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Is Beijing Backing the Myanmar Coup?

The Biden administration needs clarity from China as the new U.S. president acts on his first major crisis.

Myanmar migrants hold up portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader who was recently detained by the military in a coup, as they take part in a demonstration outside the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok on Feb. 1.
Myanmar migrants hold up portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader who was recently detained by the military in a coup, as they take part in a demonstration outside the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok on Feb. 1. Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

Many international observers were caught by surprise when the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, began hinting at a coup in the country last week, foreshadowing their seizure of power on Feb. 1.

It is not yet clear whether there was an immediate fear that the recent federal elections, in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won by a landslide, might have given the pro-democracy forces in the country the leverage to try stripping some power from the still-entrenched military establishment, or whether other recent events pushed Gen. Min Aung Hlaing into action. The pretext for the coup is alleged electoral fraud during the federal elections in November 2020—eerily similar to the claims of the Donald Trump campaign in the United States, and equally lacking in merit.

But the most significant player may prove to be China. A meeting last month between China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, and Min Aung Hlaing may have been the pivotal point in determining the coup. How both China and the United States handle the crisis may be a critical marker for their own relationship.

The Tatmadaw has been pushing the electoral fraud narrative since November, but the leadership would have hesitated to take action unless they had confidence that they could rely on Beijing to shield them from the inevitable consequences in the United Nations from Western nations, and possibly also offset incoming sanctions by expanding economic ties between the two neighbors. Something about that meeting seems likely to have led the military leader to believe that China would be willing to step up for its neighbor.

How both China and the United States handle the crisis may be a critical marker for their own relationship.The strange thing here, though, is that Beijing has been growing much closer to Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government than it was to the military regime in Myanmar in the past. And that largely owes to the Tatmadaw, which has historically always preferred international isolation to any whiff of dependence on a foreign country, even a country like China with which it was notionally aligned ideologically as socialist states. It was a fear of dependence on China that led, in part, to the Myanmar military’s decadelong accommodation of democracy and the suspension of major Chinese projects such as the $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam—a perpetual burr in relations ever since. So perhaps a commitment from Min Aung Hlaing to continue and deepen the economic ties between the two countries is what made the Chinese hesitate to draw a line in the sand in support of Aung San Suu Kyi. If the dam project restarts, regardless of the cost to displaced locals, that will be a major sign of a shift toward China.

Yet perhaps the Chinese did not give any express permission to the general to go ahead with his designs, but the military leadership thought that they could draw Beijing into coming to their defense anyway. The calculation here would be that China rarely misses an opportunity to expand its influence in Asia at the expense of the United States, so when Washington and its allies would come to impose consequences on Myanmar, Chinese officials would still find it in their own interest to intervene on behalf of the leadership there.

This is the first major foreign-policy test for new U.S. President Joe Biden’s team, and one that has to be handled with an eye toward both the people of Myanmar and the ambitions of Beijing. The U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has come out to condemn the military coup—as is right and proper.

But Beijing has not come out in turn with full-throated support for the coup. Indeed, it seems to be supporting a reconciliation between the Tatmadaw and the National League for Democracy—at least in public. So it might be that Hlaing did indeed go ahead with this without explicit Chinese support. In this case, Beijing might resent being forced into supporting the domestic political designs of a minnow client state, and it might be open to cooperating with Washington on smacking down the Tatmadaw for this coup—leading at the worst to Myanmar retreating once again into complete isolation, but more likely to a restoration of the more democratic constitution and the civilian government, in the wake of what are likely to be mass public protests.

It may also be the case that Beijing did in fact tacitly endorse the coup in advance.There may be a bargain to be made here. The United States could recognize Beijing’s commercial interests in its Belt and Road Initiative developments in Myanmar, in exchange for China’s support for forcing Myanmar into humanely resolving the Rohingya crisis in the borderlands, and entrenching the power of the democratic forces in the country that are indeed quite friendly to Beijing. That would be an optimistic outcome, not only for Myanmar but also for the prospects of U.S.-Chinese cooperation when genuine shared interests can be found.

That is the most optimistic scenario. But it may also be the case that Beijing did in fact tacitly endorse the coup in advance. In that case, the United States should press the issue so that China has to show its hand: Does it, or does it not support the coup? Will Beijing, for example, veto a censure of the coup in the U.N. Security Council? If it does that, it will be another step in an ideological hardening against democracy from Beijing, not just at home but among its neighbors: President Xi Jinping’s regime will have gone from underwriting autocrats in Central Asia and crushing Hong Kong’s nascent democracy to actively overturning a young democracy in its neighborhood. This would give the United States a badly needed chance to reassert its role as leader of the free world.

The Biden team must study the playing field carefully and try to determine exactly where Beijing is standing on the coup. But in either case, if they play this deftly, there is much to be gained for human rights and democracy in the region—as well as a critical chance for the United States to rehabilitate its image on the world stage.

Azeem Ibrahim  is a director at the Center for Global Policy in Washington. Twitter: @azeemibrahim

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