with rebel groups throughout Myanmar. This is certainly a dangerous double game, but it is one that Xi’s China could indeed pull off.


This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, nor The London School of Economics and Political Science.

About the author

Charles Dunst

Charles Dunst is a Visiting Scholar at the East-West Center in Washington and an Associate at LSE IDEAS. His research focuses on Southeast Asia, China, and the Indo-Pacific. He has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and the Council on Foreign Relations, among other outlets.

Posted In: Belt and Road Initiative

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