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Implications of Wang Yi’s Myanmar visit

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In the first week of July, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar to attend the seventh Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. The meeting was focused on promoting the “Solidarity of Peace and Prosperity” among the member countries, which are Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

The ministers recommended a five-year cooperative plan that needs to be approved by the LMC leaders at their next meeting. The LMC joint statements call for enhanced cooperation in agriculture customs, disaster management, and exchanges among civilizations. 

Wang Yi’s visit was his first to Myanmar since the military coup on February 1, 2021. Coincidentally, last year, Wang was in Myanmar a couple of weeks before the Aung San Suu Kyi-led government was overthrown. In a similar coincidence, Suu Kyi was sent into solitary confinement about a week prior to Wang’s visit to Myanmar this year. 

Numerous reports also indicate that the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) has not been able to contain the spread of armed insurrections opposing the coup regime. In response, the Tatmadaw has scaled up its crackdown on dissidents, which was also evident in its announcement that it will execute an “88 Generation” leader and a former National League for Democracy legislator for their alleged involvement in the armed insurrection.

So Wang Yi’s visit came at a time when the Tatmadaw’s legitimacy was being increasingly contested in domestic politics and on international platforms. 

It is possible to argue that Wang was not in Myanmar for a bilateral meeting but was participating in a meeting pertaining to the regional cooperative framework. However, the fact that he attended the LMC meet was perceived by opposition groups in Myanmar as an attempt to bolster the legitimacy of the Tatmadaw.

Moreover, a Tatmadaw spokesman reportedly noted that the “gathering was a recognition of Myanmar’s sovereignty and its government.”

It is well known that since the coup, the Tatmadaw has not been welcome at ASEAN leaders’ meetings. However, the LMC Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, by engaging the Tatmadaw leadership, demonstrated a continental-maritime divide among Southeast Asian countries in their responses to developments in Myanmar.

Given the growing dependence of the Tatmadaw on China for support on international platforms, Beijing is working to deepen its economic presence in Myanmar. At this month’s LMC meeting, Wang Yi called for promoting the construction of railways connecting China to Laos and Thailand.

It is possible that in the coming months, Chinese leaders will intensify their efforts to persuade the Tatmadaw to facilitate the construction of the railway line from Kunming, China, to Kyaukpyu, Myanmar. Such a railway would dramatically enhance China’s access to the Indian Ocean.

To start with, the Tatmadaw and the Chinese authorities are reportedly negotiating the modalities for constructing the Muse-Mandalay Railway project. Railway connectivity to Mandalay also implies that Chinese goods will be able to reach Yangon Port much faster.   

For China, Myanmar is also an important platform for the internationalization of its currency, the renminbi among member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Last December, Myanmar and China agreed to settle their border trade in the renminbi.    

On the sidelines of the LMC meeting, Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin and Wang Yi agreed to “explore the ‘CMEC plus’ cooperation at a proper time.” Neither the timeline nor the components of expanding the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor have been articulated in full detail.

Interestingly, the discussions between the two ministers also dealt with the need to “guarantee the operation of China-Myanmar oil and gas pipelines.” There are concerns in Beijing about sporadic attacks on Chinese business interests in Myanmar. 

In February last year, there were reports that insurgent groups attacked China-Myanmar oil and gas pipelines, including an off-take station in Mandalay region. Subsequently, about 32 Chinese firms were reportedly vandalized by pro-democracy protesters. More recently, large-scale clashes were reported near the Letpadaung copper mine, which a Chinese company operates.  

In all likelihood, there may be concerns in Beijing as to whether the Tatmadaw will be able to protect Chinese business interests. Consequent to the attacks on the pipelines, China deployed additional troops closer to its border with Myanmar.

Further, China is reportedly deploying a large number of trained security guards to protect its business interests in Myanmar. According to reports published last year, “24 of the 49 foreign private security companies in Cambodia and Myanmar” were owned by Chinese nationals. This aligns with the growing preference of Chinese firms to hire Chinese private security providers in other regions such as Central Asia. 

Given the leverages that China has in Myanmar, it is unlikely that Beijing will slow down its economic activities despite growing political volatility there. China is an economic power with significant military prowess and a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. It also has a robust presence in Myanmar’s immediate neighborhood and in Southeast Asia’s economic landscape.

Therefore, from Beijing’s perspective, even if a non-military regime comes to power in Myanmar, it cannot disregard China’s core interests. Further, many armed ethnic groups in Myanmar also have substantive relations with China, which Beijing can use as leverage in its interactions with the Tatmadaw. 

There is a perception that Beijing has also been able to prevail on countries such as Cambodia to modulate the ASEAN response to developments in Myanmar. A few days before Wang Yi’s visit, Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, ASEAN’s special envoy to Myanmar, visited Naypyidaw and interacted with the Tatmadaw leadership and a few ethnic armed groups.

However, there is a disappointment that in his two visits to the country, the special envoy has neither interacted with Aung San Suu Kyi nor initiated formal consultations with the opposition National Unity Government (NUG).  

While China may be confident that it will protect its economic interests, it is uncertain how Beijing will respond in case of a mass uprising coupled with a complete collapse of state institutions as in Sri Lanka. Unlike in that country, there are numerous armed groups in Myanmar, and such a collapse could trigger an even more consequential humanitarian crisis than in Sri Lanka. 

Follow Sanjay Pulipaka on Twitter @psanjay_in.

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