By Seun Sam
After the coup d'état committed by Myanmar’s military on February 1, 2021, countries all over the world were paying close attention to the situation in that country. The reactions of the world's major powers, especially China, have attracted attention. This was originally normal. China borders Myanmar and has close relations with both the democrats and the military. There are some big Belt and Road Initiative projects in Myanmar.
China was expected to play a role quickly to mediate conflicts, and stabilize the situation in Myanmar. But for those who are familiar with China's foreign policy, they knew it was difficult. That non-interference in other countries is its consistent principle and practice. This is one of the five basic principles for handling relations between nations that was put forward by the former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai when he met with the Indian delegation in 1953. This principle was confirmed in the Sino-Indian and Sino-Myanmar Joint Statements in 1954. In the past few years, China has repeatedly asked other countries not to interfere in its own internal affairs, and has always exercised restraint in other countries' internal affairs in practice.
However, this difficulty has not been understood by many people, and has even become a tool for some people to incite anti-China sentiment. Many fake information, pictures, and videos soon appeared on the Internet, and they overwhelmingly accused China of supporting the military coup. All kinds of pictures and information clearly “indicate” that China knows the coup in advance and has provided all kinds of support to the military. For example, the so-called Chinese experts helped build the firewall, provided weapons and equipment, and even sent troops directly to Myanmar.
Although many fake news has been denied by China or falsified by fact-checking agencies, some rational Myanmar democrats also urge supporters not to spread fake news to get sympathy. But as we all know, rumors spread faster and wider than the truth. Anti-China sentiment in Myanmar has been incited, and dozens of Chinese factories were burned soon. The military and the democrats accused each other of being the perpetrators. But no matter who it is, the ongoing conflict has affected China's interests. This should not be what China wants to see. It also explained why China, which has huge investment in Myanmar, avoid to act rashly. For China, these investments are difficult to use as pressure levers, and they are more like hostages. So who is continuing creating and spreading these rumors, who can benefit from this conflict against China? Some Chinese official media believe that Western countries have played a disgraceful role in this.
It is nature and very normal when the neighboring countries have conflicts, clashes, misunderstanding, or citizens dislike each other. It is the same as in Cambodia, many Cambodian citizens seem to dislike Vietnamese citizens because of the history of the two countries. Thailand and Myanmar have frequently raised controversy on border issues. China and India also broke out in low-intensity border conflicts in 2020. The US and Mexico, Japan and Republic of Korea, France and Germany, and many countries that shared borders, have always exposed the dislike feeling to one another.
As a neighboring country, China is the largest trading partner as well as one of the most important sources of investment for Myanmar. More and more state-owned and private Chinese enterprises are investing in Myanmar, with the focus on oil and gas exploration and production, oil and gas pipelines, hydropower and mining resource development, as well as processing and manufacturing industries.
During the military government, there was many investment cooperation between the China and Myanmar, some of which were aborted due to civil opposition. Many people believe that after Aung San Suu Kyi took office, China-Myanmar relations may face major adjustments and more projects will be cancelled. However, the development has exceeded people's expectations. After taking office, Aung San Suu Kyi visited Beijing or went to China to attend meetings for many times. Chinese President Xi Jinping also visited Myanmar on the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in the beginning of 2020. This is the second visit of the Chinese President after 19 years. China-Myanmar economic and trade relations have a smooth transition and achieved greater development.
With no evidence to support it, the so-called rumors of China supporting the Burmese military coup began to disappear. After that, some voices began to criticize China for not being a responsible power, claiming that China was obstructing sanctions against Myanmar. They blame China participating in the Armed Forces Day which was celebrated on March 27 by Myanmar’s junta leaders.
In fact, China has participated in statements of the UN Security Council to “strongly condemns the violence against peaceful protestors, including against women, youth and children. It expresses deep concern at restrictions on medical personnel, civil society, labour union members, journalists and media workers, and calls for the immediate release of all those detained arbitrarily. The Council calls for the military to exercise utmost restraint and emphasizes that it is following the situation closely. ”
“The Security Council expresses its continued support for the democratic transition in Myanmar, and stresses the need to uphold democratic institutions and processes, refrain from violence, fully respect human rights and fundamental freedoms and uphold the rule of law. It encourages the pursuance of constructive dialogue and reconciliation in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar.”
“Members “reiterated their call on the military to exercise utmost restraint. They reiterated the need to fully respect human rights and to pursue dialogue and reconciliation in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar. They called on all sides to refrain from violence. They also called again for the immediate release of all detainees, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint.”
Although in recent years Chinese diplomats are considered to be pursuing wolf diplomacy. But this is mainly when they believe that other parties are interfering in its internal affairs. On multilateral occasions such as the United Nations, "strongly condemns" might be the strongest term for China. Opposing unilateral sanctions was not new. China believes that sanctions are not only useless, but also complicate matters. For participating the Armed Forces Day, Russia, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Lao PDR were also there. China did not send high-level delegations like Russia. In reality, taking into account those “hostages”, maintaining relations with the military is still very important.
Many scholars have pointed out that the relationship between China and the Burmese military government is not that simple. There were also some contradictions between them before. And after the coup, a lobbyist even claimed that the Myanmar military hopes to improve relations with Western countries and distance itself from China. How could it be possible if China has supported the Myanmar coup from the beginning?
With the development of the situation, China's involvement has become more and more active, which is to support ASEAN to solve the Myanmar issue in the ASEAN way. From the Foreign Ministry press conference to the face-to-face meeting between State Councilor Foreign Minister Wang Yi and the foreign ministers of ASEAN countries, China has reiterated its support for ASEAN to come forward to resolve the Myanmar issue.
Wang Yi emphasized the importance of restoring peace and stability at the press conference of the two sessions on March 7th. He said Myanmar is a member of the ASEAN family. China supports ASEAN in adhering to the principles of non-interference in internal affairs and consensus, and mediating and seeking consensus in the “ASEAN way”. He also pointed out that China's friendly policy towards Myanmar is open to all the people of Myanmar. China has long-term friendly exchanges with all parties and factions in Myanmar, including the Democratic League.
At the end of March and early April, when Wang Yi met with the foreign ministers of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines in Fujian, he expressed his support for the convening of a special ASEAN summit to promote the resolution of the Myanmar issue. “to support ASEAN to constructively participate in Myanmar’s domestic reconciliation process in the ASEAN way, and push for the easing and cooling down of the Myanmar situation” China said it is willing to exchange views with related parties at any time and provide necessary support.
At the first special ASEAN physical summit held in Jakarta, Indonesia on April 24, all parties, including the Myanmar military, reached five consensuses on resolving the Myanmar issue. Chinese Ambassador to ASEAN Deng Xijun praised it was a “good start for deescalating the situation in Myanmar in the “ASEAN way.” And “China will keep close communication with ASEAN, support ASEAN's efforts for mediation &continue to work with all parties in Myanmar in its own way so as to make the ’soft landing’ of the situation in Myanmar at an early date.”
“In the ASEAN way” is very important for ASEAN countries. There are many conflicts and contradictions around the world, and the approach of powers is usually war or sanctions. But the problem is usually very complex, with very deep-rooted historical, cultural, ethnic, and religious foundations. War or sanctions can only suppress the problem on the surface, but cannot solve the problem fundamentally. This can be seen from the United States' sanctions against Iran and North Korea and wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Has the problem been solved? No. What about the incidental innocent casualties of women and children? Things can never just look at the surface, nor just look at who is resolute and decisive. Do the Burmese people really need a war in Burma or imposing sanctions on Burma? Can it solve the problem? No.
A speech by the Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin Jr on Myanmar issue in February was very enlightening. He slammed the West for “tearing down” the reputation of Myanmar civil leader Aung San Suu Kyi in recent years. “I pour scorn on the Western world for destroying Aung San Suu Kyi and making her a victim of the military,” He said, “With Burma, we work with the powers around Burma to see if we can convince the great powers there. Forget the United States! We talk to China, we talk to India.”
In addition to supporting ASEAN’s mediation, China has also begun to engage with Burmese democrats. According to the Irrawaddy, the independent newspapers base in Myanmar reported on 8 April 2021, The Chinese Embassy in Myanmar has spoken with members of a committee representing elected lawmakers from the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government, amid Beijing’s repeated calls for all parties in Myanmar to seek a political resolution to the current crisis through dialogue.
So is China involved in Myanmar affairs? Yes, it is. But it's not as rumored, nor is it what the Western media expect. No, but China has its own way. Both ASEAN and the United Nations have been criticized for being too soft in their handling of Myanmar affairs. But hard methods are not really useful. Moreover, if it is not handled properly, risks may spill over to all neighboring countries, including China and other ASEAN countries. At the moment when the epidemic is hitting, no one wants to bear such pressure.
There are more than 340 Chinese enterprises registered with the Myanmar-China Chamber of Commerce and Industry, of which 30 percent are in the textile and clothing industry. When there are more companies and enterprises come to invest in Myanmar, there are more jobs were created inside Myanmar, so that local people no need to migrate to Thailand or other countries for jobs.
Happiness, prosperity and development of one specific country has first emerged from the peace and political stability, and then work opportunities inside the country. The Chinese Government and Chinese’s private companies dream of peace and political stability of Myanmar because they have invested in the development projects and other important projects in the country, so that they want to make money from their businesses, they do not want war or internal clashes to interrupt their investment.
It is arguably to say that some countries promise to offer pizza while citizens in Asia eat rice as their staple food. Some countries promise great development in Myanmar while they did not encourage their own investors to invest in Myanmar which also happens in Cambodia.
It could be a mistake of the Chinese Government that has heavily focused on business opportunities and did not talk about internal affairs of Myanmar, but China believes that it is very important to let people of one specific country to make a decision on the fate of their nation.
It is undeniable to say that China is one of the victims due to the crisis in Myanmar. There are many Chinese companies were hit by protestors since those protestors believe that China is the main support of Myanmar’s junta regime. China is also a victim of bad rumors from western media since many western media have treated Chinese’s Communist Party as the symbol of evil, even though China has done nothing on one specific thing.
The main root cause of the problems and hate on Chinese Government has taken place might due to the misinterpretation of its system and what it really means for each nation which consists of different culture, tradition, ways of living, level of education, period of war and peace, particularly differences in the political system. Just as Wang Yi said at a video conference with US Council on Foreign Relations, democracy is not Coca-Cola that promises the same taste everywhere in the world. One nation should choose one doctrine that is fit to their nation by their citizens.
The Chinese Government has really involved in Myanmar’s development and job creation for Myanmar’s citizens since there are many state-owned companies and private companies from China that have been investing in Myanmar, those companies are investing for benefits not for the crisis. There should be the correct interpretation between investment and coup, the investment was invested by Chinese investors as well as other foreign investors, but the coup was committed by Myanmar’s junta not by investors.
( Dr. Seun Sam is a policy analyst at the Royal Academy of Cambodia. All views in this article are his own).