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Foreign Policy

Chaos in Myanmar Could Mean Opportunity for China

Aug 02, 2022
  • Kathryn Neville

    Masters student, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies

Political turmoil in Myanmar has redefined the China-Myanmar relationship. China must now walk a fine line between maintaining productive relations with the Tatmadaw while avoiding fallout from regional partners and multilateral organizations. 

Full text: Stability is critical to China protecting its existing financial and strategic assets in Myanmar, but recent political and economic chaos there, however, opens opportunities for Beijing to increase its economic presence and power. Chinese Senior Diplomat Wang Yi didn’t waste any time during his visit to Myanmar this month to promote the construction of a railway from Kunming, China to Kyaukpyu. It was his first time in Myanmar since the February 2021 coup that ousted Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party (NLD) from power. Yi drew praise for leading productive talks as the Chair of the seventh Foreign Ministers’ Meeting of LMC, a bilateral organization promoting cooperation in the Mekong region. He urged the Military Junta—otherwise known as the Tatmadaw, to reach a political resolution with the NLD expressing the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s sincerest hopes that Myanmar becomes “politically and socially stable.” China’s concurrent negotiations over a future railway, however, did little to reinforce Yi’s call for political détente. Opponents of the military government viewed the Chinese as legitimizing the Tatmadaw’s power and leaving no hope for a return to democracy.  

For China, it's less about who is in power in Myanmar, but rather which government guarantees greater stability. Stability and cooperation were certainly no guarantee under Suu Kyi’s government, a 10-year experiment with democracy where rivalries between the popular pro-democracy camp and the military continued to fester. The Tatmadaw continued to hold 25 non-electable seats in Parliament after NLD’s candidate Thein Sein became president in 2011 and many of the same military-backed state and local officials remained in power, obstructing democratic reform. 

China had a productive working relationship with Suu Kyi and the NLD, but after the coup, Beijing was able to increase its leverage over the Tatmadaw to better support its long-term economic and strategic interests. Political and ideological alignment with the Tatmadaw makes it easier for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to control the non-democratically elected government. The exodus of western capital accelerated China’s opportunity to invest and assert greater influence over strategic and economic decision-making. 

Although the return of the military government is advantageous to China’s interests, Beijing must also play a diplomatic middle ground between the NLD and the Junta. The chances of Myanmar returning to a democratically led government are slim despite promises of free and fair elections in the coming year. It is still important, however, for Beijing to maintain close relations with all parties in Myanmar’s complex and multiplayer political situation by making distinctions between diplomatic and political relations. Beijing can work with the Tatmadaw government-to-government while still maintaining friendly relations with the NLD party-to-party. Over official channels, China must now walk a fine line, being careful not to cast blame or pick a side to maintain productive relations with the Tatmadaw to protect its assets while avoiding fallout from regional partners and multilateral organizations. 

Over the last 20 years, China’s investment in Myanmar has skyrocketed largely due to China’s “Going Out” strategy which increased its need for critical natural resources and required a deepened reliance on Myanmar to fulfill China’s industrial development. The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) is a key component of the Belt and Road Initiative. Its crown jewel, the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) includes an industrial park and a deep-sea port on the Indian Ocean. Landlocked on its southwest border, China’s heavy investment in the port at Kyaukphyu is strategically significant further fortifying the economic corridor opening China’s direct outpost to the Indian ocean and access to Southeast Asia eliminating reliance on the strait of Malacca. 

Other projects include an urban development plan for Yangon– Myanmar’s largest city, energy transport routes through the Sino-Myanmar oil and gas pipelines, copper mining, and heavy investment in Myanmar’s hydropower capabilities, most controversially, the Tasang dam along the Salween River in the Shan State. 

Historically, Myanmar and the Burmese people have been skeptical of Chinese interference and influence. Today, even some high-ranking military officials within the Burmese government believe dependence on China is a risk to Myanmar’s sovereignty. But estrangement from the international community over the years has continuously pushed them closer. This was most evident between 1980-2011 when Myanmar was widely viewed as a human rights disaster and cut off by the rest of the world. Burma was then forced to look to Beijing for economic support, political legitimacy, and national security. 

That changed during the last 10 years of relative democracy when western aid and development poured into Myanmar for the first time in decades. As the democratic darling of the global community, investment in Myanmar, though risky, became fashionable attracting support from investors like George Soros and Bono. Foreign direct investment piqued in 2015-2016 at $9.4 billion, but despite the flood of western capital, China remained Myanmar’s primary trade partner. 

The recent political and economic chaos in Myanmar increases China’s power and control over the country and its strategic assets. The future of Myanmar is destined for continued turmoil and as Myanmar becomes the international pariah once more— it will only fall deeper into Beijing’s orbit. China will be eager to accommodate the controlled chaos under the Tatmadaw, filling the vacuum in any way it can as western development, investment and diplomacy turn away. While today Beijing promotes an end to political instability over official channels, it falls short of mediating any real resolution to further the Burmese peoples’ hopes of democratic reform. Beijing may have a lot to lose in the collapse of Myanmar’s democracy but even more to gain if they proceed with productive relations with the Tatmadaw.

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