China goes all in with support for Myanmar's military regime

More than a year after Myanmar’s military took power in a coup, the civil conflict in the country shows no signs of easing.

In fact, with opposition forces — ethnic armed militias with experience fighting the regime and more recently formed people’s militias composed of newly trained recruits — enjoying some success in encouraging military defections, targeting military units and utilizing urban guerilla tactics, the hostilities look likely to continue for a long time.

The Myanmar junta has been accused of a wide range of atrocities since the coup, and the death toll and prison count since Feb. 1, 2021, is mounting. According to Reuters, “at least 1,500 people are known to have been killed in yearlong protests against the coup in Myanmar, with thousands more possibly killed in the armed conflict, the United Nations human rights office said … (and) at least 11,787 people were unlawfully detained in Myanmar in that period.”

Yet the armed forces seem determined, even in the face of defections and some setbacks, to escalate the conflict. Veteran Myanmar journalist Bertil Lintner believes the army has committed itself to a strategy of “annihilating” opposition forces across the country. This strategy will likely involve massacres of civilians, the increasing use of artillery on villages and towns and other extreme tactics.

The military, Lintner writes, has no interest in any dialogue with opposition forces. It also has essentially avoided any real dialogue with ASEAN interlocutors who have visited the country this year seeking to meet with both military officials and opposition leaders.

In the early and middle part of 2021, the most powerful external actor in Myanmar, China, seemed in some ways uncomfortable with the junta’s brutal response to what began as nonviolent protests and eventually developed into armed resistance.

That is because the army’s reaction to the protests was creating major problems for Beijing as well. The brutal, often uncoordinated military response had led to state collapse in Myanmar: The economy contracted by nearly 20% in 2021, COVID-19 spread unchecked, state services vanished, Chinese investments were targeted by angry demonstrators and the overall business environment became extremely dangerous.

Myanmar’s descent into failed state status has also been sending refugees across borders into China, India, Bangladesh and Thailand, a situation Beijing — then as now committed to a “zero COVID” strategy — desperately wants to avoid.

As I noted in a prior Council on Foreign Relations article, China appointed a special envoy to Myanmar, Sun Guoxiang, who was, in theory, supposed to meet with both military officials and opponents. On several occasions in 2021, Sun reportedly attempted to secure a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy leader whose party had dominated national elections in late 2020 and would have formed a new government, except for the coup.

Sun was rebuffed, but the fact that he wanted to meet with Suu Kyi — and that China included the NLD in invitations to a meeting of political parties — was taken as a sign, by some optimists, that Beijing might be an effective mediator in the civil war. And China had, in the past, offered itself as a mediator in other conflicts within Myanmar.

That optimism was wrong. Instead, China has clearly decided to aggressively support the junta, seemingly deciding that the military has the best chance of eventually consolidating support for its rule, and thus protecting Beijing’s significant investments in the country and its strategic position in Myanmar. By resolutely backing the junta, China will also probably gain even greater access to natural resources in Myanmar and other types of investments in the country — if the armed forces actually wind up winning.

China has taken several steps to demonstrate that it has now fully sided with the coup government. It has provided aid for the junta regime and has unveiled plans to build more industrial parks in Myanmar. It has done so even as other former major infrastructure and industrial investors in the country, including Japan, are pulling out, and as many leading democracies have imposed a wide range of sanctions on Naypyitaw.

Indeed, Beijing has decided to continue moving forward with the China-Myanmar economic corridor, an ambitious Belt and Road initiative route that includes a sizable number of infrastructure projects within Myanmar. As reported in Foreign Policy, it also has launched a new LNG project in Myanmar. This is a project that not only could be a valuable new energy source for China but also provides a degree of legitimacy for the junta, showing that at least some key investors believe the military regime can deliver on major projects.

Some of this China-Myanmar economic corridor runs through what is now militarily contested and dangerous territory. However, the fact that China has announced it wants to move forward with the projects is a sign that Beijing backs the regime.

In addition, although it is difficult to prove that China is actually directly selling or giving new arms to the junta, since Chinese arms flow through third parties along the border, the U.N. human rights expert on Myanmar Thomas Andrews has reported that three countries are providing new weaponry to the regime’s forces.

“Russia and China (are) providing the junta with fighter jets being used against civilians,” Andrews recently noted in a report.

According to the report, Russia has also provided other weaponry to the Myanmar military, including armored vehicles and drones, although Russia may have less ability to do so now because it is using so much equipment in Ukraine.

Andrews has further claimed that the junta forces are using these new, foreign-provided weapons on civilian populations across the country. This would hardly be surprising, as the junta has attacked civilians throughout the conflict with seemingly little regard for civilian casualties and has had a history of doing so many times in the past.

When asked about the report, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Beijing “has always advocated that all parties and factions should proceed in the long-term interests of the country.”

Unfortunately, these words do not jibe with Beijing’s actions in Myanmar, which increasingly seem focused on helping the junta defeat the opposition and then taking advantage of the victory economically.

However, if the army fails and remains mired in a long-term civil war without an end in sight, Beijing may have bet on the wrong horse.