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Q&A: Power Grab by Myanmar Military Changes China Relations

Soldiers stand guard on a blockaded road to Myanmar's parliament in Naypyidaw, Feb. 1, 2021, after the military detained the country's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the country's president in a coup.
Soldiers stand guard on a blockaded road to Myanmar's parliament in Naypyidaw, Feb. 1, 2021, after the military detained the country's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the country's president in a coup.

For insight into how China's relationship with Myanmar may change after the military seized power Monday, VOA Mandarin reporter Adrianna Zhang spoke with Yun Sun, a senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia program and director of the China program at the Stimson Center. Here is their conversation, edited for clarity and concision.

VOA: How did we get to the situation we are in today?

Yun Sun: Well, I always argue that one of the central problems for Myanmar is the unsettled relationship between the civilian government and the Burmese military. That conflict has never disappeared, even with the democratic process over the past 10 years. We know that the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) won 83%, a landslide victory in the election, and to the military's great disappointment, the USDP — the Union Solidarity and Development Party that has military support — only won a couple of seats, so they did not do very well in the election.

I think the military has raised the issue of electoral fraud and the voting fraud as a tactic or a strategy to challenge the election results. So, I think what we are seeing is that the military had such a loss, expressed their grievances and demanded political concessions from the NLD government. And now, the government refused to accommodate or refused to be co-opted or to be coerced. And we know that over the weekend on Saturday and Sunday, negotiations between the military and the NLD did happen. And they were not able to achieve a consensus as to what kind of compromise either side is willing to accept. So, that's what has caused the military coup as we know it.

Do you think this is a coup?

YS: All the signs and all the evidence that we have seen so far points to the fact that this is a coup.

So, it's not just the military seizing power in accordance with the constitution?

YS: The question that you're asking is that if the military was acting according to the constitution, then it's not a coup. I think that's highly debatable. For example, the constitution says only the president has the power to announce the state of emergency in the country. In this case, I would say that the military did appoint the vice president, who is from the military, to be the interim president and then announced the state of emergency, which is not, strictly speaking, constitutional.

What do you make of China's response, and what risks does the military seizing power pose to Beijing's interests?

YS: I think the Chinese reaction is just as expected. We know that China does not take a position on the internal affairs of another country, so nobody should expect China to step in, to condemn the military or to express its support of the NLD government. And based on what we saw out of the statements from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, China wants the related parties to solve their differences properly, according to the constitution and within the legal framework, while maintaining peace and stability in the country. So, that is very classic or very typical of the Chinese position in the case of the internal turmoil of another sovereign country.

Is it going to have an impact on Chinese national interests?

YS: I think it does. Remember, State Counselor Wang Yi was just visiting Myanmar about three weeks ago. And during his visit, he expressed strong support for the NLD government and expressed a strong commitment that China wants to work with the NLD government during their second term.

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For a lot of the issues, especially the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor that China wants to pursue, I think the prospect has become much more uncertain as compared to a month ago.

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I think overall, this coup or this political turmoil in Myanmar has dampened or has mitigated Myanmar's appeal as a destination for Chinese investments and as a destination for Chinese economic activities.

In addition, the internal political instability in Myanmar also creates political baggage for China, because we know that China is not going to take a position against the military. Potentially China will have to cover or provide the protection for the military internationally. So, that's going to be a major political and diplomatic liability for China when China tries to tamp down, for example, U.N. Security Council discussions or U.N. statements on the internal affairs in Myanmar. So, I can see this not being good news for China on many different levels.

How will the Myanmar coup challenge U.S. President Joe Biden's Asia strategy?

YS: I think the most fundamental challenge is that Biden will have to have a response, and that response needs to be an effective one. But given how determined the Burmese military is in pursuing this coup, I doubt that anything will significantly change the Burmese military's calculation, because they were determined to start the coup. They started the coup, and they apparently have anticipated the impact and the reaction from the international community, but they still went ahead.

What can the United States do to force the Burmese military to reverse their action is going to be an important question but also a difficult question.

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And on a different level, if we're looking at Biden's presidency and Biden's priorities, I would say that before the coup, Myanmar is not a priority. It is not even in the top 10 priorities of Biden's foreign policy. Maybe in Asia, potentially, but Asia also has a lot of other glaring issues that demand Biden's attention.

For this coup to happen at this time, within two weeks of inauguration, it really poses a huge question to the Biden Asia team. And remember — there's also the Congress, (which) is not going to tolerate a coup in Myanmar after 10 years of the democratization process.

What we're likely to see is that there will be mounting pressure from the Congress for the Biden administration to take decisive but also harsh measures to punish the Burmese military for their actions. But there's also the counterargument that if you reimpose all the sanctions that can be imposed, then the military government will have nothing more to lose. Then you will lose the leverage to force them to check their calculations. So, these are really hard questions, because the issue of sanctions on Myanmar have been debated for decades, and I don't think there are going to be easy and quick answers to this question.

Do you think the U.S. will impose more sanctions and target military leaders as it did in response to the Rohingya crisis?

YS: The Rohingya-related sanctions were targeted at the Burmese military, but now if the military has already taken over the country, do you sanction the whole country?

We know the Burmese are probably exporting, for example, agricultural products or gems. Now we know that the military is in charge, and the revenue will be going to the military government. Do we still allow that trade to happen? And another industry that has been developing in Myanmar in the past 10 years is the textile and garment industry. And that hires a lot of people. But now we know that the military is in charge, and the military will be harvesting revenue and profits from those industries. Do we still accept Burmese garments and textiles coming to the American market? So, this goes into the morality question of sanctions. Are we punishing the government, or are we punishing the people at the same time, as well? And which one is more important?

What is likely to happen next?

YS: While the situation is still evolving, I think the U.S. will react with punitive measures. I think there should be an escalation ladder so that the U.S. should not start with the most important and most significant sanctions or the biggest card that the U.S. has. People are still watching to see whether there are diplomatic moves or room for diplomacy, or for there to be a negotiated result.

Maybe there's not. The window is closing, and the space is extremely limited. But I think that's still worth looking into. So, I would say that if the U.S. is going to respond, it needs to be calculated, and there needs to be an escalation ladder instead of just throwing all the cards into sanctions to begin with.