THE PAPER | Growing Concern with China’s Interference in Myanmar Affairs
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THE PAPER | Growing Concern with China’s Interference in Myanmar Affairs

By Maung Aung Myoe
Professor at the International University of Japan

THE PAPER | Growing Concern with China’s Interference in Myanmar Affairs

Chinese influence in Myanmar is a subject of great debate. Some scholars argue that Myanmar has virtually become a pawn of China, while others claim that this is not so. We will not engage in such debate in this paper. The SLORC/SPDC government has been aware of China’s potential to apply its ‘influence’ as Myanmar attracts China’s support at various international forums. At the same time, the military regime has tried its best to maintain its independent and non-aligned policy in foreign affairs. However, the SPDC government was disappointed when it discovered that the international community had projected Myanmar as a nation under China’s sphere of influence [or being a China’s client state], and urged China to intervene in Myanmar during the 2007 monk-led demonstrations and in 2008 when Cyclone Nargis hit. Thus, the government was seriously concerned, and particularly worried about China’s intervention and interference in Myanmar affairs.

In September 2007, monk-led anti-government demonstrations broke out on the streets of Yangon and in a few other towns. It was the biggest confrontation between Buddhist monks and the military regime since 1990. The international media quickly began to refer to this movement as the “Saffron Revolution”, following the style of other color revolutions. This issue drew international attention when the regime arrested monks and raided monasteries. Unlike in the past, a wide network of anti-regime activists both in and out of the country was at the forefront of denouncing these crackdowns. Thanks to newly available information and communication technology (ICT), images and stories of confrontation between monks and security forces appeared almost in real time on social media. The military regime seemed to be concerned about losing its legitimacy to rule, which was based partly on its claim to be a promoter and defender of the Buddhist religion. 

Despite the fact that the regime exhibited a considerable degree of tolerance, at least compared with its own previous record, its crackdown on the demonstration of 26–27 September 2007 drew widespread international condemnation and called for international intervention. The issue was tabled for a resolution at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) by the United States and Britain. However, due to the possibility of a veto by both China and Russia, a compromise was reached to issue a non-binding UNSC presidential statement. After nearly a week of negotiations on the details and terms of this document, to be issued by the United States as the rotating president of the UNSC, Beijing eventually agreed to the final version of the presidential statement, which was duly released on 11 October 2007. During these negotiations, China played a crucial role in facilitating meetings between the Myanmar military regime and the UN. It was during this period that the military regime became increasingly concerned about the perceived growing Chinese influence, and the prominent role played by China in Myanmar’s affairs. There were also fears that Myanmar was becoming over-dependent on Beijing. Meanwhile, the SPDC speeded up the National Convention process to draft a constitution and, on 9 February 2008, the government announced a timeline for implementation of what was known as the ‘Seven-Step Roadmap’, which featured a nationwide referendum to be held in May for the draft constitution, followed by a multi-party general election in 2010.

On 2 May 2008, Cyclone Nargis hit the Myanmar coastline around the Ayerwaddy delta, leaving more than 100,000 people dead and 1.5 million “severely affected”, according to the UN. The inadequate and slow response by the government, as well as its reluctance to accept the offers of international agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to assist in disaster relief operations, provoked a global outrage. The international community approached China, urging it to play an important role in convincing the SPDC government to accept international relief aid and to receive Admiral Timothy J. Keating, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Command, in Yangon to coordinate the delivery of relief aid. Following the intervention of China and ASEAN, the Myanmar government allowed relief operations by the international community, including many local and international NGOs. 

Although China continued its political support after these two events, it began to criticise the Myanmar government, which made the SPDC uncomfortable. The regime leadership became increasingly aware of China’s international obligations, and its desire to project and maintain a positive image in the eyes of the international community. This was by no means risk-free for Naypyitaw. Moreover, Naypyitaw was uneasy with Beijing’s increasing contacts with anti-government activists and organisations at the expense of the Myanmar government. The SPDC was aware that Chinese authorities, mostly from Yunnan, held a series of meetings with Myanmar dissidents in Maesot, Chiang Mai and Ruili. Some of the dissidents were invited to tour Kunming and Beijing. When Xi Jinping met Maung Aye in Beijing in June 2009, he told him that China would uphold the “fair interests of Myanmar”, perhaps signalling to his Myanmar counterpart that Beijing’s support was conditional (New Light of Myanmar 2009). 

In summary, the growing prominent role of China in Myanmar affairs following the 2007 monk-led anti-government demonstrations and as a result of the 2008 Cyclone Nargis gave a wake-up call to the military regime to address the issue of growing Chinese influence and its possible intervention or interference in Myanmar’s affairs.

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About the Author:

Maung Aung Myoe is a professor at the International University of Japan. His research focuses on foreign policy and civil–military relations in Myanmar. His recent publications include “The Soldier and the State: The Tatmadaw and Political Liberalization in Myanmar since 2011”, in: South East Asia Research (22, 2, August 2014) and “Legacy or Overhang: Historical Memory in Myanmar–Thai Relations”, in: N. Ganesan (ed.), Bilateral Legacies in East and Southeast Asia (Singapore: ISEAS Press, 2015).

Cite this Article:

Maung Aung MYOE (2015), Myanmar’s China Policy since 2011: Determinants and Directions, in Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 34, 2, 31–33. 

Publication Details:

Published by GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Institute of Asian Studies and Hamburg University Press in The Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs which is an Open Access publication under the conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.