Due to its dynamic domestic politics, fluctuating ties with the international community, and geostrategic position, Myanmar is an important country for China, as evidenced by recent events.
A Military Coup took place in Myanmar, leading to the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of the ruling party National League for Democracy (NLD), as well as a number of government officials.
The Myanmar army took over the administration on Feb. 1 and declared a year-long state of emergency in the country, citing “fraud” in the elections held on November 8, 2020. Myanmar has faced multiple military interventions in its political history.
However, unlike past coups, narratives traditionally used to justify coups, such as “internal turmoil” and “threat to the integrity of the union”, are not listed among the reasons this time. The coup was justified by the fact that in the November 2020 elections, the army backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) received only one-third of the vote garnered by the NLD of the “liberal” Suu Kyi.
It is suspected that the army is concerned about the situation and that the coup may have been carried out for a variety of reasons, including high-level officials’ desire to escape international sanctions for the massacres perpetrated against Rohingya Muslims.
The fact that the military intervention occurred during the week in which the government was due to obtain parliamentary approval seems to support these claims.
Myanmar is important to China because of its complex domestic politics, erratic relations with the international community and geostrategic location, as evidenced by recent developments.
In this article, recent events in Myanmar will be evaluated from the perspective of China-Myanmar relations, and Myanmar’s political system will be examined from a historical viewpoint, as well as the context of its relationship with China.
Myanmar’s Political History
In order to comprehend Myanmar’s place in the contemporary global system and its political order, it is necessary to look back at the country’s recent history with reference to key turning points and to underline certain elements of continuity.
In Myanmar, the Union of Burma was created as a constitutional government in 1948. The country’s system was modeled after the previous British colonial administration’s bureaucratic infrastructure, but the main functions were delegated to Burmese Army representatives and administrative duties to British local elites.
Thus, a mixed government with civilian and military elements was formed. The country has maintained its domestic and foreign policy under three main headings since gaining independence: continuing internal ethnic conflicts, economic development issues, integration with the global system/isolation, and balancing the main actors in the region.
We may claim that during the Cold War and its aftermath, Myanmar, which pursued a “neutral foreign policy” in its early years of independence, maintained what may be called a balanced relationship with China and the United States.
We can find numerous examples of balancing policies in its history. In the 1950s, for instance, when military cooperation and assistance from the US were reduced as a result of the “Battle Act” a mutual defense assistance act signed with the US in 1951, Myanmar resorted to deepening its military and economic ties with China.
Myanmar politics in the 1950s and 1960s were fraught with controversies, marked by tensions between ethnic communities and the central government over whether socialistic or free-market policies should be pursued.
In 1958, as a result of the escalating conflict, Prime Minister U Nu called in the army to “restore order” and elections were held 18 months later. The Union of Burma government, which had been established through the Panglong Agreement signed between General Aung San and representatives of the country’s major ethnic minorities, such as Kachin and Chin, came to an end with the military coup of General Ne Win in 1962.
During this period, under an “isolated” foreign policy discourse, Myanmar began to follow the principles prescribed by the motto “The Burmese Way to Socialism” in 1975, with the Revolutionary Council composed of military officials and the Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), its civilian wing.
Despite a 1974 amendment in the legislation aimed at increasing the efficiency of the parliament, one might argue that the army continues to dominate the country’s domestic and foreign politics. As a matter of fact, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) has consolidated the military’s influence on politics and social life.
While the 1980s marked the beginning of Myanmar’s long-lasting military tutelage regime, they also saw its relationship with the international community seriously deteriorating because of sanctions. Various sanctions were imposed between 1988 and 2010, mostly by the US and the European Union (EU). During the 2000s, Myanmar more or less moved away from its long-standing isolationist/neutral foreign policy discourse, while also undergoing domestic democratization reforms.
In 2008, the Public Order Council held a referendum for a new constitution, and Thein Sein took the lead in 2011, with the USDP achieving an overwhelming victory by winning up to 80% of the vote in the Nov. 7, 2010 elections.
At the inauguration ceremony, Thein Sein identified his domestic and foreign policy priorities, emphasizing that the previous governments’ foreign policy priorities, which have been in place since the Union’s founding, will be maintained.
He also stated that Myanmar should be actively integrated into the international system by reviving the relations with international organizations such as the United Nations (UN) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Sein also initiated a series of domestic policy reforms aimed at democratization. In the elections held on November 8, 2015, this time the NLD won the same number of votes that the USDP had won in the previous elections, and thus Aung Suu Kyi assumed the position of State Counsellor, effectively becoming the Country’s Head of State.
Comments on a number of articles of the 2008 Constitution are noteworthy when considering the army’s position in Myanmar’s politics and the country’s bureaucratic foundations. For example, any law must be enacted by a 75 percent majority in a system in which military officials are given a 25 percent quota.
Key Ministries are reserved for military officers by default. Under certain conditions, the army has the authority to intervene and take charge if it is deemed necessary. Although Myanmar has had both civilian and military governments since its establishment, the military has a significant impact in politics and even in people’s daily lives.
Despite the many reforms implemented thus far aimed at democratization, some articles of the 2008 Constitution lay bare, and even reinforce, the impact of the army.
The Historical dimension of China-Myanmar Relations
Burma recognized China in 1950 shortly after its founding. From that date until the Deng Xiaoping era, it pursued a policy that was very similar to China’s traditional foreign policy principles. The bilateral ties, which were regarded as one of the period’s most important features, were dubbed “pauk phaw”, which means “fraternity” in Burmese.
It is worth noting that China attempted to improve ties even while supporting the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), which fought Myanmar’s central government until 1978. So much so that it even bought Myanmar’s excess rice in the 1960s. Given China’s GDP at that time and the fact that it was on the verge of the Cultural Revolution, this could be considered a strategic move.
However, between 1967 and 1973, China provided the CPB with enough equipment and arms to equip 10,000 soldiers. The organization disbanded in 1989 when China ended its support.
The last two years of the 1980s witnessed developments that would bring Myanmar and China together around a common denominator. While foreign sanctions were imposed on Myanmar as a result of the government’s treatment of protesters during the 1988 democracy movements and the cancellation of the 1990 elections, the Tiananmen Square events were the catalyst for Western embargoes against China.
During this period, China compensated Myanmar for the damages it suffered as a result of the restrictions imposed by the West, especially in the field of military, and China became an important investment gateway for Myanmar in the 1990s and 2000s.
While Myanmar’s democratization efforts in the 2000s coincided with government changes, China’s relationship with these governments did not always follow the same pattern. For example, the Myitsone dam project, which had been agreed upon in 2009, was suspended in 2011 by Thein Sein.
In 2016, Suu Kyi, the then head of the Myanmar government, decided to revive the suspended large-scale Chinese-partnered projects, with the exception of the controversial Myitsone dam. For example, the China-Myanmar oil pipeline, whose operations had been terminated during Thein Sein’s tenure, was reopened in April 2017.
What Myanmar Means to China
When the relationship between China and Myanmar is interpreted from geostrategic and geopolitical viewpoints, Myanmar serves as a gateway to the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal for China due to its geostrategic position.
In addition, while it provides direct benefits to China due to its abundant natural resources and the fact that it shares a 2,204-kilometer land border with China, it also poses a range of risks precisely because they are neighbors.
It should be noted, however, that since the two countries resolved their border disputes peacefully in the 1960s, China’s border disputes with various other countries in its international relations do not occur between these two countries.
While the basic dynamics of China’s relations with Myanmar are shaped by factors such as geostrategy, economy and regional power rivalry, they have also been directly influenced by China’s political system and foreign policy since Myanmar’s founding.
When the historical dimension of the China-Myanmar relationship is also considered, the picture that emerges can be summarized in four points: the impact of Myanmar’s military tutelage on its domestic and foreign policy, China’s re-calibration against government changes (military or civilian) in Myanmar, China’s economic and commercial relations, and border security and attempting to restrict the influence of global powers in the region, i.e., the US.
Within the framework of these parameters, Myanmar is included in the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor as part of China’s Belt & Road Initiative. Myanmar officially joined the Belt & Road Initiative in 2018 after signing a 15 Article Memorandum of Understanding.
Thus, as a result of the geostrategic gains mentioned above, China now has the option of bypassing the Malaka Strait (a 1,700 kilometer route) and gaining an alternative exit to the Indian Ocean.
China links Myanmar’s Mandalay, as well as Yangon and Kyaukpyutahat in the Bay of Bengal, to its Yunnan province, which is not linked to the sea. Within the scope of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), there are already established connection routes, such as the Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone, the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone, and the New Yangon City Project.
Perhaps the most prominent point of the China-Myanmar corridor is China’s Yunnan province. With a 1,997-kilometer border with Myanmar, Yunnan’s trade volume with Myanmar accounts for 24 percent of the total.
Similarly, Kyaukpyu Deep Sea Port and industrial park are strategically important. The $1.3 billion project is being built in Rakhine by the Chinese CITIC group with funding from the Thai Charoen Polcphang group. The Kyaukpyu port is located in the Rohingya region, where there have been intense conflicts.
The geo-economic dimension of the China-Myanmar relationship stands out in this regard. When evaluated in the context of the Belt & Road Initiative recently implemented by China, political instability in any of the countries in its periphery would adversely affect China’s economic and commercial interests.
In the case of Rakhine, China protected Myanmar from international sanctions and condemnations in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC): In 2007, it vetoed a resolution calling for an end to attacks on ethnic minorities, and in 2017, it vetoed a resolution proposed to end the aggression against Rakhine.
China, on the other hand, has attempted to play a role in resolving the ethnic dispute in Myanmar’s local politics, as well as maintaining the balance between the army, the government, and the opposition.
Myanmar’s geostrategic importance for China, as well as the issue of border security, have pushed the country to the forefront of China’s relations with the countries in its habitat.
Another issue that China is particularly concerned about with regard to the neighboring countries is border security and the potential ramifications for China in the event of an internal conflict in those neighboring countries. As a result, China has made attempts to become involved in Myanmar’s peace-building process.
In 2013, it officially hosted the peace talks with the minority organizations of Myanmar and the negotiations. The Three-Stage Plan was suggested as a solution to the Rohingya crisis. However, these initiatives of China did not receive a positive response, not least from Myanmar’s army, the Tatmadaw.
We may conclude that the ideology-based policies adopted by China in the 1960s are behind Tatmadaw’s reserved attitude toward contemporary China-Myanmar relations.
Since Myanmar’s independence in 1948, the army has become the most powerful political and administrative force in the country. Democratization movements that started in 2011 were also initiated with the approval of the army and under certain constitutional guarantees.
On the other hand, ethnic conflicts, military-politics relations and balancing foreign powers have been the driving factors in the country’s international relations. In light of all the aforementioned factors, China maintains its relationship with Myanmar either talking to the military tutelage regime or the civilian administration in the country on eco-political premises, and it does so in order to reduce the US influence in the region, as it does with all its activities in Asia.
Therefore, preserving border security and internal stability seems to benefit China. China’s decision, along with Russia, to depart from the consensus in the UN Human Rights Council’s decision on Myanmar after the latest military intervention on the grounds of “not interfering in its internal affairs” demonstrates the consistency of China’s policy towards Myanmar.