Did China deliver a snub to Myanmar’s military regime?

Observers see China keeping Myanmar’s generals at a distance by failing to respond to the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation summit invite.

Demonstrators display a picture of Chinese president Xi Jinping, with a message requesting not to support military coup during a protest against the military coup in Mandalay, Myanmar
Demonstrators in Myanmar display a picture of Chinese President Xi Jinping - with a message requesting China not to support the military coup - in Mandalay in 2021 [File: AP Photo]

Bangkok/Yangon – Beijing’s apparent failure to pick up on an invitation for China’s Premier Li Keqiang to attend a regional meeting in Myanmar has been interpreted as a subtle snub to Naypyidaw’s military rulers by one of their most powerful patrons.

China’s non-response to an invitation for a planned Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) summit comes amid increasing international isolation of the military regime in Myanmar and its inability to reduce armed opposition to its rule domestically and secure legitimacy internationally.

Established and led by China to promote “regional peace, stability and prosperity”, the LMC is made up of the five Southeast Asian countries through which the Mekong River flows: Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The Mekong is also known as the Lancang in the parts of China through which it passes from its source on the Tibetan Plateau.

Holding the LMC’s rotating chair in 2022, Myanmar was expected to host a summit of the organisation towards the end of last year, two sources familiar with planning for the event told Al Jazeera. Myanmar’s military leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, China’s Li, and leaders from the five Southeast Asian countries were expected to attend.

But the summit never happened when China failed to respond to an invitation.

“Beijing didn’t respond to the junta’s invitation and no date or attendance was set,” said Michael Ng, a former official in the Hong Kong government who has close diplomatic connections in Southeast Asia.

Ng, who was until recently deputy chief of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Bangkok, notes that no senior Chinese official has yet met in person with Min Aung Hlaing since the coup in February 2021.

Not responding to the LMC summit invitation may not have been a simple oversight, he said.

“China’s cold-shouldering is likely driven by the consideration that having Premier Li meeting Min Aung Hlaing implies full, official support for the military regime,” Ng said.

When China’s then-Foreign Minister Wang Yi attended an LMC ministers’ meeting in Myanmar’s Bagan in July 2022, he met his military-appointed Myanmar counterpart Wunna Maung Lwin.

The LMC’s China Secretariat in Beijing and the Chinese embassy in Yangon did not respond to Al Jazeera’s emailed requests for comment as to why the summit meeting was not held.

Beijing’s no-show at the proposed summit also comes as Myanmar’s ministers have been barred from meetings of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) after it failed to make progress in implementing the five-point peace plan drawn up by ASEAN in April 2021 to end the violence triggered by the military’s power grab.

Jason Tower, Myanmar country director at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), also said Beijing had not responded to the military’s invitation.

“China did not follow up with a proposal to convene the Leader’s meeting in Myanmar before the end of 2022,” Tower told Al Jazeera.

By staying away, China appeared to signal that it would not prioritise its relationship with the military regime above its relationship with ASEAN countries, Tower said.

“Min Aung Hlaing’s push to leverage the LMC to build regional legitimacy has failed, and China has recognised that a favourable response to his request to convene the LMC Leaders meeting would undermine ASEAN centrality, and draw sharp criticism from a significant number of ASEAN states,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Beijing’s concerns certainly included provoking strong blowback from ASEAN states, which view such a high-level convening involving the illegitimate military junta as undermining ASEAN’s consensus not to invite the junta’s participation in such meetings,” he said.

China “is not willing to undermine relationships with ASEAN in exchange for propping up a military regime that has thus far proven incapable of delivering with respect to China’s strategic economic plans”, he added.

China’s investment in post-coup Myanmar

Beijing’s concerns may not just be diplomatic with Myanmar as the growing conflict in the country is undermining the investment environment.

According to an analysis paper by the Institute for Strategy and Policy (ISP-Myanmar) – a Myanmar think tank, Chinese investments are facing growing risks as the anti-coup conflicts escalate across the country.

Of more than 7,800 clashes recorded nationwide since the coup in February 2021, at least 300 have taken place in areas where major Chinese projects are located or near potential project sites for Chinese investments, according to data from ISP-Myanmar.

More than 100 clashes took place in 19 townships where China’s oil and natural gas pipeline projects are located, and at least a dozen near the Chinese-operated Letpadaung copper mine in the north of the country.

There were also confrontations in northern Shan State in 2021 and 2022. Shan State is the site of key projects along what is known as the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor – an infrastructure initiative that involves industrial and infrastructure projects, including railways, highways and a deep-sea port, that will connect China’s Yunnan to the Indian Ocean via Myanmar.

The military’s offensives against ethnic armed groups in the north of the country have also generated instability on the China-Myanmar border not seen since 2015, the USIP’s Tower said.

Tower referred to the military’s recent failed attack against the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), a Chinese-speaking ethnic Kokang rebel group based on the border with southwestern China.

The MNDAA controlled Kokang’s self-administered zone and capital Laukkai until 2009, when it was taken during an offensive led by Min Aung Hlaing. The fighting drove more than 30,000 civilians to flee to China. Taking advantage of the military’s current security troubles, the MNDAA appears intent on retaking Laukkai.

A researcher based in Myanmar until recently told Al Jazeera the situation in the country was neither good for Chinese investment nor for everyday people.

Due to the escalating security risks, China would find it challenging to implement their planned investments, said the researcher who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

Local communities and civil society organisations also fear that China’s projects will not be implemented in a responsible way under a military government, and could cause harm to the environment and local people. China’s investment project should be paused and resume “only after the legitimate government is restored”, the researcher said.

Refusal to condemn Myanmar’s military

China, India, Russia and Thailand are among the few countries that have maintained formal relations with Myanmar’s military since it seized power nearly two years ago.

They have refused to condemn or sanction the generals since the coup which removed Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically-elected government and unleashed a bloodbath on the civilian population. An estimated 2,600 people have been killed and more than 16,500 imprisoned on political charges, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners – a civil society group monitoring the situation in Myanmar.

Beijing and Moscow have also prevented the United Nations Security Council from taking stronger action against Myanmar.

When the UNSC last month adopted its first resolution on Myanmar in 74 years – which called for an end to violence and the release of all political prisoners – China, Russia, and India abstained from the vote. The remaining 12 members of the powerful council voted in favour.

In a report published in November, a group of international legislators said “steadfast and uncritical” support, particularly from Beijing and Moscow, had enabled Myanmar’s military to sustain itself and carry out human rights abuses.

Beijing’s lukewarm position on the generals means Myanmar’s anti-coup forces do not consider China their enemy.

The National Unity Government (NUG), a parallel government set up by elected and toppled legislators following the military coup, opposes any attacks on Chinese investments. The NUG has also called on the country’s resistance forces, collectively termed the People’s Defence Force, to stay away from Chinese projects.

The pro-China stance of Myanmar’s pro-democracy politicians should come as no surprise.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s overthrown National League for Democracy (NLD) government adhered to the “One China” policy and did not condemn China’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

The NLD and the NUG sent separate congratulatory letters to President Xi Jinping at the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Congress in Beijing last year, two sources told Al Jazeera. The International Department of the Communist Party of China (CPCID) only acknowledged the NLD letter, however. This is because the NLD is a legitimate political party in Myanmar, but the “NUG’s legal and political status is at best undetermined for China”, Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the Stimson Center, a Washington, DC-based think tank, told Al Jazeera.

Myanmar’s generals have also sought to publicly align with China.

The general’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), was vocal in its criticism of then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year, which caused a diplomatic storm between Washington and Beijing. Myanmar’s foreign minister also paid an official visit to China in March and April, opening the Myanmar Consulate-General in Chongqing and meeting then-Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Though understated in terms of a diplomatic rebuke, China’s apparent passing over of the LMC summit is likely to unsettle Myanmar’s generals who might be wondering if there is yet more to come from their powerful patrons and friends in Beijing.

As Human Rights Watch’s Louis Charbonneau said last month after Beijing and Moscow chose to abstain rather than vote against the UNSC resolution critical of Myanmar’s military: “China and Russia’s abstentions signal that even the junta’s few friends have lost interest in sticking out their necks to defend its atrocities.”

Source: Al Jazeera