In September 2007, during the Saffron Revolution in Myanmar, some academics suggested that China had a “Myanmar problem”, meaning that China faced enormous international pressure to lean on the Myanmar military government and stop the violence, while also having to maintain cooperation to ensure its interests in Myanmar were not compromised. Over ten years later, the same situation has recurred, and China faces an even bigger “Myanmar problem”.
Since the Myanmar military announced on 1 February that it was taking over power, China has been criticised multiple times by the West and suffered some economic losses, especially in March, when over ten Chinese-owned companies were burned in an industrial area outside of Yangon. From that perspective, China’s “Myanmar problem” today is much more difficult than ten years ago.
This is precisely why China has to be careful in handling the “Myanmar problem”. One obvious sign is that so far, China has not supported statements or decisions criticising Myanmar at the United Nations (UN), or issued strongly worded diplomatic statements on Myanmar, or publicly sent senior officials to Myanmar to “exert pressure” - however, it has supported ASEAN in handling the Myanmar situation.
Since the Myanmar coup, many China academics are concerned that the US will take the opportunity to internationalise the Myanmar issue, to put China’s southwestern border in prolonged unrest.
Difference then and now
Compare this with 2007 and the Saffron Revolution, when China voted in favour of the UN criticising Myanmar, and released several statements urging Myanmar to continue pushing for democracy, and tried to persuade the Myanmar military government through visits by senior officials.
The main reason for this difference is the swell of anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar. Since the Myitsone Dam was halted in September 2011, anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar has grown. And while it has eased through joint efforts by China and Myanmar, it is reignited at the slightest touch.
And so, after the Myanmar military took power in February, rumours and unhappiness about China have been thrown about, resulting in the burning of Chinese-owned companies in March. Under these unfavourable circumstances, China cannot simply intervene in the chaos in Myanmar, otherwise it would fan anti-China sentiment in Myanmar even more and do more damage to bilateral ties.
The China-US conflict is intensifying. After Joe Biden took office as US President, he has continued to work with the anti-China policy framework set by his predecessor Donald Trump, and has ramped up the face-off with China. Since the Myanmar coup, many China academics are concerned that the US will take the opportunity to internationalise the Myanmar issue, to put China’s southwestern border in prolonged unrest.
This concern is not unfounded. On the one hand, the US is taking the lead in putting pressure on China at the UN on the Myanmar issue, trying to portray China as a “destroyer of democracy” that supports military dictatorship; on the other hand, the media and non-governmental organisations in the US want to stoke anti-China behaviour in Myanmar, and take the chance to damage friendly relations between China and Myanmar.
This is why China is anxiously hoping that the situation in Myanmar will stabilise as soon as possible, and not give the US that opportunity. Given these considerations, China cannot intervene strongly in Myanmar’s political situation, so as not to exacerbate the conflict and cause a fresh round of unrest.
The bottom line is that the Myanmar issue is ASEAN’s affair, and should be handled by ASEAN first.
ASEAN centrality highlighted
Recently, many China academics have been discussing “ASEAN centrality”, which actually reflects China’s standard position, which is to support ASEAN’s central role and autonomy. This helps ASEAN not to have to pick sides between China and the US, and is also better for the long-term development of China-ASEAN relations.
The bottom line is that the Myanmar issue is ASEAN’s affair, and should be handled by ASEAN first. Soon after the Myanmar coup, China voiced its full support for ASEAN in resolving the Myanmar issue, and its position has not changed since.
Notably, on 5 June, in a meeting with Chinese ambassador to Myanmar Chen Hai, Myanmar’s de facto leader Min Aung Hlaing said Myanmar is willing to work with ASEAN to maintain stability in Myanmar. And since Myanmar has also agreed to ASEAN’s role as mediator, China will of course continue to support ASEAN. So, at the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on 7 June, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated this stand, and even said China is willing to work with ASEAN to get Myanmar to put the people first and maintain calm and restraint, and end the violence.
In summary, there are various reasons for China’s current soft approach to the Myanmar problem, and Western countries should not keep criticising China. In fact, apart from restoring stability, dealing with the coronavirus is also a top priority for Myanmar right now, especially with the Delta variant from India right at Myanmar’s doorstep.
Since the pandemic began, China has given aid to Myanmar. At the foreign ministers’ meeting on 7 June, Wang Yi said China will continue to support Myanmar in fighting the pandemic and helping to keep the people of Myanmar healthy, as well as strengthen border defence and controls with Myanmar. So, the issue for Myanmar is not just political stability — controlling the pandemic is also crucial.
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