Why China Favors Democracy Over Dictatorship in Myanmar

To secure Beijing’s economic and regional interests, a reliable democratic government is better than an unpredictable and expansionist military junta.

Protesters wearing traditional “thanakha,” a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark applied on the face, hold placards and shout slogans during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, on Feb. 25.
Protesters wearing traditional “thanakha,” a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark applied on the face, hold placards and shout slogans during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, on Feb. 25. SAI AUNG MAIN/AFP via Getty Images

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 expelled most senior members of the cabinet, and put an end to a fragile democratic experiment that had lasted a little over a decade. Large-scale protests have broken out across the country with cascades of escalating strikes and civil disobedience.

Some analysts have since associated the military’s swift actions with China, alleging that Beijing played a role in tacitly condoning the coup, enabling military censorship, and even covertly supplying arms to the junta.

But the Chinese ambassador to Myanmar, Chen Hai, recently said the current political state was “absolutely not what China wants to see,” with the Chinese United Nations delegation agreeing to a Security Council statement demanding the immediate release of detained political leaders and activists. A recent editorial of the state-owned Global Times even called for the international community “to stabilize Myanmar.”

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

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

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

For China, Aung San Suu Kyi is by far a more reliable economic and political partner than the Myanmar military.

The army governs through a monopoly on violence, with more than 549,000 active personnel and defense expenditures totaling 13 to 14 percent of the national budget in the past decade as well as long-standing patronage networks established since the early days of post-independence Burma. Recent reports have suggested that in the past decade, the Tatmadaw has sought to hedge against Chinese influence by turning to Russia for military backing, importing more than $807 million of military assets.

In contrast, the civilian government relies heavily on economic growth and poverty alleviation as a means to gain credibility with the public. Both goods are clearly and effectively delivered through bilateral relations and economic engagement with China. The NLD’s dependence on Chinese investment is likely to increase if the NLD regains power, given the reimposition of Western sanctions due to Myanmar’s mistreatment of the Rohingyas and the fallout 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 Russia’s extensive record of political interference and sabotage, and it lacks access to the latter, which is firmly controlled by loyalist apparatchiks and officials appointed by the military. This offers China direct and unlimited access to trade routes, natural resources, and geopolitically valuable locales in the country, including the long-halted Kyaukpyu Port project.

Aung San Suu Kyi is naturally invested in garnering support in the most populated regions of the country—namely Yangon, Sagaing, and Mandalay. The NLD is therefore motivated to prioritize policies that will win votes. It favors quick industrialization and Myanmar’s transition to a service economy—incentives that bind the party’s political fortunes to Chinese capital under the Belt and Road Initiative.

On the other hand, the army places a substantially higher premium on territorial integrity and defending its rule against challenges from ethnic minorities. This is reflected not only in its ongoing persecution of the Rohingya population in the Rakhine state but also in localized conflicts, such as the 2009 Kokang Incident, which led to as many as 30,000 refugees fleeing to Yunnan province in China. The army’s territorial ambitions thus pose a far greater threat to China’s border integrity and national security than the NLD.

A further reason for China to prefer the NLD is the coup’s impact on Myanmar’s overall stability. Large numbers of civil servants have resigned in protest of the military takeover, along with vital workers from state-run hospitals, universities, and bureaucracies. Mass protests have paralyzed traffic and culminated in a media and internet blackout.

If China had indeed backed the coup with the hope that doing so would expedite the stabilization of the country, this would reflect a gross underestimation of the persistence and tenacity of public resistance in Myanmar. The Tatmadaw’s ability to assuage citizens’ concerns and win public support is tendentious at best.

Tensions among the ethnic Chinese minority and Myanmar’s dominant ethnic groups have also led to a spike in anti-Chinese hate crimes.

Tensions among the ethnic Chinese minority and Myanmar’s dominant ethnic groups have also led to a spike in anti-Chinese hate crimes, while the cataclysmic effects on local and regional governance threaten the viability of the infrastructure projects and joint ventures in which Beijing has sunk substantial economic costs.

With projects ranging from the Sino-Myanmar pipelines to the core zones of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, China has little reason to prefer a Myanmar devoid of technocratic leaders and expert labor—including many of their own, who were turned away by the instability and anti-Chinese hate crimes—in spearheading or implementing these projects.

Finally, the optics of being perceived as siding with the military undermines China’s interests in Myanmar as well as its regional interests. Myanmar offers China a sizeable consumer market—with more than $6.45 billion worth of exports in 2019, as well as a gateway into the proposed Bangladesh, China, India, and Myanmar Economic Corridor. Support from Myanmar’s investors is pivotal in enabling Chinese operations in Cambodia and Laos. Beijing has everything to lose from escalating boycotts of Chinese products, the haranguing of its migrant workers, and the avowed rejection of its economic ventures by Myanmar’s citizens.

Regionally, the Tatmadaw’s actions have left China with limited options. Should China refuse to intervene, its reticence could be interpreted as effectively granting other regional military actors the freedom to seize power—especially in unstable democracies like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

More problematically, nonintervention would feed directly into U.S. rhetoric castigating China as an enabler of pariah states—a discursive weapon that emphatically undermines the country’s credibility at a critical juncture in its global economic outreach efforts. Yet should it intervene later—when the army has established a more entrenched presence—any such anti-Tatmadaw intervention is likely to result in a bitter, protracted confrontation that is neither in China’s immediate interest nor reflective of its regional aims.

So, what should China do?

China is unlikely to adopt assertive policies that would be seen as meddling with the domestic affairs of another country. Such perceptions would contravene the normative underpinnings of Beijing’s foreign and domestic policies.

Instead, China should discreetly press the Tatmadaw for the release of all activists, leaders, and political prisoners detained due to the coup. This could be accompanied by official statements condemning specific dimensions of the coup without committing Beijing to a wholesale, absolutist rebuke of the Myanmar military.

Beijing would benefit from coupling its diplomatic messaging with a clearer acknowledgment of the illegitimate circumstances that precipitated the coup without necessarily committing to the bolder claim that military rule is intrinsically unjust. Such tactically ambivalent rhetoric would enable China to balance its desire for an appearance of neutrality with the practical prerogative of applying pressure on the junta to prevent its entrenchment.

More broadly, China would benefit from the opportunity to burnish its diplomatic credentials by mediating among the conflicting parties in Myanmar. The broad aim should be the development of a power-sharing arrangement, with particular attention paid to minority rights (including those of the Rohingya people and ethnic Chinese populations) and the youth.

Through private, closed discussions, Beijing should insist that open and fair elections be held in the country as soon as possible to pave the way for a democratic restoration. Given China’s unique political structure—and the government’s high levels of public support compared to Myanmar—it is unlikely that Beijing’s support for democratic elections abroad would have any substantial impact on its political authority at home.

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

Brian Y.S. Wong is a Rhodes Scholar from Hong Kong and the founding editor in chief of the Oxford Political Review.

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