Countries contemplate its relationship with Myanmar as aftermath of the coup unfolds

As the international community continues to deliberate how to respond to the coup in Myanmar, experts think while the coup will complicate China’s political and economic interests in the country, if western governments decide to impose sanctions on Myanmar, it would likely push the country into China’s arms.

Two days after Myanmar’s military staged a coup, several countries around the world have weighed in on the turbulent situation in the country. The U.S. has officially branded the move as “coup” while China hopes all sides in Myanmar can properly settle their differences under the constitution and law.

Some experts think the reason why Myanmar’s military choose to stage the coup now is because after Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling party secured a landslide victory in the election last year, the conservatives in the military worry that the next senior general won’t be able to assert military power over the civilian leadership, given the high level of support that Aung San Suu Kyi has attracted.

Even though Myanmar’s constitution guarantees that the military controls 25% of the seats in the parliament and they are also in charge of the defense, interior and border affairs ministries, some experts think the civilian government’s high level of support could further weaken the military’s control over Myanmar’s domestic politics.

“Some have noted that a number of senior military officials seem incapable of accepting that Aung San Suu Kyi has retained her popularity after a somewhat difficult first five years in power, and this seems to have boosted the sense that fraud must have been involved in the election,” said John Lichtefeld, Vice President of the Asia Group based in Washington D.C.

Myanmar’s complicated relationship with China

A few hours after the coup on Monday, the international community immediately looked over to China’s reaction and began to wonder how the coup would impact Beijing’s political and economic interests in Myanmar.

According to Avinash Paliwal, an expert on Southeast Asian politics at SOAS, University of London, the current military leaders in Myanmar have been wary of the Chinese government due to several reasons. “They viewed Aung San Suu Kyi’s deepening relations with Beijing as a sign of enabling her to further outmaneuver the military in politics,” said Paliwal.

“Additionally, China allegedly supports the Arakan Army in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, with whom the military has been fighting bloody battles in recent years.”

Paliwal thinks that based on the statements issued by Beijing over the last few days, the Chinese government might consider recalibrating its ties with military leaders in Myanmar, while continuing to build upon the progress that the civilian government has made in the China-Myanmar-Economic-Corridor.

However, Paliwal thinks the coup also reflects the limits of Beijing’s influence in Myanmar. “The fact that Beijing couldn’t stop the coup implies that the most China can do in Myanmar is hedge its bets,” said Paliwal.

John Lichtefeld from the Asia Group thinks that the engagement with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in January may have given Myanmar’s military leaders some comfort as it considers its options. Myanmar’s military also held a meeting with the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in late January while India has sent Myanmar’s military a submarine. These incidents show that China is not the only foreign power that Myanmar’s military has been interacting with.

“The Tatmadaw has historically been far more concerned with domestic affairs than with foreign relations,” said Lichtefeld. “As long as the generals sense they will be protected by friends in Moscow and Beijing on the international stage, their decisions are likely to be more influenced by internal matters.”

Following Beijing’s response to the coup, Paliwal thinks Myanmar’s military leaders might view it as a sign that Beijing is accepting military hegemony as “an enduring fact” in Myanmar.

“The military might seek tactical changes in the China-Myanmar-Economic-Corridor projects and continuous subdued reaction to Suu Kyi’s legal fate in the coming months,” Paliwal explained.

Western sanctions might push Myanmar towards China

As western countries consider whether to impose sanctions on Myanmar or not, some experts think sanctions may not impact the military’s strategic calculus. Paliwal points out that western sanctions might even push Myanmar into China’s embrace. “What will be different this time is that democracies such as India will continue engaging with the Tatmadaw and distance themselves from the West on Myanmar,” he said.

However, Paliwal also thinks western sanctions will hurt the people of Myanmar the most, while its effect on military leaders will be limited as they can continue to access international finance and capitals through China.

Lichtefeld suggests that if companies controlled by the military are targeted by western sanctions, there could potentially be serious economic repercussion, as these companies are deeply enmeshed in Myanmar’s economy.

The end of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political career?

Following the coup, all sides are paying close attention to how the military might treat the civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Some think it is likely that the military will use the coup to end her political career.

“Given the support she commands among the Bamar majority, she’ll continue to threaten the Tatmadaw,” said Paliwal. “No other party or leader has that capability in the civilian political landscape of Myanmar. The Tatmadaw is unlikely to let a similar figure emerge anytime soon.”

Lichtefeld warned that if the military found a way to permanently ban Aung San Suu Kyi from the political scene, it could have serious consequences for the perceived legitimacy of any “elected” government in the future.

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.