Earlier this week, a Chinese special envoy concluded an unannounced visit to Myanmar that included discussions with the junta leader Sen. Gen. Ming Aung Hlaing on the country’s future political trajectory.
Sun Guoxiang, Beijing’s special envoy for Asian affairs, traveled to the crisis-hit country from August 21 to 28, during which time he met Min Aung Hlaing and other senior junta leaders, according to a report by AFP that cited a statement released by the Chinese Embassy on August 31.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said during a press conference on Tuesday that the special envoy “exchanged views with [senior officials] on the political landscape in Myanmar and China-Myanmar cooperation in combating COVID-19.” He also conveyed Beijing’s message that it supports “Myanmar’s efforts to restore social stability and resume democratic transformation at an early date.”
Unsurprisingly, the Chinese Embassy statement did not mention any meeting between Sun and the parallel National Unity Government (NUG), which is competing with it for international recognition. But as The Irrawaddy noted, the trip was unusually low key, and was not accompanied by the blanket coverage that such visits normally occasion in the junta’s stentorian media mouthpieces.
February’s military coup has tipped Myanmar into political turmoil, prompting massive nationwide protests that have been followed by a severe and violent crackdown that has now left more than 1,040 dead. This in turn has been followed by a sharp turn toward popular armed resistance that holds out the prospect of sustained instability.
Initially, China’s reaction to the coup and the turbulence that followed was marked by caution. After having invested considerably in its relationship with the ousted government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, Chinese leaders were none too happy at the seeming irrationality of the military’s action.
But Beijing quickly digested the unexpected turn of events in Myanmar. Seemingly convinced that the junta would succeed in cementing its hold on power, and perhaps concerned at the anti-China sentiments expressed by many of those opposing the junta, China has gradually stepped toward recognition of the new military regime.
At first, the Chinese state press referred to Min Aung Hlaing by his military title: Commander-in-Chief of the Tatmadaw. By late April, it was referring to him as Chairman of the State Administration Council, then the formal name for the junta. In June, it started referring to him as the “leader of Myanmar.”
That month, it invited the junta’s Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin to th+e Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Chongqing, during which Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China’s policy of friendship toward Myanmar was “not affected by changes in Myanmar’s internal and external situations and remains oriented toward the people of Myanmar.”
China has accommodated itself to the new Myanmar reality in order to safeguard and advance its key strategic interests in the country. Among these key interests are its longstanding ambition to create an overland corridor – a belt of roads, railways, pipelines, and special trade zones – connecting southwest China to the Indian Ocean via Myanmar. This connectivity push will further integrate Myanmar into China’s booming economy, while providing China a means of partially circumventing the narrow choke point of the Malacca Strait.
Unsurprisingly, Chinese state-owned firms have wasted no time in resuming progress on existing infrastructure projects, including the planned deep sea port in Kyaukphyu, power plants, and other large-scale infrastructure projects.
In many ways, Sun’s visit signals a full return to diplomatic “normalcy” for Myanmar-China relations after a brief post-coup interregnum. A former diplomat to Turkey and Sri Lanka, the envoy has played an important role in peace negotiations between the Myanmar government and its various ethnic armed groups. His visit is thus the likely prelude to a ramping up of diplomatic engagements aimed, respectively, at gaining succor for the besieged military government and advancing long-standing Chinese strategic interests in Myanmar.