What you need to know
China is adapting to the situation in Myanmar by making good with the military government, but ASEAN’s quiet diplomacy is likely to prevent a surge in Chinese regional influence.
By Henrick Z Tsjeng
On January 16, 2021, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi concluded a visit to four ASEAN countries. One destination was Myanmar, the upcoming country coordinator of the ASEAN-China dialogue and now center of international attention after the country’s military seized power. The Myanmar crisis is becoming increasingly tragic, with the military’s use of lethal force now killing over 60 protestors.
China’s outreach efforts, coupled with an upcoming ASEAN-China country coordinator seen as more China-friendly, seem to put Beijing in a position to increase its influence over ASEAN in 2021. But such a view is premature.
Chinese diplomacy with Southeast Asia has ramped up in recent months. In January 2020, before the emerging Covid-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a state visit to Myanmar. After a brief hiatus until August 2020, senior Chinese leaders have made visits to nine ASEAN member states. Wang Yi’s tour in January 2021 was particularly significant for China’s push for economic cooperation and the export of its Covid-19 vaccines.
Senior Chinese leaders visited Myanmar three times in 2020 and early 2021, the most for any ASEAN country over this period. Before the military takeover, China was clearly eager to shore up relations with Myanmar’s civilian government as the Southeast Asian country prepares to take over the ASEAN-China country coordinator role from the Philippines this year.
Myanmar is also seen as a key node for China’s Belt and Road Initiative under the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, and is the current co-chair of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation mechanism. Stable China–Myanmar relations, regardless of who is in power in Naypyidaw, are thus a key goal for Beijing.
Having shielded the previous Myanmar junta from Western criticism, China is adapting to the situation in Myanmar by making good with the country’s new military government. Chinese state media called the coup a “cabinet reshuffle,” and Beijing apparently blocked a United Nations Security Council statement condemning the coup, favoring a watered-down version of the statement.
Beijing’s shielding of the new junta could lead to some expansion of its influence over ASEAN, but Myanmar’s role as ASEAN-China country coordinator does not give it the ability to fully direct the bloc’s relations with China. If Naypyidaw attempted to do so, opposition would emerge from other ASEAN countries, such as Vietnam and possibly Indonesia and a post-Duterte Philippines, who would be supported by the longstanding ASEAN principle of consensus.
A similar scenario played out in 2020, when the Chinese Ambassador to Manila voiced Beijing’s intention to conclude a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea while a China-friendly administration in the Philippines held the role of ASEAN-China country coordinator. In spite of this, the then-ASEAN Chairman Vietnam successfully pushed for ASEAN to voice its concerns more forcefully than before.
Myanmar’s military is not necessarily an all-weather friend of China. The military, itself highly nationalistic and isolationist, has previously accused its larger neighbor of helping ethnic insurgents in Myanmar’s border areas. It was the previous military government that suspended the China-led Myitsone dam project in 2011 and cancelled the Kyaukpyu-Kunming rail line in 2014 in order to implement reforms to expand and diversify Myanmar’s economic partners. Cambodia’s reputational damage in 2012 over its scuttling of the joint communique of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting may also be a deterrent for Myanmar against being overtly pro-China.
But ASEAN centrality could still be undermined in the short term. The responses from ASEAN countries show varying positions, notwithstanding the short ASEAN Chairman’s Statement issued by Brunei Darussalam shortly after the military takeover, or the Chair’s Statement on the Informal ASEAN Ministerial Meeting held on 2 March 2021, which mentioned the Myanmar crisis but similarly treaded lightly, despite the stronger expressions of concern issued by Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. The regional grouping is, after all, one that prizes non-interference in the domestic affairs of its members, and a lack of solidarity on this issue could give Beijing an opening to impose its interests.
In what can be seen as an effort to rally ASEAN into taking action, Indonesia, widely considered to be first among equals in ASEAN, has lobbied ASEAN member states for a special summit. Indonesia’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, met her counterparts in a number of Southeast Asian capitals, with Bangkok the latest destination. Retno has also urged the junta to engage with ASEAN.
Not all Asian countries outside of ASEAN are on board with punitive measures against the new junta. Japan — a major investor in Myanmar since 2010 — called for the international community not to close Myanmar off. India also issued a statement that similarly avoided direct condemnation of Naypyidaw. Both countries have concerns that isolating Myanmar will only drive it further into China’s arms.
ASEAN would thus have regional backers for its quiet diplomacy with Myanmar, involving both engagement and the cautious use of pressure, which arguably was successful in pushing the previous junta to undertake political reform. Under such an environment, Myanmar would not have to completely accede to China’s interests, even if condemnation and sanctions start pouring in from the West.
China’s continued efforts to boost its influence in Southeast Asia will be no cakewalk. The incoming ASEAN-China country coordinator might at first blush appear more aligned with Beijing, but there is no guarantee that Myanmar will accommodate Chinese demands.
Even with the risks to ASEAN centrality and unity, the grouping’s quiet diplomacy with Naypyidaw, coupled with support from regional partners, are likely to prevent a surge in Chinese regional influence.
Henrick Z Tsjeng is an Associate Research Fellow with the Regional Security Architecture Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.
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