Foreign Policy

Why China prefers democracy over dictatorship in Myanmar

The military coup in Myanmar earlier this month overthrew the civilian government under National League for Democracy (NLD) leaders Aung San Suu Kyi and Win Myint, arrested and evicted most of the high-ranking cabinet members, and put an end to a fragile democratic experiment that took a little longer than a decade. Large-scale protests, with cascades of escalating strikes and civil disobedience, have broken out across the country.

Some analysts have since linked the military’s swift actions with China, claiming Beijing played a role in condoning the coup, allowing military censorship and even covertly supplying the junta with weapons.

Chinese Ambassador to Myanmar Chen Hai recently said the current political situation is “absolutely not what China wants to see”. The Chinese UN delegation approved a Security Council statement calling for the immediate release of imprisoned political leaders and activists. A recent editorial in the state-run Global Times even called on the international community to “stabilize Myanmar”.

While many observers believe Beijing prefers authoritarian regimes, China has few reasons to prefer an unpredictable, ambitious military dictatorship with expansionist tendencies to a predictable and largely reliable civilian government in Myanmar.

For China, Aung San Suu Kyi is a far more reliable economic and political partner than the Myanmar military – also known as Tatmadaw. Others have argued that the Tatmadaw’s relative willingness to oppose China’s economic advances – such as former President Thein Sein’s suspension of the $ 3.6 billion Myitsone Dam project in 2011 – shows that it is not a good partner for Beijing is. But China’s stance on the military may actually have warmed in recent years.

The narrative that the military is a friend of the Chinese crumbles when realpolitik comes into play. In short, the Myanmar military remains more shielded and independent of Chinese influence than the democratically elected government – and that’s bad news for Beijing.

The army rules through a monopoly of force with more than 549,000 active personnel and defense spending representing 13-14 percent of the state budget over the past decade, as well as long-standing patronage networks that have been in place since the early days of Burma’s independence. According to recent reports, the Tatmadaw has attempted to hedge against Chinese influence over the past decade by turning to Russia for military assistance and importing more than $ 807 million in military equipment.

In contrast, civil government relies heavily on economic growth and poverty reduction to gain public credibility. Both goods are delivered clearly and effectively through bilateral relations and economic engagement with China. The NLD’s reliance on Chinese investment is likely to increase as the NLD comes back to power amid renewed western sanctions for Myanmar’s mistreatment of the Rohingyas and the aftermath of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The NLD has neither Russia nor a security apparatus to turn to. It remains skeptical of the Kremlin due to extensive political interference and sabotage by Russia and has no access to the latter, which is tightly controlled by loyalist apparatchik and military-appointed officials. This gives China direct and unrestricted access to trade routes, natural resources and geopolitically valuable locations in the country, including the long-held Kyaukpyu port project.

Aung San Suu Kyi naturally invests in support in the most populous regions of the country – namely Yangon, Sagaing and Mandalay. The NLD is therefore motivated to prioritize policies that win votes. It favors rapid industrialization and Myanmar’s transition to a service economy – incentives that tie the party’s political fate to Chinese capital under the Belt and Road initiative.

On the other hand, the army places much greater emphasis on territorial integrity and the defense of its rule against the challenges of ethnic minorities. This is reflected not only in the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya people in Rakhine state, but also in localized conflicts such as the 2009 Kokang incident in which up to 30,000 refugees fled to China’s Yunnan province. The army’s territorial ambitions pose a far greater threat to China’s border integrity and national security than the NLD.

Another reason for China to favor the NLD is the impact of the coup on the general stability of Myanmar. Large numbers of officials have resigned in protest of the military takeover, along with vital workers from state hospitals, universities and bureaucracies. Mass protests paralyzed traffic and culminated in a media and internet blackout.

If China had actually backed the coup with the hope that it would accelerate the country’s stabilization, it would reflect a gross underestimation of the persistence and tenacity of public resistance in Myanmar. The Tatmadaw’s ability to allay citizen concerns and gain public support is tendentious at best.

Tensions between the ethnic Chinese minority and the dominant ethnic groups in Myanmar have also led to a surge in anti-Chinese hate crimes, while the disastrous effects on local and regional governance threaten the viability of infrastructure projects and joint ventures, where Beijing is experiencing significant economic losses has a cost.

With projects ranging from the Sino-Myanmar pipelines to the core areas of the China-Myanmar economic corridor, China has little reason to prefer a Myanmar without technocratic leaders and skilled workers – including many of its own that have been rejected by instability and anti-Chinese hate crimes – in the management or implementation of these projects.

Ultimately, the appearance of being perceived as the side of the military undermines China’s interests in Myanmar as well as its regional interests. Myanmar offers China a sizeable consumer market – with exports valued at more than 6.45 billion US dollars in 2019 and a gateway to the planned economic corridor for Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar. The support of Myanmar investors is critical to enabling Chinese operations in Cambodia and Laos. Beijing has everything to lose from escalating boycotts of Chinese products, harassment of migrant workers and the declared rejection of its economic ventures by the citizens of Myanmar.

Regionally, the actions of the Tatmadaw left China with limited options. Should China refuse to intervene, its reluctance could be interpreted as giving other regional military actors the freedom to take power, especially in unstable democracies like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

More problematic would be that non-interference would flow directly into US rhetoric, which castigates China as a trailblazer for pariah states – a discursive weapon that emphatically undermines the country’s credibility at a critical point in its global economic endeavors. However, should it intervene later – when the army has built a more solid presence – such anti-Tatmadaw intervention is likely to result in a bitter, protracted confrontation that is neither in China’s immediate interests nor reflects its regional goals.

So what should China do?

China is unlikely to have assertive policies that are viewed as meddling in another country’s internal affairs. Such perceptions would violate the normative foundations of Beijing’s foreign and domestic policy.

Instead, China should discreetly urge the Tatmadaw to release all activists, leaders and political prisoners incarcerated as a result of the coup. This could be accompanied by official statements condemning certain dimensions of the coup without committing Beijing to massive, absolutist reprimands against the Myanmar military.

Beijing would benefit from combining its diplomatic messages with a clearer recognition of the illegitimate circumstances that sparked the coup, without necessarily subscribing to the bold claim that military rule is in itself unjust. Such tactically ambivalent rhetoric would enable China to reconcile its desire for a neutral appearance with the practical privilege of putting pressure on the junta to prevent its entrenchment.

In a broader sense, China would benefit from the opportunity to improve its diplomatic qualifications through mediation between the conflicting parties in Myanmar. The general aim should be to develop a power-sharing arrangement with particular attention to minority rights (including the rights of the Rohingya and ethnic Chinese people) and youth.

Through private, closed discussions, Beijing should insist that open and fair elections be held in the country as soon as possible in order to pave the way for a democratic restoration. Given China’s unique political structure – and the government’s high level of public support compared to Myanmar – it is unlikely that Beijing’s support for overseas democratic elections will have a material impact on its domestic political authority.

It is not too late for China to act. It is in China’s national interest that sound democratic governance be restored in Myanmar.

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