Within hours of the coup in Myanmar, Washington and its allies condemned them and radiated “concern”.
Beijing carefully “noted”.
The military takeover on Monday not only carries the risk of democratic relapse for the 55 million people in Myanmar. The reaction of the two rivals underscores the completely different approaches Washington and Beijing are taking to a crisis in the region.
China hoped that all parties would “handle their differences properly” and “maintain political and social stability,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a press conference. China’s state news agency Xinhua called the coup “a major cabinet reshuffle”.
Meanwhile, the United States, along with the United Nations and the European Union, condemned the coup in which de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders were arrested.
Beijing’s response is not surprising given its longstanding official policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries. With its 1,300-mile limit and the large shared oil and gas pipelines, China has a lot more skin in Myanmar than its American and European counterparts, experts say.
“Those who emerge strongest from this power struggle will want to work with them,” said Bill Hayton, associate fellow at Chatham House, a London think tank. “They don’t want to show their hand and have as much flexibility as possible. And yet they want to sound positive, like they have a role.”
Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Suu Kyi signed dozens of contracts under which Beijing will build a number of infrastructure projects, including railways and deep-sea ports, which will further tie Myanmar into its sphere of influence under the One Belt One Road. Network.
According to Stephen A. Orlins, president of the National Committee on Relations with the United States and China, an influential New York-based nonprofit advocating better understanding between the two world powers, “China” is “worried about instability.” in Myanmar, which passes to China “.
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That is not to say that the relationship between Myanmar and China has always been simple or straightforward.
While Suu Kyi has tried to forge ties with Xi, Myanmar’s military has been “most cautious about China” because Beijing claims it is funding and arming ethnic militias in northern Myanmar, historian Thant Myint-U said on twitter. During his visit earlier this month, Xi denied that China ever armed or supported these groups, local media reported.
Even so, these deepened relationships contrast with Myanmar’s fluctuating and deteriorating relationship with the US and its allies in recent years.
For decades, Myanmar was ruled by a military junta that relied heavily on China for foreign aid.
A quasi-democratic system was put in place in the 2010 elections, giving way to investment and the lifting of some sanctions by the West. However, further sanctions were imposed in 2017 after hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh.
Former international icon Suu Kyi, a Nobel Prize winner, has tarnished her reputation after defending her country in the ensuing genocide case at the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands.
During this freeze and thaw, Myanmar has rarely been the most urgent US company in the region, sandwiched between regional giants India and China. This was all the more the case under former President Donald Trump, whose almost unique focus in this part of the world was China.
This week’s events have put Myanmar back in the international spotlight.
The military takeover came after the November elections, in which Suu Kyi’s party made large profits but were rejected as fraudulent by the army.
“The reality is that this is a made up excuse,” said Phil Robertson, assistant director, Asia Division, Human Rights Watch. “It’s just that the military is concerned that they can no longer control the situation in Myanmar.”
The day before the legislators elected in that vote were due to take their seats, the military arrested political leaders, restricted internet access and blocked roads and airports.
The crisis put President Joe Biden in front of one of his first foreign policy negotiating obstacles. Observers – not least in Beijing – will be curious to see how he reacts.
In a written statement on Monday, he pointed to the possibility of reimposing sanctions, noting that they had been lifted “over the past decade due to progress made towards democracy”.
“The United States will advocate democracy wherever it is attacked,” he said.
One option for Biden will be to work with India and Southeast Asian countries to deliver a unified message, “on restoring democracy and passing the elections,” Hayton said.
The concern now is that a new phase of instability will hit the country’s poorest hardest.
“Myanmar’s democratic transition had brought progress, hope, and opportunities to advance the well-being of the entire country,” said Sanna Johnson, regional vice president for Asia at the International Rescue Committee, a non-governmental organization. “It is important that this momentum is not lost.”
Kyle Eppler, Eric Baculinao and Janis Mackey Frayer contributed.