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Are formal interactions with China helping legitimise Myanmar’s junta in the eyes of the world?

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi (right) bumps elbows with junta representative Wunna Maung Lwin at a June 8 meeting marking the 30th anniversary of formal relations between China and Asean. Photo: Xinhua

Recent formal interactions between Myanmar’s junta and officials from China have raised questions about whether the generals who staged February’s coup are garnering international recognition as the Southeast Asian nation’s legitimate executive authority. 

More than 420 civil society organisations on Thursday condemned the actions taken by China since June 5 to acknowledge Senior General Min Aung Hlaing – the architect of the coup – and the military regime as the “leaders” of Myanmar. 

The National Unity Government (NUG), a shadow administration comprising allies of the ousted civilian government, has raised an outcry – but analysts say that while there are some valid concerns over Beijing’s actions, they should not be over-interpreted.

The NUG, which includes pro-democracy figures and lawmakers from the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) who are in hiding or in exile following the coup, has insisted that it should be recognised as Myanmar’s legitimate government. This has not been forthcoming from the international community, though Western countries have openly held talks with the group, and targeted economic sanctions and other efforts to downplay the junta’s legitimacy are under way. 

The most high-profile interaction between the Myanmar military and China took place during talks in Chongqing this week between Southeast Asian foreign ministers and their Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi. 

Over two days, the junta’s foreign affairs point person Wunna Maung Lwin attended a meeting involving the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) as well as separate talks with the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation group. The latter body, which involves China and the five Southeast Asian countries through which the Mekong River flows, is co-chaired by Beijing and Naypyidaw.

From left, foreign minsters Bui Thanh Son of Vietnam,; Saleumxay Kommasith of Laos; Myanmar junta foreign affairs representative Wunna Maung Lwin; China’s Wang Yi, Cambodia’s Prak Sokhonn and Thailand’s Don Pramudwinai at a meeting on June 8. Photo: Xinhua

Statements released by the Chinese foreign ministry quoted Wang Yi – who was present at both discussions – as saying that “China has supported, is supporting, and will support Myanmar in choosing a development path that suits its own circumstances”. 

The ministry said China backed Asean’s “five-point consensus” plan to de-escalate the situation in Myanmar following the February 1 coup. “We are willing to continue to work with Asean to jointly urge all parties in Myanmar to put the interests of the people first, and keep calm to eliminate all kinds of violence,” it said. 

Its statement on Wang Yi’s meeting with Wunna Maung Lwin referred to the latter as “Myanmar’s foreign minister” – which the NUG and other observers read as indicative of China’s acceptance of the junta’s legitimacy.

Since the coup, individual Asean nations such as Indonesia and Malaysia have referred to Min Aung Hlaing as the “commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s military”, which has been seen as an indication that they did not recognise his position as the head of government. 

Also parsed this week was an earlier post on Facebook and the website of the Chinese embassy in Myanmar about the first public meeting between Chinese ambassador Chen Hai and Min Aung Hlaing, in which the embassy referred to the junta chief as “the leader of Myanmar”. 

Last month, Chinese officials began dealing more openly with the military regime. On May 2, Beijing donated 500,000 doses of the Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine to the junta’s ministry of health and sports. Hao Kun, the deputy director of the foreign affairs office of Yunnan provincial government, on May 19 met Myanmar’s outgoing consul general Htun Aung Kyaw in Kunming to discuss bilateral exchanges and border economic cooperation zones. 

The NUG – whose key figures, including top leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, remain in military custody – on Monday night expressed its disappointment with the Chinese embassy’s statement referring to Min Aung Hlaing as the country’s leader. 

“The Chinese government should note the State Administrative Council formed by Min Aung Hlaing does not represent the people of Myanmar and that attempts to legitimise [it] would undermine relations between the ordinary people of the two countries,” wrote NUG foreign minister Zin Mar Aung in an open letter published on social media.

The NUG also took issue with Beijing for failing to hold consultations with it ahead of the Chongqing talks. 

Among analysts, views were split on the validity of the NUG’s concerns. While at face value the diplomatic interactions suggested China had no qualms with recognising the junta, some said Beijing was adopting a pragmatic approach suited to the fait accompli created by the military regime.

Jason Tower, the country director for the Myanmar programme of the United States Institute of Peace, said it looked like “China has gone from the ‘wait-and-see’ posture to what amounts to full recognition of the junta”. 

He noted that China had made some shifts in terms of its policy by mentioning the NLD in policy documents through mid-February until early March, while it dropped mentions of the NLD in early April and began discussing other approaches to resolving the crisis.

“Referring to Min Aung Hlaing as the leader of Myanmar ahead of the Asean meeting and referring to Wunna Maung Lwin as the foreign minister essentially gave them the recognition of a state, which was not something that the junta enjoyed in Jakarta [during the Asean meeting in April],” he said. 

But Fan Hongwei, director of the Center for Southeast Asia Studies at Xiamen University, said usage of the title should not be over-interpreted. 

“The use of ‘the leader of Myanmar’ is a change, but ‘leader’ is a broad term,” he said. “The government of China [is playing] down Min Aung Hlaing’s military background, but it did not address him as the supreme or the national leader.” 

A protester holds up a poster featuring Aung San Suu Kyi during a February demonstration against the military coup in Yangon. Photo: AFP

Fan pointed out that legitimisation of the junta had taken various forms, and it was “deliberate distortion” to say China had given full recognition to the Myanmar regime.

“Whatever they were addressed as, Min Aung Hlaing and his officials were invited to Asean meetings,” he said. “The Western countries which are upset by the political change and seek to isolate the junta still operate their embassies in Yangon without severing their diplomatic ties with Myanmar. All the Myanmar embassies overseas still work.” 

Han Enze, an associate professor of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong, said there was “an over-reading of the use of ‘the leader of Myanmar’”. “In China’s domestic politics, the term ‘leader’, or lingdaoren, can refer to a variety of officials. China did not refer to Min Aung Hlaing as the ‘supreme leader’ or zuigao lingdaoren.” 

Analysts say Asean’s next moves could play a significant role in whether the international community eventually accepts the legitimacy of Min Aung Hlaing’s authority.

Tower from the United States Institute of Peace noted that there were “high levels of division” within the bloc over the issue, and said some of its more influential countries were looking for creative ways for Asean to play a role in resolving the crisis.

“Asean countries that have stronger democratic norms and higher levels of people-to-people ties with Myanmar are going to prioritise efforts that support the people’s will,” he said. 

Tower said the Chinese side needed to consider the “high level of popular support” for the NUG, noting that Beijing had already been in the crosshairs of anti-coup protesters following its initial “wait-and-see” approach in the days after the coup. 

Fan from Xiamen University said ultimately the reality was that “public opinion in Myanmar is not the only consideration of foreign governments”. 

“As the NUG does not have the de facto control of the country, it will be difficult for any foreign government to recognise it,” he said.

The University of Hong Kong’s Han said because of its principle of non-interference in foreign nations’ domestic affairs, “China will not recognise the NUG as long as Asean does not”.

“Both China and Asean [back] Myanmar to solve the issues domestically,” he added.