China keeps eye on Myanmar coup, but observers see no cause for action by Beijing

Kristin Huang
·4-min read

China is closely watching the situation in Myanmar after the country’s military staged a coup and detained democratically elected leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, on Monday.

Observers said short-term turmoil in Myanmar was expected and it may hit business sentiment already suffering from the effects of the pandemic. But they say Beijing could afford to take a wait-and-see approach amid predictions the situation would become more stable in the long term.

The Chinese foreign ministry underlined the position on Monday.

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“We have noticed what happened in Myanmar and we are learning more about the situation,” ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.

“China and Myanmar are friendly neighbours. We hope that all parties will properly handle their differences under the constitution and legal framework to maintain political and social stability.”

The remarks came after a military coup in Myanmar against the government of Suu Kyi for allegations of fraud in the November general election, which her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won in a landslide.

Later in the day, the Myanmese military declared a state of emergency and handed power to the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and said the country would hold new elections after the year-long state of emergency ended.

A Chinese military source told the South China Morning Post the coup put China in an awkward position because “what lies at the core is the conflict between the political coalition led by Suu Kyi and the power force led by the Myanmese military, both of which have a cordial relationship with China”.

“Right now, China can only monitor the situation, but won’t do anything,” said the person who requested anonymity because he did not have permission to speak to the media.

He said Chinese projects might be affected by the coup, but the disruption would not be to the extent of that caused by the coronavirus. “Many projects have already been slowed or stalled amid the pandemic,” the military source said.

Aung San Suu Kyi, her NLD party and the Myanmar military behind coup

By the end of January, the number of Covid-19 cases in Myanmar had risen to more than 140,000, and the death toll exceeded 3,000. To contain the pandemic, the Myanmar government has extended the suspension of international commercial flights and restricted visitors until the end of February.

The Chinese military was not, so far, concerned that rising Myanmese domestic conflict might spill over into Chinese territory and affect Chinese citizens, the Chinese military source said.

“I suppose some small-scale protests will take place in the coming days, but it will not lead to an eruption of internal conflicts between the Myanmese government and its ethnic rebels,” he said,

China shares more than 2,100km (1,300 miles) of border with Myanmar’s north, an area that has long been troubled by fighting between government and ethnic minority rebel groups.

In April 2020, three bombs were fired into Chinese territory and damaged Chinese buildings but did not cause any casualties. However in 2017, Chinese teacher Guo Shaowei was killed in northern Myanmar when a shell fired by Myanmese government forces hit a school in the administrative capital of the ethnic Kokang region.

China is the second-largest foreign investor in Myanmar, after Singapore. During President Xi Jinping’s state visit in January last year, the two sides signed 33 memorandums of understanding, agreements, exchange letters and protocols, 13 of which were related to infrastructure – most notably, the Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone along the Bay of Bengal coast.

The country was also the first stop by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his Asia trip last month, when China went on a charm offensive in the region ahead of the inauguration of US President Joe Biden.

Zhu Yongbiao, a professor of international relations at Lanzhou University, said the coup would not have much impact on northern Myanmar unless the turmoil persisted.

“The Monday coup is a result of long-term and deep-seated problems, and it also reflects problems in the country’s governance. If it brings the nation long-lasting turmoil, the situation of its northern states might be affected, though THE chances are not big right now,” he said.

Zhu said Chinese investment projects would not be affected too much given that they had been through one power transition in the country in the past, and Beijing maintained good relations with both the Myanmese government and military.

Additional reporting by Rachel Zhang and Catherine Wong

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