BEIJING (Reuters) – Three weeks before Myanmar’s military commander took power in a coup, he met the Chinese government’s top diplomat in an exchange that pointed to potential support as Myanmar faces the prospect of renewed Western sanctions.
China’s foreign ministry noted the “fraternal” relationship as State Councillor Wang Yi met last month in Myanmar’s capital with the military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, making him one of the last foreign dignitaries to visit before the coup.
“China appreciates that the Myanmar military takes national revitalisation as its mission,” the Chinese ministry said at the time.
Myanmar’s own readout of the meeting proved more portentous.
It noted that the military raised complaints to Wang about Myanmar’s Nov. 8 election, saying it was marred by fraud, including “discrepancies with the voter lists”, and told him what the army was doing about it, without giving specifics.
Since the early Monday coup and the arrest of elected-leader Aung San Suu Kyi, China has stayed largely quiet, saying only it hoped for stability in a country where it ranks as the dominant trading partner, a major investor and a counterweight over years of pressure on Myanmar from the West over its suppression of democracy.
“China will be all too happy to recalibrate its engagement to recognise the new facts on the ground,” wrote analysts at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“That will likely soften the blow of any U.S. sanctions, which Min Aung Hlaing has doubtless already anticipated and dismissed.”
In Japan, a major donor with longstanding ties to Myanmar, State Minister of Defence Yasuhide Nakayama told Reuters that the world’s democracies risk pushing Myanmar into China’s arms if their response to the coup closes channels for communication with the generals.
Chinese state media has largely held off commenting on what the coup means for China, or even using that word, with state news agency Xinhua referring to Monday’s events as a “major Cabinet reshuffle”.
Stability-obsessed China has deep ties to a military that ruled Myanmar for decades.
China has declined to say whether it was given warning that a coup was coming, but analysts played down the notion that last month’s meeting had a bearing on events, or that Myanmar gave notice of the takeover.
“Myanmar’s tumultuous transition to democracy in the past decade has greatly impacted China’s economic interests in the country,” said Li Mingjiang, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
“More than anything, China would’ve wanted stability in Myanmar, not a coup,” he said.
China is well-connected in Myanmar following years of backing the old military government when it was subject to sweeping Western sanctions after Suu Kyi was put under house arrest in 1989 following pro-democracy protests.
China later worked hard to build ties with Suu Kyi as political change swept the country, and she tried to reassure China that she did not consider it an enemy, visiting China several times and backing President Xi Jinping’s extensive Belt and Road Initiative of energy and infrastructure projects.
Fighting along the border between Myanmar’s army and ethnic minority guerrilla groups has on occasion over the last decade led to refugees pouring into China’s Yunnan province, angering the Chinese government.
“As a neighbour on China’s southern border, a split Myanmar in turmoil is obviously not what China wants to see,” the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily said in its overseas edition’s WeChat account.
For its part, Myanmar has lingering suspicion of China’s links with some militia forces that operate on the Myanmar side of their common border, and historically, Myanmar nationalists have viewed their huge neighbour with wariness.
Maw Htun Aung, a mining expert turned politician from Myanmar’s Kachin State bordering China, who is aligned with neither the army nor Suu Kyi’s ousted government, distrusted China’s motives.
“It will take advantage of the crisis and will mainly focus on its political gain and regional influence,” he said.
(Reporting by Yew Lun Tian and Tony Munroe; Writing and additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Editing by Robert Birsel)