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Meeting may signal warmer relations between Myanmar and China

A recent meeting between the Myanmar junta’s foreign minister and his Chinese counterpart may signal China’s softening to the military rulers who came to power in a coup last year and an eagerness to revive its own economic initiatives in the war-torn country, analysts said.

Wunna Maung Lwin, foreign minister of the State Administration Council, as the junta regime is called, met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in eastern China’s Anhui province during the Myanmar diplomat’s March 31-April 2 visit.

Wunna Maung Lwin was appointed to his position after the Myanmar military seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi more than 13 months ago. He was barred by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) from attending a February meeting of regional organization’s foreign ministers in Cambodia.

Analysts said that Wunna Maung Lwin’s meeting with Wang Yi signals Myanmar’s desire for deeper economic ties to its ally China, as it struggles to repress widespread opposition to its rule that has left thousands dead. Beijing meanwhile wants to get its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in Myanmar moving forward.

Beijing now seems more willing to side with the junta, as it had done with previous military regimes in Myanmar, political analyst Sai Kyi Zin Soe said.

“China is consistently focused on the One Belt, One Road Initiative,” he said. “They may have something to do economically at present. They must also have many plans to invest in Myanmar, so they seem to be looking at what they can get out of it.”

Chinese investments in Myanmar under the BRI, a trillion-dollar infrastructure program, have been hampered by ethnic unrest, the COVID-19 pandemic and the post-coup turmoil. China especially wants its main infrastructure project in Myanmar — the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor — to be completed so that it has a direct route from Yunnan province to the Indian Ocean oil trade.

Wang Yi told Wunna Maung Lwin that China would support the junta’s efforts to safeguard independence and territorial integrity and find a path to development that suits Myanmar’s situation, according to a report by China’s official Xinhua news agency. He also said China was ready to deepen exchanges and cooperation in all fields.

Zin Mar Aung, foreign minister of Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG), said the Chinese government’s move to invite the junta’s foreign minister on an official visit raises questions about Beijing’s support for Myanmar citizens.

“It’s a very disappointing development,” she said. “It is questionable whether China has reversed its previous position when it said Beijing will stand by our people in the return of power to the people. Has it now taken a one-sided approach? Is Beijing standing on the other side against the Myanmar people?”

So far, China has been in contact only with the State Administration Council and has yet to formally engage with the NUG.

Sun Guoxiang, Beijing’s special envoy for Asian affairs met with Wunna Maung Lwin in Myanmar in August 2021. Afterwards, Sun said he would work with the international community to help bring about social stability and democratic change in the Southeast Asian country.

When the Chinese Communist Party held an online conference of political parties in Southeast Asia in September 2021, the National League for Democracy, Myanmar’s ruling party until it was overthrown by the military, was invited to attend, but could not participate in discussions.

‘Main thing is economics’

China-based Myanmar observer Hla Kyaw Zaw said the Chinese government gives priority to its economy.

“It is true that China had invited [Wunna Maung Lwin], but it was for its own interests,” she said. “China also wants democracy in Myanmar for stability, and it has said it will render all the help it can.”

“The main thing is economics,” she said. “In the past, there were matters agreed upon during the time of Aung San Suu Kyi. Parts of the Silk Road project undertaken by Myanmar seem to have stopped, and China wants them to resume.”

In a statement following the visit between Wunna Maung Lwin and Wang Yi, the junta’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called for the implementation of joint projects between the two countries, the opening of a Myanmar consulate in Chongqing in central China, and the addition of new border crossings between the two countries.

The ministry also said the two foreign ministers discussed the implementation of a Five-Point Consensus, an agreement between Myanmar’s military ruler and ASEAN countries at a meeting held after the coup.

Major General Zaw Min Tun, the junta’s spokesman, said the regime had no further comments on details of talks between the two foreign ministers.

“We already have issued a statement. I have nothing else to say,” he said.

Prashanth Parameswaran, a fellow with the Wilson Center’s Asia Program in Washington, said China believes that it is in its interest to increase its public support for the increasingly isolated Myanmar military regime.

“But this support will not be cost-free for Myanmar,” he said. “The key question is what China will ask for in return for increased support, and Wang Yi’s comments suggest what this could entail, whether it be advances on infrastructure projects or diplomatic support for other issues.”

Jason Tower, the country director for Myanmar U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington, said that China is betting that the Myanmar military will not relinquish power.

“The problem, though, is that the junta has no possible pathway towards achieving stability in the country,” he told RFA. “Over the longer term this means that China will be placing its economic plans for Myanmar far out of reach by continuing to support the junta in this way.”

The potential consequences of China’s backing of the junta could have negative consequences throughout the region, Tower said.

“If Beijing moves forward with this level of support for a genocidal military with no popular legitimacy, it risks undermining any hopes of maintaining a strong friendship with the Myanmar people,” he said.

“This could produce a regional crisis of tragic proportions as revolutionary actors will double down, and as the junta will fall back on the only tool it has available to sustain itself, which is brutal violence,” he said.

Translated by Khin Maung Nyane for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.