In a reflection of the influential role that China plays in the region, leaders from both Myanmar’s ruling military and the anti-junta National Unity Government – essentially enemies – praised China over the Lunar New Year weekend, competing for their neighbor’s blessing.
Junta chief Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing said that China had been an important and good neighbor, while the shadow Unity government sent a message through diplomatic channels saying that it could “guarantee that the fruits of their revolution’s success will not harm the interests of regional countries, including China, but give even more benefits.”
China is an important economic partner and shares a border with Myanmar. It also wields a powerful veto on the five-member U.N. Security Council, which both the junta and the shadow NUG hope Beijing will leverage to their advantage.
China’s U.N. delegation, for example, has prevented meaningful sanctions from being imposed on Myanmar since the military took control in a February 2021 coup, or hold the junta accountable for human rights violations against its own people.
Analysts said that the NUG appears grateful that China did not veto the Dec. 21 Security Council resolution calling for the release of political prisoners by the junta, including imprisoned former leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The resolution also called on the army to stop violence against civilians and implement the five-point consensus for peace in Myanmar adopted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Trying to keep China from supporting opponent
Rather than seeking an outright partnership with Beijing, both sides may be trying to keep China from joining their opposition, political analyst Ye Tun said. “It is not bad for them if China at least stays neutral,” he said. “They are trying to have China not be on the opposing side.”
Thein Tun Oo, executive director of the pro-junta Thayninga Institute for Strategic Studies accused the NUG of pulling “a political stunt by thanking China for not vetoing the Security Council resolution. China knows very well who is ruling Myanmar and who to associate with.”
According to data from the Institute for Strategic Studies, which monitors China-Myanmar relations, three new trade channels have emerged between the two countries since the coup.
One trade route links China’s Sichuan province through Yangon and to Singapore, connecting Chinese exports to infrastructure to the Indian Ocean. A second route links Chongqing province with Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar, while the third is a water route connecting Guangxi province through ports in the Bay of Beibu in the South China Sea.
The institute said that the new economic channels will enable China to solidify its long-awaited access to the Indian Ocean and spread its geopolitical influence across Myanmar
China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner since the coup, with Chinese trade accounting for more than U.S.$4.4 billion out of Myanmar’s total U.S.$17 billion between April and September.
Hla Kyaw Zaw, a China-based analyst of China-Myanmar relations, views China’s policy as a multifaceted approach.
“China is gradually cooling down the hot areas of Burma. But what they can’t persuade is the military,” he said. “China’s diplomacy is usually done quietly. It doesn’t hurt other parties by not doing things like objecting or condemning. Its approach is multifaceted, and it will deal with the junta, NUG, and ethnic armed groups along the border as well.”