Myanmar’s historic 1 February military coup has been criticised by many countries, including the US, which has publicly decried the military’s detention of Myanmar’s rightful civilian leaders. At this, China appears to have been relatively muted in its criticism. In fact, commentators debate whether Beijing sees the coup as a “nightmare” scenario or a beneficial turn of events. While the certainty provided by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy was likely preferable, Chinese leaders nevertheless refused to use the term “coup”, instead opting for the eyebrow-raising alternative of “major cabinet reshuffle”.
As it turns out, China has since doubled down on a “business-as-usual” approach and has, slowly but surely, edged toward recognising the military junta styled as the State Administration Council (SAC). Chinese state-affiliated news and the Chinese embassy in Myanmar have referred to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing as the “leader of Myanmar” without reservation. On 10 June, 426 Myanmar civil society groups issued a public statement rejecting this designation. They demanded that China cease to “interfere in Myanmar’s domestic politics”.
It is worth noting here that China does not deal with Myanmar in isolation. China’s engagement with Myanmar’s junta is consistent with its goal of ensuring the peripheral stability necessary to realise its geopolitical ambitions. Most high profile of these are the many infrastructural investments grouped together under the banner of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which is central to the global reach of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). From the perspective of high-level diplomats, such large-scale investments promise to expand and deepen the countries’ “pauk-phaw” (fraternal or sibling) relationship. Coined in the 1950s, the term aims to capture the sentiments emergent from a long history of cooperation.
For many in Myanmar, “pauk-phaw” is little more than a cliché that obscures an enduring but unequal relationship.
An enduring but unequal relationship
While relations between China and Myanmar have expanded and contracted through history in line with strategic and economic priorities, the coup has created significant challenges, including demonstrations outside China’s embassy in Yangon, boycotts of Chinese goods, and threats against Chinese-owned enterprises. Commentators often characterise these as linked to an anti-Chinese sentiment borne out of Myanmar’s post-coup landscape. The fact is that collective efforts to thwart Chinese involvement in Myanmar draw on longstanding concerns voiced across sectors of Myanmar society.
For many in Myanmar, “pauk-phaw” is little more than a cliché that obscures an enduring but unequal relationship. This is a perspective that was most recently made clear in the aftermath of President Xi Jinping’s historic visit to Myanmar in early 2020 when he signed 33 project agreements, memorandums, and protocols for infrastructural investment across Myanmar. Despite development and investment deals likely to be worth billions, many people in Myanmar are clear-eyed about the relationship. As Kyaw Zwa Moe, the editor of The Irrawaddy, put it: “The peoples of Myanmar and China are under no illusions.” He explains that “China is perceived as constantly trying to exploit the [pauk-phaw] relationship for its own benefit”. For good measure, he refers to a viral cartoon from the time of Xi’s visit — that of the Chinese leader getting off his aeroplane with a shopping cart.
Particularly controversial was a stipulation that 90% of dam-produced energy would flow back to China.
The fear that China might advance infrastructure projects in Myanmar with concern only for its own benefit is amplified by longstanding grassroots organising efforts. Perhaps the most famous is the anti-Myitsone movement, sparked by local Kachin communities objecting to the Myitsone Dam. This is a massive infrastructure project initiated by China Power Investment and the State Peace and Development Council in 2001 (the latter is the official name of the military government that seized power in 1988). Outrage over the project’s negative impact on the environment and on affected Kachin communities intensified and, by 2008, activists had effectively organised numerous large-scale protests that highlighted concerns over the dam’s uneven effects. Particularly controversial was a stipulation that 90% of dam-produced energy would flow back to China. Following Myanmar’s partial democratisation in 2010, these protest efforts worked to pressure the nominally civilian government to reject the project.
The efforts bore fruit. By September 2011, President Thein Sein announced the suspension of the Myitsone Dam, a decision later upheld by the NLD — and to the frustration of Suu Kyi’s Chinese counterparts. Similar advocacy efforts have surfaced since the 2018 signing of the CMEC agreement, with Myanmar analysts arguing against hurried deals that will significantly benefit China while leaving Myanmar worse-off. Drawing on cases from nearby Sri Lanka and Malaysia, activists, politicians, and investigative journalists have so effectively sounded the “debt trap alert” in Myanmar. They borrowed the English-language term —“debt trap” — which has since entered common usage in civil society and in local project-affected communities.
These concerns have only intensified since the coup, given the fear that Myanmar’s military may consider trading large-scale infrastructure agreements for Chinese support for their regime, which remains deeply unpopular domestically. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing himself recently noted his planned resumption of unnamed hydropower projects, which, in turn, spurred May protests against Chinese involvement in Myitsone-affected communities. China is not the only target of such concerns. The Thailand-backed Hat Gyi Dam project has also come under fire since the head of the military junta announced the resumption of the Dam’s long-stalled construction earlier this month. These are only two examples: together with other disputed projects, they demonstrate the extent to which new battles over foreign-backed infrastructure projects are only the latest in a long-fought war over who will benefit from Myanmar’s resources. Equally, they lay the groundwork for the current debate over what Chinese involvement or “intervention” in Myanmar means, and whether an imbalanced “pauk-phaw” relationship will ever again be tolerable for grassroots activists and the wider anti-coup movement.
This article was first published by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute as a Fulcrum commentary.
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