Myanmar and China could draw closer after the February 1 coup. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

CHIANG MAI – As the dust settles on Myanmar’s military coup, it is already clear that China will be the main foreign power beneficiary of the suspension of democracy.

While US President Joe Biden’s administration quickly threatened to impose new punitive sanctions on Myanmar’s coup-makers, China’s Foreign Ministry took its comparative time before commenting.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, at a news briefing on February 1 hours after Myanmar’s elected government members were detained, said Beijing “noted what has happened in Myanmar and are in the process of further understanding the situation.”

He then went on to say that “all sides in Myanmar” should “appropriately handle their differences under the constitution and legal framework” in order for “political and social stability to be maintained.”

The US, on the other hand, “denounced [the coup] in the strongest possible terms” and lambasted Myanmar’s new military leaders for rejecting “the will of the people.” A US State Department spokesman said a post-coup assessment of events would trigger “certain restrictions” on Myanmar’s government.

Last year, the US gave US$135 million to Myanmar, but little of that would actually be affected because almost all of it went to nongovernmental and civil society organizations, to which assistance will apparently be maintained. 

A soldier stands guard as troops arrive at a Hindu temple in Yangon on February 2, 2021, as Myanmar’s generals appeared in firm control a day after a surgical coup that saw elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi detained. Photo: AFP/Stringer

Biden will be constrained from any engagement with the coup-makers to gain a realpolitik march on China by his repeated vow to emphasize democracy-promotion in his foreign policy. 

As with previous outrages in Myanmar, including the Rohingya refugee crisis strongly condemned in the West, China will not likely criticize Myanmar’s new military government, even if its new direction and policies dent somewhat its interests and ongoing projects in the country.

Chinese businessmen may fret over the future of commitments made and deals struck with Aung San Suu Kyi’s now ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government.

Beijing had cozied up to her and her party before the coup because its policymakers and business groups found it easier to deal with them than the staunchly nationalistic military, known as the Tatmadaw.

A previous military regime had initiated certain reforms aimed at more openness – and Western investment – after a gradual democratic transition that started in 2010 elections in order to reduce the nation’s dependence on China.

After the West turned their backs on the Myanmar government after the Rohingya refugee crisis in 2016-2017, Suu Kyi, a politician who needed foreign assistance and investment to deliver on her election promises of economic progress, had little to no choice but to turn to Beijing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) and Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi (L) shake hands during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Naypyidaw, January 17, 2020. Photo: AFP/Thet Aung

Myanmar formally joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) when Suu Kyi attended a forum for International Cooperation in Beijing in May 2017.

The two countries then signed a memorandum of understanding to jointly build the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) in 2018, aiming to further enhance bilateral cooperation within the BRI’s framework.

Among the major projects that were on the table before the coup are a new railroad linking the Chinese border town of Ruili with Mandalay in Myanmar, and a China-financed deep-sea port at Kyaukpyu on the Bay of Bengal, which already also serves as a terminus for oil and gas pipelines that reach across Myanmar and flow into China’s southern Yunnan province.

Beijing will thus likely not risk even the mildest hiccup in its relations with strategically important Myanmar, the only neighbor that via the CMEC provides it with ready access to the Indian Ocean for trade and an alternative avenue for its fuel shipments from the Middle East that travel mainly through the strategically fraught Malacca Strait.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s defense forces and now national leader under emergency rule, is known to be wary of Chinese hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Tatmadaw has recently diversified its sources of arms procurement to lessen the dependence on China, which in the 1990s and early 2000s was Myanmar’s main supplier of weapons and other military material used in in its ongoing fights against ethnic insurgent groups.

Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing salutes during military exercises in the Ayeyarwaddy delta region in February 2018. Photo: AFP/Pool/STR
Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing salutes during military exercises in the Ayeyarwaddy delta region in February 2018. Photo: AFP/Pool/Stringer

As recently as late January, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu visited Myanmar to ink a deal for the supply of Russian-made Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft missile and gun systems, Orlan-10E surveillance drones and radars. Previously, Myanmar bought Russian-made MiG-29 jet fighters, as well as helicopters, air defense missile systems, radars and artillery.

The deals come as Myanmar’s military has complained about the number of ethnic insurgent groups that have one way or another acquired Chinese arms, weapons they use in their fights against the Tatmadaw.

It’s all part of China’s complicated carrot and stick policy towards Myannmar. On carrots, China along with Russia have consistently blocked attempts to raise any Myanmar-related issues, including human rights abuses, at the United Nations Security Council, where they both have veto power over such proposals.

In recent days, China blocked a British-drafted statement condemning the coup in Myanmar, the first clear signal Beijing will seek to engage the new military rulers.

While Min Aung Hlaing may instinctually mistrust China for its role in supporting ethnic insurgent groups and now has excellent relations with Russia, he already recognizes that China is the only top foreign power he can rely on after his coup, Myanmar insiders say.

One clear indication that he intends to move closer to China is his appointment of the new Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin.

A former soldier who took part in offensives against ethnic Karen rebels and oversaw the capture of their Manerplaw headquarters in 1995, Wunna Maung Lwin served as foreign minister from 2011 to 2016 under then-president Thein Sein, an ex-general-turned politician who steered the country’s gradual opening.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (R) meets with then and now Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing August 29, 2013. Photo: AFP/Adrian Bradshaw/Pool

He visited China several times over that period and was the first to vouch for Chinese “economic corridors” to be built through Myanmar. During a visit in August 2015 — before the NLD won its first election victory in November of that year — he was quoted in a Chinese Foreign Ministry bulletin saying that “Myanmar thanks China” for its humanitarian support and “Myanmar cherishes China as a friend in need.”

He also praised China’s role in “mediating” in the wars between the Tatmadaw and the country’s various ethnic armed organizations, a statement that willfully looked away from China’s duplicitious role in the conflicts.

While such a statement could be put in the category of diplomatic niceties, Wunna Maung Lwin likely meant it. Indeed, he is known for his anti-Western and pro-Chinese stance. At one point he even told Thein Sein not to meet then-US president Barack Obama, insiders say.

Thein Sein, of course, did go on to meet Obama in an effort to improve relations with the West, a meeting that took place while Wunna Maung Lwin was at the UN in Geneva to defend the Tatmadaw’s abysmal human rights record.

Now Wunna Maung Lwin is back and his cordial relations with Chinese officials will likely prove pivotal as the West contemplates renewed sanctions and other punitive measures against the coup-makers. China is again poised to be the “friend in need” it has always been in times of crises for the Tatmadaw.