Earlier this month, the world was shocked when Myanmar's military junta led by the military's commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, overthrew the democratically elected Aung San Suu Kyi and took the country back to the days of military dictatorship. The surprise move led many to speculate on the timing of the coup and the declaration of a year-long state of emergency. Clearly, the recent elections played a role — Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), advocating a platform of constitutional reform that would rein in the role of the military, had just won the elections with a resounding 83% of seats in parliament while the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party won a mere 7% of seats.
But some also pointed to China's hand. They suggested that ousting the NLD and assisting the authoritarian junta back to power would prevent any shift of Myanmar towards, and eventual democratic alignment with, the United States (US). Seemingly doing its bit to bolster this argument, Xinhua referred to the coup as "a major cabinet reshuffle," and not a hint of criticism or condemnation came from the Chinese government. Yet, this assessment of the coup being a benefit for China is too simplistic.
In fact, China's relationship with Myanmar is complicated. It has waxed and waned since the 1940s — Burma, as it was called then, achieved independence from British rule in 1948, and the People's Republic of China was established in 1949. Although the two established diplomatic relations in 1950, the 1960s saw turmoil in bilateral relations. The coup in 1962 by General Ne Win was the beginning of military rule. Although China became one of the earliest countries to recognise the junta government (right after India), it had a long record of financial support to the anti-government and armed Burma Communist Party, which incensed the junta. In addition, China's attempts to influence its diaspora in Burma through cross-border migration, and, particularly, by exporting its Cultural Revolution, led to the rise of anti-China sentiment.
In 1967, widespread anti-Chinese riots in Burma brought the relationship to its nadir. The resentment and brutality that ensued against the Chinese diaspora were compounded by the junta's treatment of the riots. At first lackadaisical in their response, then complicit, and then, finally, switching to a crackdown, the junta used the riots to consolidate their authority, and distract citizens from problems like food shortages. Although the Sino-Burmese relationship eventually normalised, the riots embodied a fundamental weakness in the ties — China's foreign policy interests in Myanmar are layered with provincial interests and cross-border issues.
For China, there have always been certain issues that are core to its relationship with Myanmar. The latter is strategically important to gain access to the Indian Ocean as well as to Southeast Asia. It is economically important because of its natural resources such as timber, the hydroelectric possibilities stemming from its many large rivers, as well as oil and gas and minerals. Finally, China is committed to large-scale infrastructure projects in the country.
However, these interests need to be framed in the context of provincial interests and cross-border relations. A Chinese province such as Yunnan and its role in the bilateral relationship provides an example of the complexity. Yunnan and Myanmar share a border, and the provincial government has direct interactions with Myanmar's government. Thus, oil and gas pipelines connect Myanmar's Rakhine state and Yunnan capital Kunming, and cross-border trade is crucial for both. Yunnan is also home to many of China's ethnic minorities who share cultural affinities with ethnic groups in Myanmar. But some of these ethnic groups are both anti-junta and armed, and have engaged in border clashes that have spilled across the Chinese border, threatening the delicate power structure in Yunnan. These rebel ethnic groups have also reportedly received Beijing's backing from time-to-time, angering the generals. And the clashes have led to thousands of refugees sheltering in Yunnan — which has been neither to Naypyidaw nor to Beijing's liking.
Meanwhile, the flow of illegal Chinese migrants across the border means the Chinese government has the constant headache of juggling the economic benefits their presence could generate with their potential to create more anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar where nationalistic feelings run high.
These complications mean that China's more recent closeness with Myanmar was initiated not by the junta but by the NLD government. Aung San Suu Kyi made overtures towards Beijing after she faced international condemnation for not denouncing the Burmese military's ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority — she not only agreed to the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor to be developed under the Belt and Road Initiative, but also to a railroad project that had been shelved by the military regime. Unsurprisingly, President Xi Jinping enthusiastically embraced these overtures, welcoming her to China for several visits. In short, while China needs to work with Myanmar, the generals make for uneasy bedfellows in a relationship that has had a long-and-turbulent history.
Manjari Chatterjee Miller is associate professor, Pardee School, Boston University, director, BU Rising Powers Initiative, and a research associate, University of Oxford