BANGKOK — China’s response to the coup d’etat in Myanmar on Feb. 1 was quiet, merely describing the country as a “friendly neighbor.” Perhaps it was difficult for Beijing to acknowledge the political drama in a country that shares a border of 2,160 km.
It is easier to understand Beijing’s position through Chinese media reports than from the government’s official statements. The state-run Xinhua News Agency described the overthrow of the civilian government by the Myanmar military as a “major cabinet reshuffle.”
The tensions between the U.S. and China are happening because of the differences in their political systems: democracy versus authoritarianism. Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing must have calculated that China, which believes authoritarianism is more efficient than democracy, would not condemn the coup, synonym for a crime against democracy.
Many believe that the U.S. economic sanctions will make Myanmar take a step toward China, possibly making Naypyitaw a satellite of Beijing.
But is this really so?
The relationship between Myanmar and China is not simple.
Myanmar gained its independence from Britain in 1948, and the Chinese Communist Party founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The two states, born at nearly the same time, established diplomatic relations in 1950 and signed a border treaty in 1960. For China, which is still involved in a border dispute with India, Myanmar was the first country with which it amicably resolved a border dispute.
But the warm relations changed dramatically in the 1960s. In 1962, the army, led by Gen. Ne Win, overthrew the civilian government in a coup. Then the Cultural Revolution began in China in 1966, and the export of communist revolution became a pillar of Beijing’s foreign policy.
China provided funds and weapons to the Burma Communist Party, the largest anti-government armed group in Myanmar at the time, and relations between China and Myanmar’s military government deteriorated. In 1967, when a massive anti-Chinese riot broke out in Yangon, the two countries summoned each other’s ambassadors.
Then things turned better. After the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, Deng Xiaoping visited Myanmar on his first foreign trip to restore relations by reducing support for the Burmese Communist Party.
In 1988, a pro-democracy protest broke out in Myanmar, and Aung San Suu Kyi, who had returned from the U.K. to take care of her sick mother, appeared on the political stage. When the Ne Win administration cracked down on the protests and thousands were killed, the army carried out an “internal coup” to overthrow the regime and continued military rule.
China was the first country in the world to approve Myanmar’s military junta, but China itself also came under heavy criticism from the West for crushing the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. For China, closer relations with Myanmar, which was in a similar position to its own, had strategic significance.
When the U.S. and Europe tightened economic sanctions on Myanmar after 1997, China, which had emerged as an economic power, supported Myanmar as a major investor and importer — the military junta survived the Western sanctions because of China.
However, in 2003, the junta drew up a road map and prepared for a democratic transition because it understood the danger of excessive dependence on China and the importance of improving relations with the West. The junta maneuvered to ease dependence on China.
In 2011, the administration of President Thein Sein suddenly announced a freeze on the construction of the Myitsone Dam, which was being built jointly with China on the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy River. The project had long been criticized for its impact on the environment, and Thein Sein explained that it was against the will of the people.
In 2014, a project to jointly build a railroad from China’s Yunnan Province to Kyawpyu in western Myanmar was also canceled due to domestic opposition in Myanmar. Needless to say, China has expressed its displeasure at these measures by its neighbor.
It was instead the government led by Suu Kyi, which took office in 2016, that brought the two countries closer together. When Suu Kyi herself came under fire from foreign governments for her persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority, she turned to China.
Suu Kyi agreed to develop the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor of the Belt and Road Initiative. In addition to the development of the port at Kyauphyu, three weeks before the political upheaval she signed a memorandum of understanding to conduct a renewed feasibility study of a railroad project that had been scrapped by the military government.
There is no doubt that the Myanmar military, having regained political power, is counting on China’s support for the time being. However, it was the military that recognized the risk of depending too much on China in the first place.
The two words that make people uncomfortable in Myanmar are “army” and “China.”
Min Aung Hlaing must be well aware that the U.S. and Europe are hesitant to drive Myanmar closer to China; and it is also likely that he will be cautious in his approach to China to avoid further antagonizing the public.
Myanmar and China have gone through rough patches in their history, and the diplomatic relationship is not immune from international politics and U.S.-China tensions — post-coup politics are definitely not going to be straightforward.