China has joined Russia in opposing direct sanctions on Myanmar’s military junta by the U.N. Security Council, and has restricted its public comments to wishes for peace and stability, while the country’s foreign ministry has denied tacit encouragement for the coup.
Inside Myanmar, however, unidentified people have vandalized Chinese factories, staged protests in front of the Chinese embassy, and burned the Chinese flag, suggesting that Beijing is strongly linked in people’s minds to their own military government.
Huang Chung-Ting of Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research said the CCP is unlikely to set much store by growing anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar, however.
“As long as China can maintain good relations with those in power in Myanmar, it can afford to pay less attention to the feelings of its people,” Huang told RFA.
China’s interests in Myanmar include economic ties, border security, and geopolitical factors, Huang said..
The 2,100-kilometer (1,300-mile) shared border alone is enough cause for concern, should Myanmar continue to deteriorate into factional violence and civil war, he said.
“There are a large number of ethnic minority armed groups in the China-Myanmar border area,” Huang said. “This conflict has been going on all this time, and the relations between the various factions and the Chinese government ebbs and flows.”
“Armed conflicts like the one in the Kokang border region in March 2015 are a headache for China,” he said. “Back then, large numbers of refugees crowded across the border into China … and there were even stray bullets that found their way across into [the southwestern Chinese province of] Yunnan.”
China’s international infrastructure investment project, the Belt and Road initiative, currently includes the flagship China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi has indicated that Beijing is keen to speed up the construction of the western, northern, and eastern ends of the CMEC.
Chinese state media reported earlier this year that Wang is keen to promote an early implementation of the Kyaukpyu deep-sea port, the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone, and New Yangon City.
The CMEC bisects the northern part of the country and ends at the $1.3 billion deep-sea port at Kyaukpyu in southern Rakhine state along the coast of the Bay of Bengal. It includes plans for a U.S.$8.9 billion high-speed rail link from Yunnan, as well as gas and oil pipelines.
Cross-border security concerns
China is also increasingly dependent on rice imports from Myanmar, with rice imports soaring from 100,000 tons to 500,000 tons in the past decade, accounting for 65 percent of Myanmar’s total export trade with China.
There are also long-running cross-border security concerns that could worsen if the violence continues, according to Derek Mitchell, a former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar who now serves as president of the National Democratic Institute in Washington.
“There’s been human, weapons, narcotics trafficking for decades across that border, that can affect Chinese well-being and stability,” Mitchell told RFA. “If there’s a failed state on that border with massive civil war and civic unrest, it will only make those problems worse: the internal instability of Myanmar won’t stay within the country.”
“Really the primary concern is that they can control what happens inside their borders, so that nothing outside the country affects how they controls things inside the country,” he said.
However, he said China would also likely take steps to protect its strategic investments in the country.
“The Chinese have a tremendous amount of investment in Myanmar; oil and gas … Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects,” Mitchell said. “They want to use Myanmar as a way to access the Indian Ocean. An unstable Myanmar can affect all of that.”
“And of course they have factories. You saw what happened outside Yangon to their factories, whoever did that,” he said, referring to arson attacks on 32 Chinese-funded factories in several Yangon townships early last month.
He said that while anti-China attitudes were “exploding” in the wake of the social unrest, China was unlikely to pay them much heed.
“People are not going to forget how China acted and spoke about the coup, and how they don’t seem to be interested in the Myanmar people, but only in their own, very narrow, interests,” Mitchell said.
“They don’t particularly care about democracy, or any values, but they definitely want a peaceful, stable southeast Asia, any way they can get it, for their investments, for their BRI plans, or for their trade, so that they don’t have to worry about their borders, so that they can focus on their internal affairs,” he said.
He said China was highly unlikely to get behind any form of U.N. peace-keeping intervention in Myanmar.
“They use the U.N. really to prevent the world from intruding, to prevent the world engaging in [its] internal affairs,” Mitchell said. “Even if it’s another country, they see it as a precedent for the U.N. Security Council being engaged potentially in their own internal affairs.”
“We are all simply watching mass murder with impunity on a daily basis, of children, of women, and there’s more and more people thinking there has to be something done to put a stop to it,” he said. “But for the U.N., it will be vetoed almost certainly by China and Russia.”
‘Dirty List’ of companies
The Irrawaddy, an independent on-line news outlet, reported Thursday that the Chinese embassy in Yangon had spoken by telephone for the first time with the country’s “shadow government” of elected lawmakers from the ousted National League for Democracy government.
China, which has called for all parties in Myanmar to seek a political resolution through dialog, had a counselor from the embassy speak last week with members of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a group that enjoys popular support at home and abroad, the outlet said.
“The counselor reiterated the Chinese ambassador’s earlier comments that the current situation is not what China wants to see, and expressed concern for the safety of Chinese citizens and investments in Myanmar amid the escalating violence,” the Irrawaddy reported.
According to an advocacy group Justice For Myanmar and public domain information, Chinese state-owned enterprises are among the biggest suppliers of arms and military equipment to the Myanmar military.
Justice For Myanmar has listed 122 top business partners of the military government, which staged a coup on Feb. 1, ousting the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD).
The five biggest suppliers are listed as China North Industries Group (NORINCO), the Aviation Industry Corp. of China (AVIC), the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC), the China Aerospace Science & Industry Corp. (CASIC), and the China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corporation (CATIC).
More than a dozen other suppliers were funded from China or Hong Kong.
A spokesperson from Justice for Myanmar said weapons supplied by NORINCO to the Tatmadaw were being used on unarmed civilians amid mass protests that have followed the coup.
A “Dirty List” published by Burma Campaign UK listed 12 Chinese companies as having ties to the Myanmar military, including most of those already mentioned in this article.
Justice For Myanmar called on the international community to impose immediate comprehensive and targeted sanctions against the Myanmar military in response to the coup, and their continuing violations of international law, including their campaign of genocide against the Rohingya and war crimes and crimes against humanity in ethnic regions.
Reported by Rita Cheng for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.