China's Myanmar Gambit

China's Myanmar Gambit: Seeking greater influence in the region


19 | 04 | 2023


The Military Junta has opened the country to an increasing Chinese influence, through national debt and BRI routes, becoming a tool for Beijing to impact ASEAN's moves

En la imagen

Protesters against the 2021 coup, supporting their civil leader Aung San Suu Kyi [

1 February 2021 was just another day for the PE teacher Khing Hnin Wai who was shooting her regular work out video overlooking the road leading to Myanmar's parliament. Little did she know that her camera was accidentally capturing a military coup as it was underway. The world watched in horror as Myanmar fell into the grips of yet another military coup.

With the coup in February, General Min Aung Hlaing removed the democratically elected President Aung San Suu Kyi from power and held her under arrest. The junta has faced widespread condemnation and criticism from the ASEAN and other major global actors. But China has sensed an opportunity in the junta that would allow it to increase its influence in the region, especially in the ASEAN. This analysis seeks to examine the extent and the reasons for the Chinese involvement in Myanmar.

For a comprehensive analysis of the Chinese involvement in Myanmar, the essay will study the current Chinese activities in Myanmar by dividing it according to the type of objectives they seek. Firstly, economic objectives will be addressed, discussing the importance of Myanmar’s national economy, resources, and geographical position for the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Secondly, the Chinese political goals in the nation and region, as well as their impact on ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific, will be examined. Lastly, we will conduct an extensive exploration of what the Chinese agenda in Myanmar represents for the Indo-Pacific.


Myanmar (former Burma) gained independence from the British Empire in 1948, and ever since, the state has faced difficulties in creating a stable political environment. Throughout its history, Myanmar has undergone multiple coups, revolutions, and uprisings. The civilian government placed the state of Myanmar under the caretaking of the military in 1958. But this caretaking role changed in 1962, when Maung Shu Mang Ne Win (Ne Win), a prominent Burmese military man and socialist politician, led a coup d’état that was to significantly shape Myanmar’s future.

During the Ne Win era, which lasted from 1962 to 1988, the military ruled-Burmese government maintained a close relationship with the Communist Party of China. During this period, Burma introduced socialist policies imitating Mao’s agrarian reforms, such as the approval of the Enterprise Nationalization Law, and even tried to replicate China’s Cultural Revolution.

A brief interlude in the military rule came in 1990 when elections were to be held in the state. A strong opposition was provided by Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won the election in 1990. Aung San Suu Kyi led an important uprising called 8888 in 1988. She was soon put under house arrest in 1989 by the military. Her imprisonment lasted until 1995. The civilian government's victory in the election was short-lived, as the military conducted another coup overthrowing her government and consolidating the military's position in power.

The years following the General Election saw an end to multiple local conflicts. In 1994, the Kachin Independence Army signed a cease-fire with the military government, followed by the disbandment of the Möng Tai Army in 1996. It seemed that Myanmar finally was on the path to peace and stability. Moreover, in 1997, Burma was officially admitted into the ASEAN and a complete national reconfiguration of the military government purged corrupt officials. Yet, the country was not fully open to democracy. Prominent leaders of the Army of Myanmar—self-proclaimed Tatmadaw, or Royal [Glorious] Armed Forces in Burmese—such as Than Shwe, Maung Aye, and Khin Nyunt remained in charge, which discarded a possible end to the military government in the country.

In September 2000, Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest after attempting to leave the city of Rangoon. She would remain imprisoned for 19 months, and after a brief period of liberty, would be put into house arrest yet again because of her detention during the 2003 Depayin Massacre in which a government-supported mob attacked an NLD caravan in the city of Depayin. Suu Kyi was present during the altercations and was arrested by members of the military. This period would represent the longest imprisonment she has gone through, she would not be freed until 2010.

In 2007, a steep increase in the price of fuel and basic commodities prompted nationwide discontent and protests. Moreover, in the city of Pakkoku, Bhuddist monks were beaten by government authorities during the same protests. In return, All Burma Monks Alliance demanded apologies as well as reduction of price hikes from the junta, which disregarded all accusations. Consequently, monk demonstrations began in Myanmar’s biggest cities and the government began a national crackdown, known as the Saffron Revolution.

Adding to this, in 2008 a local food crisis and a cyclone devastated the country, leaving over 140,000 people dead or missing. International criticism over the slow response to the crisis, as well as the dire political situation, forced the military government to prepare for another general election to be held in 2010 in the hopes that it would stabilize the country. First, a referendum was held in 2008 in regard to the validity of the constitution, which paved the way to the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from her home arrest two years later.

During the election process, the NLD did not participate, giving space to Thein Sein—a prominent member of the military junta—to run for the presidency. After renouncing his SDPC (State Development and Peace Council, the official name of the Military government) membership, he won the elections with his own party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). During Sein's government, gradual reforms allowed the liberation of multiple political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, whose party presented for the by-elections of 2012. The NLD was victorious, and Suu Kyi became a member of the parliament.

In 2015, general elections were held for the second time since the 2008 constitutional reform. This time, the NLD participated and won by a landslide victory, in which Htin Kyaw, a close associate of Suu Kyi was elected president. NLD kept its position in power in the 2020 general election, in which Suu Kyi became the second civilian president in the history of Myanmar. 

After the 2021 coup, the civilian government collapsed and up to this day, civil war continues between different national liberation movements and Aung Hlaing’s military government, often with material and economic support from different international actors.

En la imagen

Xi Jinping's visit to Nay Pyi Taw in 2020, with Myanmar's President U Win Myint

Chinese Non-Intervention Policy

China's Non-Intervention policy has made it virtually impossible for the nation to play an active role in Myanmar’s ongoing conflict. Yet because of China's increasingly influential role in Southeast Asia, policymakers are looking for new alternatives. The Belt and Road initiative has put special emphasis on Chinese economic interests abroad which often interlink with its geopolitical aims. To defend its economic and political objectives, China now maintains that its Non-Intervention policy allows the state to act as a mediator in internal conflicts. This way, China is currently able to justify its intervention—normally called “consultative intervention” by Chinese officials—in different states, which is accepted by such host states after a previous offering from China. Such an approach serves a double purpose since it openly challenges western initiatives such as R2P.  

Both politically and economically, China is supporting Aung Hlaing’s government through different means since the military coup is perceived as a potential to advance its national interests. On one hand, by assisting with investments and technology to the current military government, China is pushing Myanmar into debt, which would facilitate the control of the nation's resources and establish a foothold to exploit Myanmar's strategic location in the region. On the other hand, by tightening relations with Myanmar, China would have a close partner that could intervene as a political mediator in ASEAN. Moreover, the Southeast Asian nation's political support to Xi Jinping would potentially give China an unprecedented advantage in the current geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific with India, the United States, Japan, and South Korea. 

Currently, Chinese efforts focus on attacking these imperative necessities. During Myanmar's Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin's visit to the Chinese province of Anhui in 2022, the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi declared that it would support Myanmar, no matter how the situation changes. Evidence of such a statement is present in the Chinese delegation to the United Nations' abstention while voting for resolution 2669 of the United Nations Security Council calling for the cessation of violence in Myanmar, in which India and Russia also abstained.

Furthermore, China is providing support to Myanmar not because of an idealistic of domestic politics, China has taken a rather pragmatic stance in Myanmar, demonstrating that the Chinese Communist Party has evolved dramatically since the days of Deng Xiaoping. More than simply a bilateral relationship, China considers Myanmar as its door to a much more effective influence in ASEAN. As China reopens after the long-lasting Covid lockdowns, Xi's government is keen on approaching Southeast Asia in order to dissuade an excessive involvement of India, the United States, and middle powers in the region.

For ASEAN, the great majority of its member states have openly supported the democratic government since the coup outed the NLD in 2021. Still, different perspectives on the coup have grown as a response to multiple failed attempts to resolve the conflict in a peaceful manner and a call for democratic elections. ASEAN now has to ponder between reintegrating Myanmar into its assemblies or keep condemning the current government. On the other hand, India has remained distant from the conflict, acting only where its vital interests arise.

Myanmar, the portal to ASEAN

Southeast Asia represents the starting point where the Belt and Road Initiative infrastructural developments take hold. Moreover, Myanmar belongs to the pre-established route for the Maritime Belt and Road and is a key piece for the control of the Chinese oil and mineral trade routes in the Indian Ocean. Apart from access to the ocean, the coast of Myanmar could effectively connect China with Sri Lanka. The South Asian Island-country already has a history of economic trade with China, but their economic relations go beyond trade. Chinese vaccine policy and its debt trap diplomacy have effectively allowed the control of the deep-water port of Hambantota and Sri Lanka is sunk into massive debt ($7.4 Billion USD or 20% of the national GDP in 2022).

Chinese policymakers are using these same methods and strategies in Myanmar. From 2011 to 2019, Chinese investments in the country poured into building the Yangon port on the western coast of the Martaban gulf. To this day, this port represents the biggest trade route of Myanmar (approximately 90% of total national imports and exports pass through this port). With the economic surplus retained mainly by Chinese traders, it seems that Chinese policies in Myanmar imitate the Sri Lankan model. Although the expansion of Port Yangon represents an important part of China-Burmese financial relations, it is not the only project in which Chinese lenders are involved.

The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) is another keystone that supports the structural development of the Maritime BRI in the region. CMEC further represents the advancement of Chinese geopolitical interests in the region. Since its construction in 2019, it facilitates the transportation of oil from the Indian Ocean. Moreover, it consolidates China’s sphere of influence in Southeast Asia. In addition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the CMEC further isolates India from the oil trade in the Indian Ocean.

Along with the industrial and energy investment in Myanmar, China has also facilitated technology that helps consolidate the territorial control of the military junta. For example, the purchase of facial recognition technology to deter urban attacks from the opposition, mainly carried out by the PDF or People's Defense Forces (the armed wing of the exiled democratic government created as a response to the 2021 coup). Per Reuters, such electronic devices were provided by Huawei Technologies, Zhejiang Dahua Technology, and Hikvision. The provision of such cameras and software clearly shows the position that China is taking in the conflict. Ultimately the CCP expects to bring Myanmar closer to its sphere of influence, thus advancing Chinese economic and political interests in ASEAN.

As of 2023, Myanmar's seat iin ASEAN summits remains empty. Since the 2021 coup, the junta's leaders were banned from attending in representation of Myanmar. Yet, during the 2022 summits held iin Phnom Penh, there was widespread debate over acknowledging the military government. On one side, Singapore has stated that ASEAN must maintain its position recognizing the exiled NLD as the legitimate government of Myanmar. On the contrary position, Indonesia has suggested that the military junta must take part in ASEAN’s dialogues, while the Cambodian prime minister and ASEAN's ex-Secretary General expressed that the military junta of Myanmar is legitimate according to the Burmese constitution. Lastly, Brunei has recognized the de facto government of Myanmar by distinguishing General Min Aung Hlaing as the nation's leader.

India's position with Myanmar's military junta has taken a more cautious approach. While condemning the violence, India has kept its borders closed to Rohingya refugees. Modi's government also assisted the 2021 Tatmadaw day military parade that was held two months after the coup. Moreover, India has consistently sold weapons to the military junta, possibly in an effort to weaken insurgent groups operating along the Myanmar-India border, such as the ethnic Chin insurgents fighting in Myanmar, which use the Indian state of Mizoram as a logistical base. Ultimately, India seeks to respond to China's growing influence in Myanmar by being an alternative source of financing and military aid.

ASEAN, the door to the Indo-Pacific

Chinese interests in Myanmar go beyond the economic control of ASEAN. Thanks to the current geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific, Southeast Asia has gained even more relevance in the theatre of the South China Sea (SCS). The influence that China could potentially acquire in ASEAN through Myanmar can be projected into the SCS if its presence in ASEAN is consolidated. Moreover, China would gain an advantageous position that would facilitate the control of vital international trade routes. Logically, members of the QUAD alliance and other regional powers are concerned about this outcome.

Evidently, China has long departed from the Cold War's strategy of using proxy states as a political weapon in an international context. It seems that the Chinese Communist Party is using Myanmar as a dividing force in ASEAN, which is working to push its own interests in the region. Without a unitary ASEAN, control of the Indo-Pacific and South China Sea is facilitated because of its geographic closeness to China, while other western initiatives such as QUAD or AUKUS lose their influence. Logically, by dividing the ASEAN, China would be able to intervene more easily into their economic integration and promote its own geoeconomic interests. ASEAN's economy has prospered since the end of the coronavirus lockdowns, yet there is still a long way to go for complete regional integration.

West of Myanmar, India's policies to counterbalance Chinese influence in ASEAN have focused on creating closer diplomatic relations between New Delhi and the Southeast Asian nations, for which India aims mainly at Hanoi to counterbalance China's weight. Both India and Vietnam share similar perspectives on security for the South China Sea, and because of this, India is eager to promote Vietnam as a middle power in the region. Moreover, their historical closeness eases India’s projection of influence over ASEAN. Evidently, China has the upper hand when it comes to economic influence in the region, yet political influence is not guaranteed for the East Asian nation.

Having multiple competitors in the South China Sea, China needs more political alliances that facilitate control over maritime trade routes and natural resources in order to promote its national initiatives such as the BRI. Myanmar has undergone a civil war that represents an opportunity for China to advance its interests in ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific at the cost of the country's future. China is not too concerned by who is taking the lead in the conflict in a country where military coups are the rule rather than the exception.

For China, Myanmar remains the door to ASEAN and a greater projection of its political and economic power in Southeast China and the Indo-Pacific. While it remains to be seen whether Myanmar’s military junta is incorporated into ASEAN, China, members of QUAD, and other Asian middle powers are still playing chess over the South China Sea. If Chinese influence is consolidated in ASEAN, China will enjoy a clear path to a much more effective control of the Indo-Pacific. Ultimately, China is putting its efforts into creating a domino effect by influencing Myanmar, leading to a greater influence in ASEAN and, ultimately, in the Indo-pacific.