China Is the Myanmar Coup’s ‘Biggest Loser’

A relationship decades in the making is now in jeopardy.

Protesters gather in front of the Chinese Embassy on February 11, 2021, in Yangon, Myanmar.
Protesters gather in front of the Chinese Embassy in Yangon, Myanmar. (Hkun Lat / Getty)

Protesters in Yangon have in recent days gathered near the imposing red doors of the Chinese embassy in the city, denouncing China for what they say is its support of this month’s military coup in Myanmar. Conspiracy theories have swirled about the arrival of Chinese technicians to help Myanmar’s new junta build its own “firewall” to control the internet. Rumors abound about what is being transported on nightly flights between Yangon and the southern Chinese city of Kunming. Online, amateur sleuths have pored over photos of the protests, looking for Chinese military insignia on uniforms and even fair-skinned soldiers among the armed forces that have been deployed to the streets.

China, Myanmar’s largest neighbor, maintained cozy relations with the previous junta for decades, even as Western countries cut off contact and imposed withering economic sanctions, isolating the country and throwing unwavering support behind the opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. When Myanmar’s generals began cautiously opening up the country a decade ago, the move brought a rush of new foreign businesses, eager to move into a long-closed, underdeveloped market, as well as renewed diplomatic ties. China’s near monopoly on Myanmar appeared all but finished.

Thus, the military’s return to power in the country, popular thinking seemed to go, would be welcomed by China, happy to see itself again as Myanmar’s staunchest ally in a drastically depleted pool of diplomatic friends. The United States has already imposed targeted sanctions in response to the coup, as have Canada and Britain. Myanmar is a pariah once more, and Beijing should be freer to pursue its agenda with a leadership that seems willing to cast aside the concerns and misgivings of its population, forcibly if needed. Business competition will again fade. The more isolated Myanmar becomes, the better for Chinese exploitation.

Yet this narrative, although enticingly straightforward in a country where little is, is a dramatic oversimplification that ignores numerous factors: the coup’s destabilizing effects, including on major Chinese-backed projects; the Burmese military’s long-held wariness of China, including the junta leader’s personal distrust; and perhaps most important, the surprisingly friendly relationship that the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi’s party, had cultivated with Beijing. A sharp rise in anti-Chinese sentiment in the days since the military’s takeover has made quick work of years of confidence building between Suu Kyi, a once-vaunted prodemocracy icon, and her authoritarian neighbor. The undercurrents of Sinophobia held at bay as she touted China as an ally have come flooding back with her detention by the military.

Southeast Asian countries are often painted with broad brushstrokes when it comes to their relationship with Beijing and Washington: that democracy in the region will always be considered dangerous and bad by China, and that earnest American officials will always flock when they see a country making decisions based on the will of the people. But this binary—that China “wins” under authoritarianism and “loses” under democracy—misses layers of complexities and nuance. The Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, who is wildly popular and democratically elected, has moved the country closer to Beijing, while Thailand’s junta-backed government remains a staunch U.S. ally.

Geopolitically, “China is the biggest loser from this coup,” Enze Han, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong who studies China’s relationship with Myanmar, told me. “The PR that it has done to improve its image over the past five years working with the NLD has all gone to waste.” Last Tuesday, the Chinese ambassador to Myanmar appeared to back this position, saying “the current development in Myanmar is absolutely not what China wants to see,” though, as is common with Chinese diplomatic statements, he left room for interpretation. He also dismissed rumors that China had aided the military, saying he hoped people could “distinguish right from wrong and guard against political manipulation, so as to avoid undermining the friendship between the two peoples.”

The accounts and experiences of Cheng Ruisheng, a former Chinese ambassador to Myanmar, illustrate the two countries’ complex ties. By the time Cheng arrived to serve as China’s envoy in 1987, he was well versed in their relationship, referred to in Burmese as pauk-phaw, a title denoting special, familial ties. Cheng had spent nearly two decades as China’s most senior Burmese-language interpreter, sitting alongside the likes of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping as they met their Myanmar counterparts. China’s foreign policy as it applied to Myanmar, Cheng wrote years later, could be summed up simply: “non-interference, non-involvement and keeping aloof.”

A year after Cheng’s arrival, a popular uprising vaulted the then–largely unknown Suu Kyi to seraphic stature, before it was put down by the military. Cheng kept in contact with Suu Kyi, even after acknowledging and beginning to work with the new military government, providing her husband with Tibetan language books and attending the funeral of her mother. Only when Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in 1989 did Cheng cease contact with her, though he visited her party’s headquarters in 1990 to offer congratulations on its electoral victory that year. (The military tossed out the results and kept Suu Kyi under house arrest for some 15 years in total.)

Through the more than two decades that followed—years marked by worsening economic conditions, horrific armed-forces campaigns, a stunning military purge, another uprising followed by another crackdown, a devastating cyclone and the disastrous response to it—China remained the junta’s staunchest backer. Then, prompted in part by a wariness of China’s dominance, the military began a calibrated reentry into the broader world. The generals understood that “the more isolated they are, the more dependent they will be [on China] and the more influence China will exert over their country,” Yun Sun, the director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, in Washington D.C., told me. In 2011, a year after a quasi-civilian government was elected, the administration suspended a highly contentious Chinese-backed dam project that had met fierce resistance from ethnic groups and Suu Kyi. The same year, Suu Kyi met a Chinese ambassador for the first time since her final meeting with Cheng. Ambassadorial appointments are rarely noteworthy affairs, but the discussion garnered headlines in the international press and Chinese state media.

Cautiously, China began to adapt. Yang Houlan, a bookish and soft-spoken diplomat who became the Chinese ambassador to Myanmar in 2013, told me that year that Chinese companies in the country had adopted a mantra of “Do more, speak less,” that had grated on and alienated many citizens. Beijing, perhaps sensing that Suu Kyi’s immense popularity would translate into victory at the polls two years later, began courting members of her party. While not as brazen as other countries, which seconded diplomats to Suu Kyi’s office and had little time for the ruling administration, China invited NLD officials on nationwide tours. Beijing also undertook public outreach, much of it around highly contentious projects, and although not always the most sophisticated or successful, those efforts marked a change in tactics. When Suu Kyi’s party won in a landslide, China’s outreach accelerated. “It turns out that China can work very well with the NLD government,” Sun said, “probably even better than with the military government.”

The NLD’s enthusiasm was not matched by the military’s, however. Although China is the largest arms supplier to Myanmar, the military suspects Beijing's involvement in the country’s multitude of internal conflicts. The issue is particularly personal for Min Aung Hlaing, the junta leader and commander in chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, who in 2009 commanded forces along the Chinese border against an ethnic Chinese minority rebel group, driving tens of thousands across the border into China. The group’s leader resurfaced five years later in The Global Times, a Chinese state newspaper, sparking speculation that Beijing was providing a haven for him and his troops, who launched renewed attacks against Myanmar shortly after.

A protester makes a three-finger salute in front of a row of riot police, who are holding roses given to them by protesters in Yangon, Myanmar.

Min Aung Hlaing “chafed at China’s role in Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations,” a former senior diplomat who has met him on multiple occasions told me, asking not to be named because of the current political situation. “I did not see him as particularly friendly to China.” The suspicion extends beyond just one general: The military complained last year to Chinese President Xi Jinping about China’s financing of rebel groups, a charge that Xi denied.

There are, however, points of agreement: When Myanmar was receiving full-throated criticism from other countries over its treatment of the Rohingya minority in Rakhine State, China backed the military and Suu Kyi’s narrative that the allegations were overblown and the authorities were responding to a terrorist threat (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary). “Myanmar values China’s understanding of the Rakhine issue, which is complicated and delicate,” Suu Kyi said during a trip to China in 2017. Beijing, along with Moscow, stood by Myanmar at the United Nations, shielding it from the harshest condemnation. China’s position appears to have been doubly beneficial to Myanmar, as the U.S. was reportedly reluctant to declare the Rohingya crisis a genocide for fear of driving Myanmar toward China. Myanmar, for its part, aligned with China on Beijing’s priority issues of Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan, and last year threw its support behind China’s implementation of a sweeping national-security law in Hong Kong, meant to snuff out the city’s prodemocracy protests.

This lack of “moral judgment,” as Sun described it, offered Beijing an economic opening. In March 2018, I sat in the conference room of a luxury hotel in Yangon as a speaker urged the audience—about 80 Western and local businessmen and women concerned about Myanmar’s international reputation and economic climate—to take it upon themselves to bolster the country’s image. “Go out and tell a positive story about Myanmar,” he urged from a small stage as the seminar wrapped up.

Among those in attendance was Henry Tun, whose firm works extensively in the country’s power sector. Later, over coffee, Tun told me that in meetings with senior officials and members of the NLD, he was encouraged to pursue deals with Chinese firms, instead of European or American ones. Officials explained that deals done with Western businesses could fall apart if companies were spooked by sanctions, or the threat of them. The view, he said, was that “the only one to turn to is China.”

The government at the time signed highly secretive contracts for dozens of projects as part of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, a grand plan of connectivity meant to link China to strategic points via Myanmar. These projects, worth billions of dollars, are now likely facing delays as the country roils with protests and civil-disobedience movements meant to disrupt government operations and services, again raising questions as to why Beijing would prefer working with the military.

The tensions, and the opportunities, between Myanmar and China are particularly pronounced in Kachin State, where logging and jade mining of varying degrees of legality are prevalent, and the spoils spirited over the border. Recently a border dispute with China and ever-expanding banana plantations run by Chinese firms have caused consternation.

Many in Kachin felt that Suu Kyi’s government was “selling out the whole country” to China, Khon Ja, a longtime activist who lives in the area, told me. But at the same time, she said, Myanmar had to deal with the economic realities of being a poorer, less developed country in the shadow of a rising power. “They don’t like Chinese companies,” she said, “but there are no other options.”

Outside the embassy on Wednesday, protesters were unswayed by the Chinese ambassador’s statement. Su San, a 24-year-old medical student, told me that no one should trust what China says and that the military wouldn’t have dared act without China’s blessing. As long as Myanmar was moving toward democracy, she said, Beijing would try to forestall it. “It is,” she added, “a curse for Myanmar to be a neighbor of China.”

Also unimpressed was Sandar Min, an NLD member who spent three months in China studying the Belt and Road Initiative, and who is now a member of the parallel government formed by the party in the aftermath of the coup. Beijing, she told me, should recognize only the elected, and now overthrown, government. China and Myanmar “cannot run away from each other,” she said. “So if China is a really good neighbor, now is the time to prove it.”

Additional reporting by Kyaw Ye Lynn in Yangon