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  • Hamsini Hariharan

Myanmar coup: The China factor and India's options

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on February 08, 2021 and can be accessed here.

Last week, the world watched on as an aerobics instructor went along with her morning routine without realising that a coup was taking place behind her. The military junta in Myanmar has again ousted the civilian government and detained leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi. For China, this is an interesting development as the military leaders have long been suspicious of the Chinese government’s intentions.

Myanmar’s military (also known as the Tatmadaw) had alleged irregularities in the November 2020 elections, which saw a landslide win for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. But it may be the military’s insecurity about losing political influence that led to army chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s decision to seize power. Avinash Paliwal argues that “With the tenure of Min Aung Hlaing soon coming to an end, this was, then, a do-or-die moment in the conservative worldview of Myanmar’s military. The next S-G, even if a conservative, would not have been able to easily outmaneuver Suu Kyi. The change of guard in the military top-brass at a moment when Suu Kyi won another election handsomely risked actual democratisation (even if illiberal in nature), potentially undermining the military’s position for a long time to come.”

China is in a unique position with the coup. Its general policy is that it doesn’t interfere in internal matters of the country. This approach has allowed it to work with dictators and democracies alike. Since the 1990s, China was possibly the only country supporting Myanmar through its international isolation until 2011. So Myanmar depended on Beijing to shield it at the United Nations Security Council and defy international sanctions. However, this proved to be a double-edged sword as the Tatmadaw became deeply mistrustful of overdependence on Beijing. Chinese investment in Myanmar focused on extracting natural resources rather than creating sustainable development. Myanmar was also forced to accept China’s word at the border and champion China’s cause at regional forums like the ASEAN. Scholars speculate that this overdependence was one reason why the Tatmadaw allowed for democratic reforms in 2011.

On the other hand, the Aung San Suu Kyi government has become even closer to Beijing over recent years. Last year, Xi Jinping became the first Chinese leader to visit Myanmar since 2001, supporting Suu Kyi’s government. Beijing may have given the Tatmadaw a covert nod to go ahead with the coup, as reports surfaced of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meeting Min Aung Hlaing last month.

But the Chinese also have a real stake at play as Myanmar’s largest trade partner. Apart from a multibillion-dollar project to build a deepwater port at Kyaukphyu and an oil and gas pipeline that would connect to China’s Yunnan province, state-owned companies have invested in mining and electricity. There are real concerns that border trade between China and Yunnan could be interrupted in the short term.

China has already blocked the UNSC resolution on the coup. Still, Beijing will need to recalibrate its strategy towards the country and assuage the Tatmadaw's concerns. On India’s part, the general policy has been to engage with the military and bring up concerns about democracy in closed conversations. As Sreemoy Talukdar points out, “Due to the Tatmadaw’s wariness of Beijing as well as New Delhi’s close strategic partnership with the United States, India should be in a good position to deal with the eventualities. India's strategic perspective now appears firmer.” How Myanmar engages with China, either with democratic or military leaders, will continue for the next weeks, months, and years. It is possible there that India will keep an eye on how this pans out and continue to engage Myanmar as before.

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