Within hours of the coup in Myanmar, Washington and its allies issued condemnation and exuded “concern.”
Beijing carefully “noted.”
Monday’s military takeover not only risks democratic backsliding for Myanmar’s 55 million people, the reaction from the two rivals highlights Washington and Beijing’s starkly different approaches to a crisis in the region.
China said it hoped all parties would “properly handle their differences” and “maintain political and social stability,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a briefing. China’s state-run news agency Xinhua described the coup as a “a major cabinet reshuffle.”
Meanwhile, the United States, like the United Nations and European Union, condemned the coup that saw de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders detained.
Beijing’s response is unsurprising given its longstanding official policy of noninterference in other countries’ internal affairs. With its 1,300-mile border and shared major oil and gas pipelines, China has far more skin in the game in Myanmar than its American and European counterparts, experts say.
“Whoever comes out of this power struggle the strongest, the Chinese will want to work with them,” said Bill Hayton, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a London think tank. “They won’t want to show their hand, keeping as much flexibility as possible. And yet, they want to sound positive, like they have a role.”
Last year Chinese President Xi Jinping and Suu Kyi signed dozens of deals that will see Beijing build an array of infrastructure projects, including railroads and deep-sea ports, further binding Myanmar to its sphere of influence as part of the “One Belt One Road” network.
So China “worries about instability in Myanmar spilling over into China,” according to Stephen A. Orlins, president of the National Committee on U.S. China Relations, an influential New York-based nonprofit that advocates greater understanding between the two world powers.
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That’s not to say the Myanmar-China relationship has always been always easy or straightforward.
While Suu Kyi has sought to build ties with Xi, Myanmar’s military has been “most wary of China” because of allegations that Beijing funds and arms ethnic militias in Myanmar’s north, historian Thant Myint-U said on Twitter. During his visit to the country earlier this month, Xi denied that China has ever armed or supported these groups, local media reported.
Nevertheless, these deepening ties stand in contrast to Myanmar’s drifting and deteriorating relations with the U.S. and its allies in recent years.
For decades Myanmar was ruled by a military junta, which itself relied heavily on China for foreign aid.
In 2010, elections saw it transition to a quasi-democratic system, which gave way to investment and the lifting of some sanctions by the West. However more sanctions were reimposed in 2017 following a military crackdown that saw hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims flee into Bangladesh.
Once an international icon, Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate, has seen her reputation tarnished after she defended her country in the ensuing genocide case at the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands.
Throughout these freezes and thaws, Myanmar has rarely been the most pressing U.S. concern in the region, sandwiched between regional giants India and China. This was even more the case under former President Donald Trump, whose almost singular focus in this part of the world was China.
This week’s events have thrown Myanmar back into the international spotlight.
The military takeover follows elections in November that saw Suu Kyi’s party make big gains, but which the army rejected as fraudulent.
“In reality this is a manufactured excuse,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. “It’s all about the military being concerned that they are not going to be able to continue to control the situation in Myanmar.”
A day before the lawmakers elected in that vote were due to take their seats, the military arrested political leaders, restricted internet access and blocked roads and airports.
The crisis has presented President Joe Biden with one of his first foreign policy obstacles to negotiate. Observers — not least in Beijing — will be eager to know how he responds.
In a written statement Monday, he raised the possibility of reimposing sanctions, noting that these had been lifted “over the past decade based on progress toward democracy.”
“The United States will stand up for democracy wherever it is under attack,” he said.
One option for Biden will be to try to work with India and southeast Asian countries to deploy a unified message “about reinstating democracy and accepting the elections,” Hayton said.
The worry now is that a new period of instability will impact the country’s poorest hardest.
“Myanmar’s democratic transition had brought progress and hope, with opportunities to advance the wellbeing of the country as a whole,” said a statement by Sanna Johnson, regional vice president for Asia at the International Rescue Committee, a nongovernmental organization. “It is critical that this momentum is not lost.”