Trade and diplomatic ties between Myanmar and China are normalising in the face of intense domestic opposition and international condemnation of the military junta that seized power in February.
Beijing has strengthened relations with Myanmar’s military leaders despite a series of violent attacks against Chinese business interests in the country after Aung San Suu Kyi’s government was toppled.
Yun Sun, an expert on Myanmar-China relations with the Stimson Center, a US think-tank, said Beijing had already made a “fundamental assessment” that Myanmar was moving into another prolonged period of military rule.
“I think the Chinese can see that this military coup is successful and is here to stay,” she added.
The resumption of state-level engagements and economic activity signals that Myanmar is reverting to its traditional economic reliance on China. The country has used its larger neighbour as a buffer against international sanctions and divestment by foreign investors, who have announced plans to quit the country or shelved projects.
Since the coup, 875 people have been killed by the junta and 6,242 arrested, according to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (Burma), a human rights group. The country’s economy and public services were severely disrupted by mass protests in the three months that followed the putsch, and have only partially recovered.
The resumption of bilateral trade will fuel the widespread suspicion among anti-coup resistance groups that China was prepared to support the new military regime.
The cumulative value of China’s imports from Myanmar for the first five months of the year was $3.38bn, up from $2.43bn in 2020 and $2.56bn in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic, according to official Chinese customs data.
Exports to Myanmar for the same period have not recovered to the same extent, however. By the end of May, goods valued at $4.28bn had been shipped to Myanmar, compared with $4.56bn and $4.79bn in the two previous years.
In a further sign of strengthening diplomatic relations, Chen Hai, China’s ambassador to Myanmar, met coup leader and military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw, the capital, in June. In a subsequent statement, Chen referred to Min Aung Hlaing as the leader of Myanmar.
China was among the countries that abstained in a UN general assembly vote last week calling on the international community to halt the flow of arms to Myanmar and release Aung San Suu Kyi and other political detainees.
Beijing had good relations with the government of the deposed leader, who is in detention facing multiple criminal charges. However, it has refrained from criticising the military, fanning anger among the mass protest movement that sprang up after the coup.
Beyond being Myanmar’s biggest trading partner, China also has strategic infrastructure investments in the country, including energy pipelines that give Beijing a critical link to the Indian Ocean.
James Char, a Myanmar expert at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said many people in Myanmar still blamed the Chinese government and business interests for complicity in supporting the military’s decades of rule before the transition to democracy.
“The Chinese, themselves, are very clear about [public sentiment in Myanmar],” Char said.
Attacks on China-linked businesses in the wake of the coup culminated in an explosion at a Chinese-backed textile factory west of Yangon on June 11, according to reports from local Myanmar media, as well as junta-controlled information services and Chinese state media.
Beijing’s wariness of inflaming Myanmar protesters would probably slow Chinese direct investments and the resumption of planned larger-scale developments that formed part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, analysts said.
Additional reporting by Sherry Fei Ju in Beijing