China, Burma, and the “Saffron Revolution”

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 19

The violent crackdown against anti-government protesters in Rangoon at the end of September shone a spotlight on China’s interests, influence, and objectives in Burma, Beijing’s closest ally in Southeast Asia. The abortive “Saffron Revolution” was an unwelcome development for the Chinese leadership, not only because it came under intense international pressure to use its influence to end the bloodshed, but also because it has tarnished China’s international image in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Moreover, at a deeper level, the events of the past few months have heightened Beijing’s latent anxiety over the junta’s complete lack of legitimacy, the potential for greater instability, and the implications for China’s long-term position in Burma.

China’s Interests in Burma

Burma and China have forged a symbiotic relationship since the suppression of pro-democracy protests in their respective capitals in September 1988 and June 1989 (China Brief, February 7). China’s interests in Burma are manifold:

– Since its founding in 1949, China has sought to install or cultivate friendly, and preferably pliant, regimes along its periphery. After 1988, in the face of international disapprobation, Burma dropped its policy of equidistance between its two giant neighbors India and China, and became a de facto ally of Beijing.

– China needs the military junta to keep ethnic rebel armies along the 1,350-mile Sino-Burmese border in check. Since 1989, with China’s encouragement, the regime has signed ceasefire agreements with the majority of the ethnic armies, stabilizing the border region.

– China has vast economic interests in Burma and is one of the biggest consumers of Burmese raw materials, including timber, gold and precious stones. Burma’s domestic market has also been flooded with cheap, low- quality, Chinese manufactured goods. To facilitate this economic nexus, China has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the country’s transportation infrastructure, including rail, road, river, and air networks.

– To further advance its economic interests, China has allowed an exodus of illegal immigrants, primarily from Yunnan province, into Upper Burma. There are an estimated 1.5 million Chinese immigrants in the country who dominate the retail, hotel, and restaurant sectors in Mandalay, Lashio, and Muse.

– Burma has significant reserves of natural gas, and all of China’s state-owned energy companies have signed major contracts with the junta to exploit off-shore gas fields.

– Burma figures prominently in China’s efforts to enhance the country’s energy security. Not only does oil and gas from Burma help China lessen its dependence on energy resources from the politically unstable Middle East, but the planned construction of oil and gas pipelines (financed by Beijing) from Burma to Yunnan will allow China to reduce its reliance on the Strait of Malacca, which Chinese security analysts perceive as a strategic vulnerability (China Brief, 12 April 2006).

– Close relations with Burma allow China to exert pressure on India on both its eastern and western (through Pakistan) flanks.

– China has invested in the upgrade and expansion of port facilities along the Burmese coast. This raises the possibility of regular Chinese naval visits in the future, allowing China to project power into the Indian Ocean and the northern approaches of the Strait of Malacca.

– Burma’s membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) provides Beijing with a voice in this important diplomatic community.

– Close Sino-Burmese relations significantly reduce Indian, Japanese, and U.S. influence in a country on China’s southern flank.

In return, Burma receives economic and technical aid from China, military hardware for both internal security and external defense, and diplomatic protection at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) where China wields a veto. Even as China’s support enabled the junta to consolidate power in the early 1990s, however, the generals were never comfortable with their dependence on China. Looking to diversify the country’s foreign relations and expand its diplomatic room for maneuver, Burma joined ASEAN in 1997 and, since 2000, has allowed itself to be courted by India and Russia. Nevertheless, China still enjoys a privileged position within the hierarchy of Burma’s foreign relations.

China’s Reaction to the Saffron Revolution

The unrest in Burma was sparked in the middle of August when the junta slashed fuel subsidies—reputedly to help pay for the construction of the new administrative capital of Naypyidaw 400 miles north of Rangoon—doubling fuel prices. Anti-government protests began on August 19 and were quickly joined by Buddhist monks. When the junta failed to apologize for a violent incident involving monks on September 5, the monks began to protest in ever increasing numbers. By September 24, the number of protesters, both monks and civilians, had swelled to over 50,000 and spread beyond Rangoon. On September 26, the authorities launched a violent crackdown on unarmed demonstrators, killing an unknown number of people and detaining several thousand.

When the protests first started, Beijing chose to remain silent. It was not until September 13, when the demonstrations were well underway, that Beijing was forced to comment. In a meeting with Burma’s Foreign Minister U Nyan Win in Beijing, State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan expressed the hope that Burma would “push forward a democracy process that is appropriate for the country” and “restore internal stability as soon as possible, properly handle issues and actively promote national reconciliation” [1]. On September 25, the day before the crackdown commenced, China’s Foreign Ministry blandly stated that it was committed to a policy of non-interference in Burma’s internal affairs, but reiterated that Beijing hoped to see “stability and economic development” in the country. On September 27, as violence was taking place on the streets of Rangoon, the Chinese Foreign Ministry called on all parties to “exercise restraint” so as not to “escalate” the situation. When the United States and some European countries attempted to push through a resolution that would condemn the Burmese government, China blocked the attempt; China’s Ambassador to the UN, Wang Guangya, declared that such a move would “not be useful” as the protests were a domestic issue and did not constitute a threat to regional and international peace (International Herald Tribune, September 27). China did, however, give its full backing to the dispatch of the UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari in an effort to promote dialogue between detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the ruling generals.

Following Gambari’s 4-day visit—during which he met separately with Suu Kyi and the junta—China declared itself “gratified” with the results of the trip: “We took notice that the situation in Myanmar has been calm recently, due to joint efforts by relevant parties in Myanmar and the international community” (Xinhua, October 4). After Gambari’s briefing to the UN, Chinese diplomats went to bat for their Southeast Asian ally and succeeded in softening the tone of a UNSC statement, replacing “condemn” with “strongly deploring” the use of violence against the demonstrators [2]. Earlier on October 10, the Chinese Foreign Ministry had stressed its opposition to the imposition of UN sanctions against Burma because it would not “ease the situation in Myanmar or resolve the issue” [3]. Naturally, Beijing would never support sanctions that might jeopardize its own substantial economic interests in Burma.

During the demonstrations, China had come under sustained pressure from the United States, Australia, ASEAN, and many other countries and organizations to use its influence to restrain the generals and put an end to the violence. The extent of China’s influence over the junta, however, was almost certainly exaggerated by the press. While China is Burma’s closest friend and supporter, its ability to control the decision-making process in Naypyidaw is limited. The junta undoubtedly took note of China’s advice, but in the end, it was the generals—and Senior General Than Shwe in particular—who made the decisions, which were based on their own self-interests, and not Beijing’s. China was also aware that overt pressure might have been counterproductive, and could have pushed the nationalistic generals into adopting an even more hardline policy toward the protesters.

What Does China Want?

Ultimately, China needs a stable polity in Burma so that it can reap the long-term returns on its considerable investments in the country. Stability requires an end to the political inertia in Burma, and forward momentum toward limited political reform. This does not mean regime change; what China wants to see happen is the civilianization of the Burmese regime and an amelioration of oppressive measures. Indeed, China has been quietly pushing the junta on the issue of reform for several years. In 2004, for instance, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao called on the Burmese government to accelerate “political settlements of existing disputes so as to enhance stability and peaceful development” (People’s Daily, July 13, 2004). Wen repeated this message to then Burmese Prime Minister Soe Win at the China-ASEAN Summit in Nanning in November 2006. Prodding from Beijing seems to have had an effect; in July 2007, during a trip to China, acting Prime Minister Thein Sein announced the resumption of the stalled National Convention that is tasked with drawing up a new constitution. The new constitution will be finalized later this year and will undoubtedly see the military retain control of the government, though in civilian garb. In China’s view, civilianization presents the best hope the regime has of gaining legitimacy.

Stability also requires a less confrontational relationship between Naypyidaw and Washington, which has labeled Burma an “outpost of tyranny” and a threat to regional and international peace and stability. China believes that a more cordial relationship between the two countries—notwithstanding major disagreements—may assuage the junta’s paranoid fears over an American military intervention, and result in more moderate government policies. In an effort to bring the two sides closer together, China brokered talks between Eric John, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and two Burmese government ministers in Beijing in June 2007. In light of the recent events, however, further talks seem unlikely.

Stability also requires the Burmese authorities to prioritize economic development, as rising living standards are likely to mitigate popular dissatisfaction with the regime and hence defuse further unrest. But China has been sorely disappointed with the junta’s gross mismanagement of the economy and rising poverty levels. Beijing is particularly anxious about the widening income disparities between ordinary Burmese and China’s economic migrants in the north of the country who are enriching themselves at the expense of the local people. A popular backlash against 1.5 million PRC nationals would pose a major security headache for the Chinese authorities.

What China does not want to see in the coming months and years is regime change in which the armed forces are ousted from power. China believes that after 45 years of rule, the military is the only functioning state institution in Burma, and that without it, the country would be in danger of collapse. Above all else, China seeks to avoid political chaos, waves of refugees, and violent ethnic secessionism on its southern flank.

Beijing must be heartened that the demonstrations have been snuffed out with relatively little loss of life and that the junta seems to be firmly back in charge, especially at a time when it faces pressing issues in the Taiwan Strait and on the Korean Peninsula. The Chinese government must also be gratified that the demonstrations did not did not assume an overt anti-China character. China has thrown its support behind the Gambari Process, so that the UN can help Burma “achieve internal stability and national reconciliation, provide constructive assistance to the country in addressing economic, social, humanitarian and human rights problems” [4].

But the Chinese leadership must also be worried that the recent unrest has introduced an element of uncertainty into Burma’s political dynamics and economic prospects. The bloody crackdown against the country’s deeply revered monks may have engendered splits within the armed forces, and these divisions could widen over time, possibly leading to an internal coup, dialogue with the opposition, and perhaps even political transition toward a more pluralistic system. Such developments would not, in China’s view, bode well for stability and the protection of its economic interests and political influence.


1. State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan Meets with Special Envoy of SPDC Chairman of Myanmar, PRC Foreign Ministry, September 13, 2007.

2. Security Council SC/9139, October 11, 2007.

3. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Liu Jianchao’s Regular Press Conference on October 9, 2007, PRC Foreign Ministry.

4. Statement on Myanmar at the United Nations Security Council Open Briefing by H.E. Ambassador Wang Guangya, Permanent Representative of the People’s Republic of China to the UN, October 5, 2007.