CHINA REGARDS THE military coup in Myanmar as an internal affair, and thus not one on which it needs to express any deviation from its default position on non-interference.
Given Beijing’s long-standing ties to the Myanmar military, it is safe to assume that its sympathies do not lie with the overthrown elected civilian government’s supporters. Its blocking of any action at the UN Security Council, such as imposing sanctions over the increasingly bloody February 1 coup, confirms that. So does Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s latest commitment to working with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as ASEAN espouses non-interference in member states’ affairs.
That is not to say that China does not have interests in the country. One is the 800-kilometre-long twin oil and gas pipelines that run from Kyaukpyu, the deepwater port that China is building on Myanmar’s Bay of Bengal coast, to Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunan in southwestern China. The pipelines, like Myanmar itself, are a key part of the Belt and Road Initiative. It gives China a short cut to the Indian Ocean, avoiding the chokepoint that is the Strait of Malacca.
The port and the pipelines are centrepieces of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, which passes through the rebellious Shan state. China plans several projects in the Shan and neighbouring Kachin states, which lie along the entirety of its strife-ridden border with Myanmar and where China periodically tries to broker peace.
These projects include three cross-border economic cooperation zones, the Myitkyina Industrial Zone in Kachin state and the railway from the Shan border town of Muse to Mandalay, which will provide a through rail link from Kunming to both Kyaukpyu and Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, where China is also building residential, commercial and industrial facilities.
Many Chinese enterprises are also involved in resources extraction, including jade mining. China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner. The total value of two-way trade was $12 billion in 2019-20, with China running a $1.3 billion trade surplus, according to Myanmar’s Commerce ministry. There is also a lot of cross-border smuggling.
Anti-Chinese sentiment –never far from the surface in days of the former junta — has risen across Myanmar. In the face of threats to blow up the oil and gas pipelines, Beijing reported moved troops to its border opposite Muse at the beginning of the month, although it is unclear what they will do beyond providing a show of force. Moving troops into the country would require a tortuous twisting of the definition of non-interference.
So far, Beijing has just sought assurances from the Myanmar military about the pipelines’ security. With some cause. Fighting between the Kachin Independence Army and Myanmar’s military is reported across Kachin and northern Shan states, where Naypyidaw’s rule is mostly in name and requires repeated military crackdowns.
The Brotherhood Alliance, which includes the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army and Arakan Army, all of which are based along the Chinese border, says it is ready to join forces with all ethnic minorities to fight the regime if the killing of protesters continues.
The military has for decades fought ethnic armed organisations across Myanmar. Intensification of those conflicts was always likely to be part of the coup’s fallout, a development that Beijing will find difficult to ignore. Quietly, it will continue to provide its old friends in Myanmar’s military with diplomatic, financial and military support while continuing to warn against external interference in an internal affair.