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Foreign Policy

Turning A New Leaf in U.S.-China Relations? – Look No Further than Myanmar

Mar 03, 2021
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

On February 1, a coup d’etat – staged by Min Aung Hlaing and the Tatmadaw – led to the overthrowing of the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led civilian government, and the imprisonment or expulsion of twenty odd senior governmental leaders in Myanmar; amongst them are President Win Myint, and Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor and daughter of the founder of modern-day Myanmar.

The coup, a fundamental setback to the country’s political and economic liberalisation, capped off escalating tensions following the most recent elections in November 2020, in which the army-backed parties suffered a humiliating, crushing defeat. Whilst the U.S. and the West have been swift in condemning the coup as a thwarting of democratic will, China has been distinctly more prudent, taciturn even, in its response – whilst it advocates “peace and dialogue” and “reconciliation and unity” (direct quotes from a recent interview conducted by Chinese Ambassador Chen Hai with Myanmese media), Beijing’s official responses have stopped short of directly repudiating the military. 

A military junta in Myanmar is in no one’s interest – not the U.S.’, and certainly not China’s. Both U.S. and China alike would benefit from a civilian-led government, one that enjoys popular mandate and buy-in from the people. Economically, China has had much to gain under the NLD’s rule. Over the past decade, trade with China has surged – increasing by over five times – and China has overtaken Thailand, Japan, and HKSAR to become the primary export market for Myanmese firms. Aung San clearly understands Chinese interests – and the unique demands and conditions associated with them; she presided over the investigative process into the Letpadaung copper mine project, which swiftly concluded with approving the joint-venture project. She has consistently taken pro-China stances on issues of ethnic conflicts and Chinese projects in the region – including, in particular, the Kyaukphyu deep-water port. 

The same could be said of the U.S., too. Save from the rapid modernisation efforts under Thein Sein, American firms had struggled to access the domestic markets under military rule – as a result of the military’s deeply rooted anti-Western sentiments. Whilst the NLD has come under increasing attacks by the West for its stance on the Rohingya issue, it has been significantly more receptive towards foreign direct investment with minimal to no strings attached – a radical departure from the micro-management-driven, ad hoc modus operandi of the army. The military makes a suboptimal trading partner – to both the U.S. and China. 

It is also in China’s geopolitical and regional interest for normalcy and order to be expediently restored to Myanmar. The successes of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Southeast Asia are dependent upon – to an extent – the overall stability of the regions in the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). The possibility of mass strikes, sit-ins, disruptive protests, and even localised violence is far too significant a risk for China to chance, especially given the substantial sunk costs (e.g. loans and investment) it has already committed to in Myanmar. The military is unlikely to be able to assume total, absolute control over the country – even in the long run. It would be counterproductive – both in convincing prospective regional partners, and in consolidating its domestic and regional economic presence – for China to throw its weight behind the Tatmadaw, a deeply unpopular, internally unstable authoritarian structure. Indeed, doing so would directly inflame the already-fomenting anti-Chinese sentiments in the country, thereby undermining China’s credibility and appeal in the eyes of regional investors and powerbrokers. 

The U.S. certainly stands to gain from the NLD’s return to power, too. The NLD is more pragmatic and reasonable than the army when it comes to issues concerning ethnic minority rights and civil liberties in the region – a definite plus for those in the West who are fervent advocates of human rights. Yet the civilian-led government is also less receptive towards Russia’s expanding influence in the region – which is in neither the U.S.’ nor China’s interest. U.S.-China relations, and interests in Southeast Asia, need not be a zero-sum game. Restoring Aung San’s rule is vital in restoring a viable communicative channel between American and Chinese interests over regional matters – in this region, her government remains a critical, clandestine intermediary between the two dominant powers. 

The case of Myanmar offers China the golden opportunity to reset its foreign policy ‘game’ – rehabilitating its battered image in parts of Southeast Asia. Should China step up to facilitate a return to civilian governance and the empowerment of the NLD, this would indubitably affirm – to the chagrin, perhaps, of Sino-sceptics and hawks – that China has no intention of siding with oppressive rule abroad. The move not only rebukes the staunchest of critics, who portray China as an ‘exporter’ of authoritarianism and an enemy of the people, it would also helpfully bolster China’s claim that any country’s governance system ought to be the product of its people’s choosing – just as China’s ruling party and the Chinese public, the NLD, backed by the majority of Myanmese citizens, ought to be granted the ‘Heaven’s Mandate’ of governing its country. Such a move would also be invaluable in de-escalating tensions between the U.S. and China – here’s why. 

Bilateral relations between the U.S. and China have taken a more amicable turn since Biden took office – a welcome departure from the prior ruckus. Whilst Biden has pledged “strategic patience” and the engagement in “extreme competition” in America’s China policy, he has been equally adamant in rejecting the bellicose, xenophobic rhetoric brandished by his predecessor against China. Similarly, Beijing views itself as having extended numerous olive branches to the U.S. – from singling out Trumpism and the Trump administration as the primary (and sole) target of its criticisms, to emphasising the need for multilateral cooperation and coordination over global public health and climate change governance. 

Yet there inevitably remains a potent lingering worry, that much of the talk of restoring normalcy and respect to bilateral relations would be, at the end of day, only talk. Beijing bureaucrats and party cadres are currently unconvinced that the U.S. would forego its ambitions of containing China and meddling with the country’s internal affairs. American scepticism towards China is equally structurally intertwined and embedded in industries such as military and communication technology, on university campuses and Capitol Hill, and, ultimately, the country’s prevalent zeitgeist. There therefore needs to be a proof of concept to China’s calls for normalisation in relations – a paradigmatic exemplar that attests to the viability of renewed cordiality between the two countries. 

This is where Myanmar comes in: it is in all parties’ interest for the military junta rule to end, and for the NLD to resume control of the country. Both the U.S. and China have a role to play in making this happen. China may not wish, and rightfully so, to openly renounce the coup – yet its unique capacity and proximity to the country, render it the ideal mediator between the army and the people to produce a tenable and sustainable power-sharing arrangement. Myanmar must be governed by its people, for its people, from its people – all parties should respect, and work around this fact. 

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