ALMOST AS SOON as the tanks rolled into Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, in February, rumours began circulating on social media about how China would respond. It is a sign of its influence: China is probably the only country that could coax Myanmar’s generals to the negotiating table. The speculation was laid to rest only in June, when the Chinese embassy referred to Min Aung Hlaing, the Burmese commander-in-chief, as Myanmar’s “leader”. The next day, China convened a meeting of foreign ministers from ASEAN, a club of South-East Asian nations, and included the military government’s representative. With their putsch, the generals are trying to wind the clock back to 2010, when they still ran the show. China appears to be adjusting its calendar.
China’s leadership and Myanmar’s top brass possess similar authoritarian instincts, but it was not inevitable that they would arrive at an understanding. The “Sinophobic” army has long been suspicious of China, says Yun Sun of the Stimson Centre, a think-tank in Washington. During the decades of military rule, when Western sanctions choked the Burmese economy, the regime survived because of Chinese trade and investment. But the junta was wary of depending too heavily on its northern neighbour. Intent on improving relations with the West, it liberalised the economy and put Myanmar on a path to democracy