China’s reaction to the military coup in Myanmar has been as pragmatic as it could be expected. The multiple and often conflictual layers composing its bilateral relations with the Southeast Asian neighbor are certainly a factor explaining its cautious, uncommitting pronouncements following the coup. Its main concern, as expressed by its representative to the United Nations, is a sufficient level of political stability that would not endanger its economic interests in the country. How China quantifies such a degree of stability and what parties should be involved in a political dialogue is however not clear.
As part of the same statement, the Chinese ambassador acknowledged his country’s unfitness in playing a mediating role in Myanmar’s political crisis. Instead, he encouraged a possible ASEAN-led reconciliation initiative.
Most of Myanmar’s public opinion has clearly not been impressed by China’s approach so far. And neither has the West. Beyond the usual pragmatism, many Western analysists have seen in China’s attitude a clear effort to try to occupy the geostrategic space left vacant by their governments’ principled reactions to the coup. The realization of having put themselves out of the game, without doubt created frustration among those governments. It may also have produced the concomitant claim that China should no longer pretend to be outside the global normative system. According to this line of thinking, time finally should come for China to act responsibly and in a manner consistent with the West’s dominant legal and ethical frameworks.
China’s key considerations
But what are China’s current considerations, which could determine its strategic orientation towards Myanmar? To begin with, it is highly unlikely that China will do anything to heed the West’s self-righteous call for a dialogue-facilitating intervention in Myanmar. China has shown on several occasions how it is repellent to Western dictates or blunt encouragements. If it ever decides to intervene in Myanmar’s political crisis, it will do so on its own terms.
Secondly, one cannot blindly assume that China shares the dominant narrative on the illegitimacy of the military coup. China’s own skeptical attitude towards multi-party democracy and the fallacies of free electoral systems, may have encouraged a more lenient response to the junta’s allegations of electoral fraud.
But even if it considers the military leadership in Myanmar as the main cause of widespread turmoil in a country with which it shares a 2,129 kilometers-long border, the last thing that China wants to see in Myanmar is an international intervention of any kind. Certainly not one promoted unilaterally by the West, but not even one taking place under the auspices of the UN.
Three main options
What are then China’s likely options vis-à-vis Myanmar? Regardless of the level of pressure exerted by the West, China may still arrive to the conclusion that it cannot escape the common principle that with power comes responsibility. Once it finally acknowledges its achievement of a great power status, it may become more inclined to show global leadership. Again, not because the West is pressing hard for it, but to signal to the world that China is finally ready to take responsibility in the maintenance of global stability, and even more so if it concerns its direct neighborhood. Not doing so will inevitably carry negative consequences for its international standing and credibility.
In the specific case of the current political crisis in Myanmar, this willingness to take a leading role in the solution of the problem should be translated in active mediation between the parties. And if its position as a big neighbor, with conflicting interests in Myanmar, makes it complicated for China to be directly involved in any form of peace facilitation, it could alternatively become the main promoter of global or regional initiatives, for instance under the UN or the ASEAN flag.
The second scenario envisions a China that regards the turmoil in Myanmar as a purely “technical” problem of law and order. The solution should thus also be a technical one. In practical terms, this would mean primarily a sealing of the border with Myanmar. By choosing this option, China would confirm its reluctance to get openly involved in the domestic affairs of other countries.
Whether this technical solution would be easy to implement, still needs to be seen. Instability and violence have been endemic in those regions bordering with China since independence. And China has played at times an ambiguous role, encouraging peace talks on the one hand, while supporting some of the ethnic armed organizations on the other. The situation is further complicated by discrepancies between the official line embraced in Beijing and the specific interests pursued by local Chinese authorities and illegal networks.
This scenario would fit perfectly with China’s reputation for not getting involved in the political matters of other countries. Whenever there is instability looming at the horizon and potentially threatening its geostrategic and economic interests, China seems to prefer the technical or developmental approach as the only viable solution. Whether it is the building of a power plant to allegedly provide remote and restive foreign areas with electricity, or indeed the sealing of a border to keep out the turmoil bursting on the other side, the standard approach appears to consistently deny the political aspects intrinsic to crises of instability in other countries. How long will it take for China to recognize that political crises affecting its interests will eventually need a political approach and thus its direct support to conflict resolution initiatives?
China’s third option could be the most cynical one. And as things have been moving so far, it also appears as the course it may have chosen to follow. Based on the assumption that China is above all unfavorable to any direct Western intervention and military presence in Myanmar, the best possible scenario for Beijing could be a festering situation short of a complete collapse and descent into chaos.
An indefinite continuation of political instability, violent repression, and perhaps even a revival of internal conflict with some of the ethnic armed organizations, would produce such a dire situation in Myanmar in terms of human rights that will make any rapprochement between Western democracies and the military regime in Nay Pyi Taw impossible. In such a scenario of internal repression and international isolation, China knows that the generals in Myanmar will eventually have to turn to it for strategic support.
The current situation seems in fact to offer China the best possible scenario. With the refugees’ pressure along the border under control, and the Tatmadaw entrenched on the defensive and desperately fighting for survival, China has gained the upper hand in any possible negotiation with its military counterpart in Myanmar.
China will certainly follow with interest the recent developments that have seen the formation in Myanmar of a National Unity Government, opposing the junta, as well as initial steps towards the creation of a possible federal armed resistance front. However, it will not take any resolutive action to solve the internal turmoil if this could mean a return of the West in its backyard, possibly in the company of India.