Commentary: Is China using Myanmar coup to ramp up influence in Southeast Asia?

SINGAPORE: On Jan 16, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi concluded a go to to 4 ASEAN nations. One vacation spot was Myanmar, the upcoming nation coordinator of the ASEAN-China dialogue and now centre of worldwide consideration after the nation’s navy seized energy.

The Myanmar disaster is changing into more and more tragic, with the navy’s use of deadly drive now killing over 60 protestors.

China’s outreach efforts, coupled with an upcoming ASEAN-China nation coordinator seen as extra China-friendly, appear to put Beijing in a place to enhance its influence over ASEAN in 2021.

But such a view is untimely.

READ: Commentary: Defiance in Myanmar’s diplomatic ranks threatens the military’s power


Chinese diplomacy with Southeast Asia has ramped up in current months. In January 2020, earlier than the rising COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a state go to to Myanmar.

After a quick hiatus till August 2020, senior Chinese leaders have made visits to 9 ASEAN member states. Wang Yi’s tour in January 2021 was significantly vital for China’s push for financial cooperation and the export of its COVID-19 vaccines.

Senior Chinese leaders visited Myanmar thrice in 2020 and early 2021, probably the most for any ASEAN nation over this era.

Before the navy takeover, China was clearly keen to shore up relations with Myanmar’s civilian authorities because the Southeast Asian nation prepares to take over the ASEAN-China nation coordinator position from the Philippines this 12 months.

Myanmar China Factor

(Photo: AP)

Myanmar can be seen as a key node for China’s Belt and Road Initiative beneath the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, and is the present co-chair of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation mechanism.

Stable China-Myanmar relations, no matter who’s in energy in Naypyidaw, are thus a key objective for Beijing.

Having shielded the earlier Myanmar junta from Western criticism, China is adapting to the state of affairs in Myanmar by making good with the nation’s new navy authorities.

Chinese state media referred to as the coup a “Cabinet reshuffle”, and Beijing apparently blocked a United Nations Security Council assertion condemning the coup, favouring a watered-down model of the assertion.

READ: Commentary: ASEAN can do better on Myanmar this time


Beijing’s shielding of the brand new junta could lead on to some growth of its influence over ASEAN, however Myanmar’s position as ASEAN-China nation coordinator doesn’t give it the flexibility to totally direct the bloc’s relations with China.

If Naypyidaw tried to achieve this, opposition would emerge from different ASEAN nations, reminiscent of Vietnam and probably Indonesia and a post-Duterte Philippines, who can be supported by the longstanding ASEAN precept of consensus.

An analogous situation performed out in 2020, when the Chinese Ambassador to Manila voiced Beijing’s intention to conclude a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea whereas a China-friendly administration in the Philippines held the position of ASEAN-China nation coordinator.

In spite of this, the then-ASEAN Chairman Vietnam efficiently pushed for ASEAN to voice its considerations extra forcefully than earlier than.

Chinese navy ships, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning, during military drills in the South

Chinese navy ships, together with the plane service Liaoning, throughout navy drills in the South China Sea. (File photograph: AFP)

Myanmar’s navy shouldn’t be essentially an all-weather buddy of China. The navy, itself extremely nationalistic and isolationist, has beforehand accused its bigger neighbour of serving to ethnic insurgents in Myanmar’s border areas.

It was the earlier navy authorities that suspended the China-led Myitsone dam challenge in 2011 and cancelled the Kyaukpyu-Kunming rail line in 2014 in order to implement reforms to broaden and diversify Myanmar’s financial companions.

Cambodia’s reputational injury in 2012 over its scuttling of the joint communique of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting might also be a deterrent for Myanmar in opposition to being overtly pro-China.

READ: Commentary: With violent crackdowns, is Myanmar passing the point of no return?


But ASEAN centrality may nonetheless be undermined in the quick time period.

The responses from ASEAN nations present various positions, however the quick ASEAN Chairman’s Statement issued by Brunei Darussalam shortly after the navy takeover, or the Chair’s Statement on the Informal ASEAN Ministerial Meeting held on 2 March 2021, which talked about the Myanmar disaster however equally treaded evenly, regardless of the stronger expressions of concern issued by Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

The regional grouping is, in any case, one which prizes non-interference in the home affairs of its members, and an absence of solidarity on this challenge may give Beijing a gap to impose its pursuits.

READ: Commentary: Has Myanmar coup sparked rethinking on non-interference among ASEAN countries?

In what could be seen as an effort to rally ASEAN into taking motion, Indonesia, extensively thought of to be first amongst equals in ASEAN, has lobbied ASEAN member states for a particular summit.

Indonesia’s overseas minister, Retno Marsudi, met her counterparts in quite a few Southeast Asian capitals, with Bangkok the most recent vacation spot. Retno has additionally urged the junta to interact with ASEAN.

Not all Asian nations outdoors of ASEAN are on board with punitive measures in opposition to the brand new junta. Japan – a serious investor in Myanmar since 2010 – referred to as for the worldwide group not to shut Myanmar off.


Protesters maintain portraits of deposed Myanmar chief Aung San Suu Kyi throughout an anti-coup demonstration in Mandalay on Mar 5, 2021. (AP Photo)

India additionally issued an announcement that equally averted direct condemnation of Naypyidaw. Both nations have considerations that isolating Myanmar will solely drive it additional into China’s arms.


ASEAN would thus have regional backers for its quiet diplomacy with Myanmar, involving each engagement and the cautious use of strain, which arguably was profitable in pushing the earlier junta to undertake political reform.

Under such an atmosphere, Myanmar wouldn’t have to fully accede to China’s pursuits, even when condemnation and sanctions begin pouring in from the West.

READ: Commentary: Myanmar coup poses first foreign policy test for Biden on Southeast Asia

China’s continued efforts to increase its influence in Southeast Asia can be no cakewalk. The incoming ASEAN-China nation coordinator would possibly at first blush seem extra aligned with Beijing, however there isn’t any assure that Myanmar will accommodate Chinese calls for.

Even with the dangers to ASEAN centrality and unity, the grouping’s quiet diplomacy with Naypyidaw, coupled with assist from regional companions, are doubtless to stop a surge in Chinese regional influence.

Henrick Z Tsjeng is an Associate Research Fellow with the Regional Security Architecture Programme on the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. This commentary first appeared on East Asia Forum.


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