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Myanmar crisis requires Beijing to lead – and work with Washington

OPINION-3
A wounded civilian fleeing the violence in Myanmar is carried on a stretcher to receive medical treatment across the Thai border. Photo: Reuters

The situation in Myanmar took a drastic turn for the worse when more than 100 protesters were killed by security forces on Saturday, the deadliest day since the February 1 coup. The junta’s ruthless crackdown on mass anti-coup demonstrators has killed more than 500 people since the takeover, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Thousands have fled to seek refuge in neighbouring Thailand after the military regime launched weekend air strikes on ethnic minority forces near the border.

The crisis calls for collective intervention, and real leadership. The United Nations Security Council is to meet on Wednesday; its previous meetings have condemned the violence and called for the release of ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but stopped short of imposing sanctions or even labelling it a coup, largely because of China’s objection.

Now is the time for the world’s two mightiest countries to show resolve. China and the United States should demonstrate that despite their differences, they are capable of jointly getting things done, such as reining in the junta’s brutal insanity and halting a humanitarian catastrophe. Admittedly, given hostile US-China relations, it is hard to feel hopeful.

Sanctions by the US, the European Union, Britain and Canada over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang have put China in a tight corner, and Beijing’s inking of a 25-year economic and security agreement with Washington’s arch-enemy Tehran is a show of defiance.

But in Myanmar, it is not only possible but necessary for Beijing to step in, not necessarily publicly, and help Washington send a warning to the junta. Not doing so could damage Beijing’s interests in the strategically located Myanmar, China’s dwindling international image and relations with its neighbours.

Not surprisingly, China does not see eye to eye with the US on Myanmar. Beijing is probably less worried about the reversal of Myanmar’s democratisation than most Western nations. Although Beijing may not approve of the military takeover, it has argued for years against democracy.

Prolonged chaos is unlikely to be in Beijing’s interests. China has been targeted by protesters for giving a lifeline to Myanmar’s military since the 1980s. According to the Chinese embassy in Myanmar, 

several Chinese workers were injured when over three dozen Chinese-funded factories were set ablaze in Yangon two weeks ago.

Myanmar is vital to China’s efforts to secure access to the Indian Ocean, to lessen its dependence for oil imports on the potential chokehold of the Malacca Strait. Its significance is underlined by Myanmar being the only country President Xi Jinping, his top foreign policy aide Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi have all visited in the past year.

Rumours have been rife about China’s possible involvement in the coup, citing Wang’s meeting with junta leaders during his January visit. China has been Myanmar’s leading trading partner and one of its top investors for the past decade, and according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute it supplied half of Myanmar’s military imports between 2014 and 2019.

Those trips underlined, however, that Beijing’s ties with the military regime are not trouble-free. According to Yun Sun, of the Stimson Centre in Washington, Beijing was more comfortable dealing with Suu Kyi than its junta allies, who have over the years pitted China against Western powers.

It was also former military leader Thein Sein who snubbed Beijing in 2011 by halting China’s massive Myitsone dam project in Myanmar, citing rampant anti-Chinese sentiment – a turning point in Beijing’s ties with the junta. And the ousting of Suu Kyi could be read as a sign of the military’s dissatisfaction with Beijing’s closeness to the civilian government.

With Myanmar’s military rulers poised to gain from US-China rivalry and their division over whether to take meaningful action, it is in Beijing’s long-term interests to bring the junta into line. China should live up to its status as a regional leader in the face of unfolding horror that also presents a rare opportunity for it and the US to cooperate.