Beijing is likely to adopt a ‘carrot and stick’ approach to Myanmar. It would continue to engage the junta, yet at the same time work with ethnic armed groups opposed to it to protect Beijing’s investments in the country.
Beijing’s non-response to Myanmar’s invitation to the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) summit that the latter had been due to host in 2022 has widely been interpreted as a snub. In the end, Myanmar did not end up hosting the meeting, but the apparent snub has given rise to speculation as to whether it signals Beijing’s wavering trust in Naypyidaw’s leadership, and subsequently whether China’s support for the State Administration Council (SAC) will be more muted heading into 2023. China’s recent Myanmar engagement in the latter half of 2022 comes amid subtle yet noteworthy shifts in Beijing’s larger foreign policy considerations.
Recent rhetoric and personnel switches suggest China’s immediate term priorities will take precedence over its Myanmar engagement agenda. Key priorities include United States Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s February visit to China, as well as a potential passage of a ‘Taiwan Policy Act’ in Washington, which would seek to beef up the island’s military and deter aggression by China.
In a recent Washington Post op-ed, newly-appointed Foreign Minister Qin Gang (a former envoy to Washington) defined Sino-U.S. relations as pivotal to the future of the planet, emphasising how leveraging shared opportunities are keys to success. Qin’s tone reflects the same sentiment in Xi Jinping’s New Year Speech, which used a softer, more moderated tone. Qin Gang’s predecessor Wang Yi, now the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission Director, will likely attend the Munich Security Conference in Germany in February, as part of attempts to thaw relations with Europe. The reassignment of firebrand ‘wolf warrior’ Zhao Lijian from Foreign Ministry spokesperson to become the Deputy Director of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs also suggests a general muting of combative wolf warrior diplomacy that had become a hallmark for ambitious diplomats under Xi. These reshuffles are indicators of Beijing’s desire for moderation and its desire to break out of the isolation imposed by the West and tit-for-tat antagonisation. These represent narrow windows of stability within Sino-U.S. relations.
However, those said windows can close at any given time. To imagine an end to or even muting of the wolf warrior diplomatic engagement from Beijing would be unwise. China’s foreign policy apparatus remains very much rooted in Xi Jinping’s Major Country Diplomacy — the country’s official foreign policy doctrine — and continues to serve as an extension of boosting national ‘rejuvenation’. Xi’s foreign policy agenda ties into Mao’s famous wartime ‘da da, tan tan’ (fight fight, talk talk) strategy. Following this line of reasoning, wolf warriors have not been muzzled, but are baring their fangs in a more calculated manner. Chinese foreign policy has not been overhauled, nor does it signal its abandoning fundamental principles of foreign policy.
Given these considerations, Beijing’s Myanmar policy in 2023 may oscillate between engagement and calculated distancing. Beijing is aware of the heightened anti-mainland China sentiment among Myanmar citizens since the February 2021 coup, and the persistence of conflict in and around Chinese-led investment sites along the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. With several project sites already unpopular among local communities, Beijing’s last wish would be to see these sites targeted by the anti-regime movement. The potential displacement of people along the Myanmar-China border owing to military offensives is a source of concern for national and provincial authorities.
Recent rhetoric and personnel switches suggest China’s immediate term priorities will take precedence over its Myanmar engagement agenda.
Keeping the SAC at arm’s length thus ties into both Beijing’s immediate priorities. China had abstained from the UN Security Council Resolution on the situation in Myanmar, explaining that there had been, ‘no quick fix’ to Myanmar’s situation, and stressed ASEAN’s position of ‘unique advantage’ to deal with Myanmar. Beijing has further taken pains to highlight its compliance with ASEAN’s decision limiting the SAC’s attendance at ASEAN summits to a non-political representative level, and to emphasise ASEAN’s role in relation to Myanmar.
Where Beijing will be most vested in Myanmar is likely to be manifested through refocusing its role as a mediator between Naypyitaw and several ethnic armed organisations (EAOs). By doing so, Beijing seeks to protect strategic Chinese investments from becoming politicised targets by the EAOs. On the surface, no significant deviations in strategy are expected from Deng Xijun, China’s new special envoy to Myanmar. Yet the US’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) recognising engagement with EAOs may result in Beijing shoring up its EAO engagement. Rather than change tack, doubling down on its long practiced ‘carrot and stick’ approach — engaging the SAC, yet at the same time interacting with armed groups opposed to the junta — is the expected policy route for Beijing.
Mitigating conflict risks along key investment sites, along with balancing engagement with state and non-state actors will likely characterise Beijing’s Myanmar engagement for the immediate term. The NDAA alluding to China and Russia as shielding Myanmar from international sanctions will not go unnoticed. Beijing is further expected to tacitly endorse the SAC’s planned and much criticised elections in August 2023, in similar fashion to its endorsement of the 2010 polls. For the immediate term, China is bound to walk a pragmatic tight rope in its Myanmar engagement.
A.T. is a political analyst focusing on Myanmar-China relations.