China’s strategy towards Myanmar until recent months has been carefully hedged and somewhat cautious towards the February 1, 2021 coup d’état. Indeed, the military takeover and ensuing chaos endanger Chinese interests in stability and a strategic infrastructure route to the Indian Ocean under its Belt and Road Initiative.
But, Beijing is now shifting tack. Despite continued escalation in fighting between the opposition and the junta, China is willing to tip the scales in Myanmar towards the military—albeit quietly and still hedged. The United States and its allies and partners should act to counter it.
Although it was quick to back the junta after the coup, China also made its frustration known. It continued to covertly arm ethnic armed organizations along its borders and advocate for the junta to refrain from dissolving Aung San Suu Kyi’s ousted National League for Democracy (NLD), likely viewing her as a necessary stabilizing force.
When Myanmar’s renewed fighting neared its border, or when its businesses were harmed, Beijing came calling on the junta to correct course. It even reached a deal with the United States to block the seating of the military’s preferred UN representative. For Beijing, this was all in service to stability in its strategic neighbor.
However, China in recent months appears increasingly willing to deploy its policy levers in favor of the junta in Myanmar.
Reports emerged in December 2021 of attempted (and unsuccessful) peace negotiations between Myanmar’s military junta and a coalition of ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) called the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee. Some of its members, such as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army, are engaged in fighting with the military regime.
China brokered these talks as the most prominent international backer of both the junta and the EAOs participating in this meeting. The Chinese government has long played a dual game in Myanmar by quietly engaging the military, the ousted National League for Democracy, and some of the EAOs, most notably the United Wa State Army, which leads this EAO coalition and thus far remains neutral in the struggle.
This comes amidst other Chinese initiatives designed to shore up the struggling junta. For one, the PLA transferred a diesel-electric submarine to Myanmar in a symbolic show of support (and likely a counter to India, given its own submarine gift in 2020).
Economically, the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor is accelerating, and Myanmar plans to accept China’s renminbi as official currency for border trade. These moves demonstrate the military’s desperation for Beijing’s help despite its historic distrust of China’s support for armed ethnic rebels.
At the international level, other reporting claims that Chinese representatives covertly pressed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to allow junta leader Min Aung Hlaing to attend the November 2021 China-ASEAN Summit.
Myanmar’s new dictator had previously been blocked by ASEAN from participating in their own Summit in October. Intriguingly, the chorus of voices supporting the rejection from ASEAN then included Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, a noted friend of Beijing within the regional organization.
However, as the new chair of ASEAN for 2022, Cambodia’s tone shifted once again, and Beijing’s role in this remains unclear but potentially important. Hun Sen formally visited Myanmar in January 2022 to meet with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing and has been engaging steadily with the junta over the past few months.
Some have argued that Hun Sen will likely act as a proxy for China on Myanmar, as Cambodia did on the South China Sea issue during its last Chairmanship in 2012. Meanwhile, others see Hun Sen’s own desire to resolve the issue instead. Regardless of China’s role here, Cambodia’s widening embrace of the junta under the auspices of ASEAN coincides with and will amplify Beijing’s apparent deepening support for the Myanmar military.
The reasons for China’s shift likely derive from the opposition’s increasingly capable armed resistance movement but also a continued calculus in Beijing that, absent the junta’s consolidation and military victory, failed state chaos is far more likely than a returned NLD or other civilian government in Naypyidaw.
In spring 2021, the odds of a battlefield victory appeared especially slim for the perennially divided opposition, primarily the National Unity Government, myriad People’s Defense Forces, and some of the EAOs (such as the Kachin Independence Army and elements of the Karen National Liberation Army).
However, in the months since the September 7, 2021 formal declaration of war by the National Unity Government, the military is increasingly overstretched, hindered by constant guerilla fighting, and hampered by low morale.
At the same time, unless it acquires adequate anti-air capabilities and fully unite its disparate members, the pro-democracy movement will likely struggle to completely overcome the military. In such a scenario, Myanmar could disintegrate into a failed state replete with more autonomous EAO enclaves and, potentially, warlordism.
While China has largely hedged to maintain leverage over the military, which it never truly trusted in the first place, Beijing now appears concerned that a failed state in Myanmar is increasingly possible.
Instead of a rapid junta consolidation or a successful protest movement, the country now looks to be fragmenting into a chaotic humanitarian crisis. Such an eventuality would be incredibly damaging to Chinese interests, most importantly maintaining a stable neighbor and acquiring a geostrategic route for energy supplies to China from the Indian Ocean.
In this context, China worries that the junta’s consolidation is in jeopardy but also that the opposition cannot seize power in the country’s center, which drives it to now calculate that ramping up support of the military regime is necessary to tip the scales back in its favor and ensure long-term stability.
Perhaps crucially, this support remains quiet and hedged. Instead of a full-throated, public endorsement of the junta, Beijing’s outreach is more tentative and under the table. For instance, the military published a collection of foreign congratulations from Russia, North Korea, Serbia, Belarus, and Cambodia on Myanmar’s Independence Day. China was notable with its absence.
Indeed, Beijing elected to lobby ASEAN quietly during its stand against the junta in October 2021 rather than apply public pressure. Additionally, the provision of a submarine has little to no impact on the military balance against the opposition and China-armed EAOs but does legitimize the junta internationally, as do its other international moves. There is a clear difference in the type of full-throated support Naypyidaw receives from Moscow and that which Beijing offers.
This reticence in Beijing points towards its fear that overly public linkage between China and the junta could lead to further hatred amongst Myanmar’s people of Chinese interference. As seen in several instances, Chinese investments in Myanmar have been damaged, and direct targeting or sabotage of China-Myanmar Economic Corridor projects by anti-junta forces would certainly not be what Beijing wants to see.
Beyond this, it remains in line with China’s longstanding dual approach in Myanmar: back both sides and hope to come out on top. Beijing’s hedging strategy still holds true even if Beijing acts more forcefully in support of the junta, as it is always good strategy to remain pragmatic and not put all of one’s eggs in one basket.
For example, reporting suggests that China’s envoy attempted to meet with the detained and ousted State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in August but was denied. Although unconfirmed, it is also likely that China’s ally, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, requested to meet with her in his January 2022 visit, as a junta spokesperson felt the need to publicly deny it.
Combined with its earlier insistence that the junta not dissolve the NLD and continued public commitments to a “relaunch of democratic transition,” China likely hopes to keep Suu Kyi and her party around for stability and as a backup strategy.
In this sense, Beijing’s expanded support to the junta does not mean it has abandoned its hedging strategy but rather modified it to ensure the military consolidates in Naypyidaw and China maintains its leverage elsewhere. In China’s view, anything less looks like unmanageable chaos.
To counteract this growing support from Beijing, the United States and its like-minded allies and partners could in turn act more forcefully in Myanmar. Indeed, despite the continued emphasis on restoring Myanmar’s “path to inclusive democracy,” US policy remains ineffective.
Targeted sanctions and international pressure are important, but the opposition in Myanmar requires a more directly involved and forceful international backer to counterbalance Beijing’s support for the junta.
There are a few policy options that the United States could pursue.
For one, working more closely with allies and partners will be crucial. Key countries are those in Southeast Asia who most vehemently oppose the coup, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore, as well as others where Washington has close ties and some leverage but are friendlier to Myanmar’s military, like Thailand and Vietnam.
It also means getting Australia, India, and Japan on side, as they have refrained from pressuring the junta out of fear that punishment will drive it into China’s arms.
Second, implementing secondary sanctions on businesses in the region still working with the junta would truly bite. To be sure, this carries the risk of harming ties to countries like Thailand and Singapore, but the United States could make clear that a junta-controlled or failed state in Myanmar lies counter to their interests in a united and central ASEAN, as well as a stable Southeast Asia.
Third, the United States could formally recognize the National Unity Government—or take further steps to indicate diplomatic support—and support it with more vaccines and humanitarian aid to assist it in providing services in territory it and aligned EAOs control, particularly along the border with Thailand.
Without a firm international backer, the opposition in Myanmar will find it difficult to defeat a China-supported junta. The National Unity Government will likely find itself increasingly squeezed out of diplomatic engagements and denied critical supplies like vaccines and medical supplies.
Fourth and finally, US diplomatic representatives could facilitate the National Unity Government’s outreach to EAOs and inclusion in regional and international fora, such as ASEAN and the UN. Without more anti-junta unity and support from the EAOs, it is unlikely that the National Unity Government and its armed resistance can successfully seize state power.
Coming off of the Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy and growing recognition that the Indo-Pacific is the future of US foreign policy, restoring democracy to Myanmar and countering China’s growing support for the junta should be a greater priority for Washington.
Lucas Myers is program coordinator and associate for Southeast Asia at the Wilson Center. The views expressed are the author’s alone and published exclusively by Asia Times.