Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Myanmar has been a democracy since 2011. But not anymore. A military coup took place on February 1st that ousted the lawfully elected National League for Democracy (NLD) and detained its leaders – including their leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Myanmar has therefore effectively returned to military dictatorship. And yet, the UN Security Council’s statement condemning the coup was vetoed by China. Why? Are China’s actions an implicit endorsement of the new regime?
The reason given for China’s veto was that the UN should avoid “escalating the tension or further complicating the situation”. China is well known for its policy of non-interference, and this statement naturally comes with the backdrop that China has often played a role in protecting despotic nations from international scrutiny and covering up criticism. If anything, the statement underlines the utter contradiction (and irony) of having an authoritarian regime such as China as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. So China’s reason is ultimately a hollow one given the UN’s purported aims have been to promote peace and international cooperation. Even if it is to issue a mere statement, it is still the UN’s natural prerogative that it should be involved.
In its refusal to criticise the coup, China’s ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has implicitly endorsed it. In probably what has been the most astounding euphemism of the year so far, Chinese state-sponsored media has described the coup as a ‘cabinet reshuffle’. This is not, however, to suggest that the CCP played a direct role in orchestrating the coup. As long as a nation buys into their ‘Belt and Road’ program, China probably does not care who the leaders are. Prior to the coup, the CCP even aided the NLD in shifting international attention away from the 2017 genocide of the Rohingya Muslim population. China’s reactions to the coup do not display Machiavellian scheming, rather a cynical business strategy to shift loyalties to safeguard their investments in Myanmar.
Given that sanctions are probably immanent for Myanmar, it appears the generals leading the coup nonetheless must have been confident that China would at the least tolerate and aid their re-vamped junta regime. If that is the case, they were right – even if it was a rather safe bet. And as one of the most brutally authoritarian regimes in the world, China has not much to lose with the leaders of a pro-democratic party behind bars again. The coup will push Myanmar back into the international isolation it had just emerged from ten years ago, and it is plausible China will use the coup as an opportunity to bring Myanmar closer under its economic influence in an attempt to monopolise its resources.
On a final note, one cannot look at what’s happening in Myanmar without also keeping an eye on Taiwan and Hong Kong. China has repeatedly been threatening Taiwan by firing fighter jets into Taiwanese airspace over Taiwan’s continued – and legitimate – desire for independence from the Chinese mainland, and Hong Kong is still in the midst of fending off authoritarian encroachments to their freedoms. China has not fully lost the ideological veal laid out in Mao’s Little Red Book, and it’s concurrent use of neoliberalist tactics means it will probably continue to support Myanmar’s new despotic government to ensure China’s growing economic and ideological dominance in Asia.