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Was Myanmar’s Coup Really a Win for Beijing?

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It’s complicated.
Protesters in Yangon have in recent days gathered near the imposing red doors of the Chinese embassy in the city, denouncing China for what they say is its support of this month’s military coup in Myanmar. Conspiracy theories have swirled about the arrival of Chinese technicians to help Myanmar’s new junta build its own “firewall” to control the internet. Rumors abound about what is being transported on nightly flights between Yangon and the southern Chinese city of Kunming. Online, amateur sleuths have pored over photos of the protests, looking for Chinese military insignia on uniforms and even fair-skinned soldiers among the armed forces that have been deployed to the streets. China, Myanmar’s largest neighbor, maintained cozy relations with the previous junta for decades, even as Western countries cut off contact and imposed withering economic sanctions, isolating the country and throwing unwavering support behind the opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. When Myanmar’s generals began cautiously opening up the country a decade ago, the move brought a rush of new foreign businesses, eager to move into a long-closed, underdeveloped market, as well as renewed diplomatic ties. China’s near monopoly on Myanmar appeared all but finished. Thus, the military’s return to power in the country, popular thinking seemed to go, would be welcomed by China, happy to see itself again as Myanmar’s staunchest ally in a drastically depleted pool of diplomatic friends. The United States has already imposed targeted sanctions in response to the coup, as have Canada and Britain. Myanmar is a pariah once more, and Beijing should be freer to pursue its agenda with a leadership that seems willing to cast aside the concerns and misgivings of its population, forcibly if needed. Business competition will again fade. The more isolated Myanmar becomes, the better for Chinese exploitation. Yet this narrative, although enticingly straightforward in a country where little is, is a dramatic oversimplification that ignores numerous factors: the coup’s destabilizing effects, including on major Chinese-backed projects; the Burmese military’s long-held wariness of China, including the junta leader’s personal distrust; and perhaps most important, the surprisingly friendly relationship that the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi’s party, had cultivated with Beijing. A sharp rise in anti-Chinese sentiment in the days since the military’s takeover has made quick work of years of confidence building between Suu Kyi, a once-vaunted prodemocracy icon, and her authoritarian neighbor. The undercurrents of Sinophobia held at bay as she touted China as an ally have come flooding back with her detention by the military. Southeast Asian countries are often painted with broad brushstrokes when it comes to their relationship with Beijing and Washington: that democracy in the region will always be considered dangerous and bad by China, and that earnest American officials will always flock when they see a country making decisions based on the will of the people. But this binary—that China “wins” under authoritarianism and “loses” under democracy—misses layers of complexities and nuance. The Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, who is wildly popular and democratically elected, has moved the country closer to Beijing, while Thailand’s junta-backed government remains a staunch U.S. ally. Geopolitically, “China is the biggest loser from this coup,” Enze Han, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong who studies China’s relationship with Myanmar, told me. “The PR that it has done to improve its image over the past five years working with the NLD has all gone to waste.” Last Tuesday, the Chinese ambassador to Myanmar appeared to back this position, saying “the current development in Myanmar is absolutely not what China wants to see,” though, as is common with Chinese diplomatic statements, he left room for interpretation. He also dismissed rumors that China had aided the military, saying he hoped people could “distinguish right from wrong and guard against political manipulation, so as to avoid undermining the friendship between the two peoples.” The accounts and experiences of Cheng Ruisheng, a former Chinese ambassador to Myanmar, illustrate the two countries’ complex ties.

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