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China's Relationship With Myanmar's Military: It's Complicated


It was a bloody weekend in Myanmar. Security forces, again, used live ammunition against protesters all over the country, killing at least 114 people. It was the bloodiest single day since the coup began and drew condemnation from around the world but not from neighboring China, a country with a complicated relationship with Myanmar's military. Michael Sullivan reports from neighboring Thailand.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: In mid-January, China's foreign minister Wang Yi made a high-profile visit to Myanmar and met with the leader of the democratically elected government, Aung San Suu Kyi - yet another sign of China's deepening economic ties with an approval of Suu Kyi's civilian-led government. Just two weeks later, she was in jail. Myanmar's military was back in charge, and the country was in turmoil.

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: China is not very happy with the turbulence in Myanmar. I mean, they don't like turbulence.

SULLIVAN: Kishore Mahbubani is Singapore's former ambassador to the United Nations and author of the recent book "Has China Won?"

MAHBUBANI: The Chinese don't want to have a troubled state on their border. They have invested a lot in Myanmar. They have the pipeline. They have other investments. If they can find the ways and means of bringing back some degree of stability in Myanmar, they'd be happy.

SULLIVAN: But China doesn't help itself by seeming largely oblivious to the number of civilians killed by the military since the coup. On Saturday, China was one of only a handful of countries to send a representative to the military's Armed Forces Day celebration, even as security forces killed more than 110 protesters all over the country. Yun Sun is director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

YUN SUN: The perception on the ground among the Burmese population is that China is supporting the military, and China's lack of condemnation of the military equates to a support or the endorsement of the military coup.

SULLIVAN: China's silence on the coup isn't surprising given its long-standing public position of not interfering in the internal affairs of others. But, says Yun Sun...

SUN: I think these new factors have definitely raised new concerns for Beijing to consider. Are they going to change their position on the coup or on the military?

SULLIVAN: That hasn't happened yet. And even if it did, says Min Zaw Oo of Yangon's Institute for Peace and Security, he isn't convinced it would change much on the ground.

MIN ZAW OO: The regime has its own interests. But right now their interest is to crack down the current revolution and any elements that they consider will challenge the regime.

SULLIVAN: But he thinks Myanmar's military will try to protect China's business interests, including the oil and gas pipelines that run from China through Myanmar to the Indian Ocean, in exchange for diplomatic protection at the UN Security Council. Mostly, he says, because the regime needs...

MIN: Cash - that coincide with Chinese interest on the BRI, the Belt and Road Initiative in Myanmar. At this point, the other source of investment is quite impossible. So the regime is looking to China to revive the economy, which - it needs a regime survival.

SULLIVAN: That's if China is willing to keep on investing in a Myanmar that's rapidly imploding. The Stimson Center's Yun Sun isn't sure that matters in China's calculus.

SUN: By the end of the day, the Chinese believe that the Burmese military holds the ultimate power because they have weapons. They have the guns. They are not really questioning the Burmese military's capability to prevail in the end.

SULLIVAN: Until that happens, she says, or a negotiated settlement is reached, China may scale back its investment for however long it takes. But it won't leave.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.