China’s Collaboration with the Myanmar Junta: A Case of Strategic Hedging?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 23 Issue: 12

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang and Burmese Senior General Min Aung Hlaing meet in Myanmar, source: The Economic Times


On June 27, in Kachin State, northern Myanmar, a convoy of vehicles carrying a Chinese delegation, including a consul, came under fire. The convoy was being guarded by Myanmar military and police personnel. While local media blamed the Lisu National Development Party, a military-aligned militia, the Myanmar junta held the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) — an ethnic armed organization (EAO) aligned with the anti-junta resistance— responsible for the attack (The Irrawaddy, June 30). Attacks on Chinese targets have grown in recent months in Myanmar. On May 7, the anti-junta Natogyi Guerrilla Force (NGF) attacked an off-take station in the Mandalay Region’s Natogyi Township due to its China-affiliated oil and gas pipeline. The attack came amid a surge in mass protests on the streets of Yangon, and the townships of Yinmabin, Salingyi and Letpadaung in Sagaing Region. Angry online campaigns criticizing Beijing’s support of “fascist criminals” — referring to the Myanmar generals — gained widespread public backing (Economic Times, May 15).

On May 2, the surge in anti-China protests and violence came close on the heels of a meeting in Naypyidaw between Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang and Myanmar junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Qin is the highest Chinese official to meet Min Aung Hlaing since the 2021 military coup, which overthrew the elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government (Frontier Myanmar, May 3). Since the junta’s rise to power, public ire in Myanmar has been directed not only at the military regime but also at China, the junta’s principal foreign backer. In the early days of the coup, crowds gathered outside the Chinese embassy in Yangon to protest against the alleged Chinese role in the insurrection (Times of India, February 14, 2021). Chinese-owned factories in Myanmar were damaged and burned, and Chinese workers were attacked (CGTN, March 14, 2021).

With visible collaboration between the PRC and the junta growing, the targeting of Chinese projects and properties in Myanmar has grown in frequency and intensity. To cite one such instance, last April resistance groups fired missiles at factories manufacturing long-range rockets and surface-to-air missiles, specifically when Chinese and Russian military officials were visiting the facilities (Burma News International, April 8). As anti-China sentiment surges in Myanmar, it is likely that resistance groups will continue to deliberately target Chinese interests in the region.

History of Anti-China Sentiment

Anti-China sentiment in Myanmar is not new. This prevailing attitude has endured throughout Myanmar’s recent history, spanning different eras that encompass both democratic and military rule in the country. Furthermore, it has permeated across various branches of society, including Myanmar’s military and political elite, as well as the grass roots civil society level.

The PRC’s strong support for armed organizations fighting the Myanmar state has been met with defiance from the military, which has fought the Beijing-backed insurgencies for decades. As such, Myanmar’s military has long-harbored resentment against China. The PRC, in addition to supporting the Burmese Communist Party’s insurgency that raged in Myanmar between 1948-1989, has also provided weapons, training, and sanctuary to several EAOs, using them to pressure the Myanmar government. The Myanmar military, which sees itself as the guardian of the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, has therefore viewed the PRC with deep suspicion. Despite this undercurrent of distrust, compulsions of regime survival have prompted successive military regimes to set aside these suspicions to engage in a ”marriage of convenience” with China (China Brief, March 25, 2021)

Anti-China feelings run deep and wide among the people of Myanmar. The massive influx of Chinese people into their country, especially in towns like Mandalay, has evoked severe interethnic tensions. Ethnic Chinese comprise an estimated 50 percent of the population of Mandalay and control 60 percent of the city’s business. Over the course of several decades, the affluence of Chinese businessmen and the Sinicization of the local culture has fueled resentment among the people of Myanmar (South China Morning Post, May 1, 2018).

Additionally, many in Myanmar perceive Chinese investments and projects as lacking transparency, disproportionately favoring Chinese interests, excluding local populations from reaping tangible benefits, and contributing to environmental degradation. This was the case, for example, with the Chinese-backed $3.6 billion Myitsone hydropower project in Kachin State. The initial proposal planned to divert 90 percent of the electricity generated by the project to China. In addition to depriving the Myanmar locals of energy resources, the dam was expected to disrupt river flow, impact fish migration, and flood rainforests. Ultimately, opposition from local residents and activists compelled then-Myanmar President Gen Thein Sein to suspend the project in September 2011. Serving as a testament to the immense grassroots resistance, the suspension of the Myitsone Dam remains in effect despite enormous pressure from the Chinese to revive the project (China Brief, August 24, 2019).

However, the primary reason for Myanmar’s widespread anti-China sentiment can be attributed to Beijing’s overt and covert support for the country’s military rulers (The Irrawaddy, June 12). In 1988, Myanmar’s military generals were isolated from the international community due to their brutal crackdowns on civil society, yet they still received significant backing from the PRC. To protect the regime from international condemnation and humanitarian intervention, China made a concerted effort to block United Nations (UN) resolutions that expressed concern over Myanmar’s military junta. Additionally, the PRC provided the pariah state with loans, investments and trade to keep the crisis-ridden economy afloat. Chinese military equipment has also enabled the generals to quell anti-junta protests and fight insurgencies. From the perspective of many Myanmar locals, the robust and multifaceted Chinese support to the military is perceived as a crucial factor for the longevity of the junta’s rule. In short, Myanmar’s current uptick in anti-China violence and protests should be contextualized within a broader framework of mounting collaboration between China and the country’s military junta.

Chinese Foreign Minister’s Meeting with Junta Chief

Qin is not the first Chinese foreign minister to visit Myanmar; in July of last year, Wang Yi attended a regional conference in the country. Qin’s trip to Myanmar was nonetheless noteworthy because it was the first bilateral visit which saw a high-ranking Chinese official shake hands with Min Aung Hlaing, representing the highest endorsement Beijing has accorded the junta regime thus far.

Ahead of Qin’s trip to Naypyidaw, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said that the visit aimed “to further follow through on the outcomes of President Xi Jinping’s historic visit to Myanmar in January 2020” (PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, May 2). An MFA statement issued after Qi’s meeting with Min Aung Hlaing affirmed progress in this regard, declaring that “China would work with Myanmar to follow through on the outcomes” of Xi’s visit (PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, May 3).

Incidentally, Xi’s 2020 visit to Myanmar— the first by a Chinese president to the country in 19 years — happened when the NLD was in power. The two sides signed 33 agreements and Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs), most of which reaffirmed Myanmar’s commitment to expediting projects under the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). Under this proposal, the two countries collaborated on various initiatives, including the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ), which encompasses a deep-sea port and an industrial park; the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone; and an urban development plan for Yangon among other projects (The Irrawaddy, January 18, 2020).

Although the talks were largely behind closed doors, Qin likely raised concerns over delays in the implementation and security of CMEC projects. Min Aung Hlaing, in turn, ostensibly affirmed his commitment to protecting China’s economic and strategic interests in Myanmar. It is likely that the two sides would have briefed each other on talks with three EAOs, the Arakan Army (AA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Amy (TNLA), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and ensured that these three factions would provide security to the China-built oil and gas pipelines that converge with the areas they control. [1] In return for Min Aung Hlaing’s pledge to protect Chinese assets, the Chinese foreign minister likely assured the junta chief of greater support against the West and backing in international forums. According to the junta’s information team, Qin reportedly said that China “stands with Myanmar on the international stage” (Mizzima, May 3). According to the MFA statement following Qin’s visit, “China advocates that the international community should respect Myanmar’s sovereignty and play a constructive role in helping it achieving peace and reconciliation” (PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, May 3). While nothing was announced regarding weapons sales to the junta during Qin’s visit, China’s already substantial supply of arms to the junta are likely to expand.

China’s Initial Apprehensions over the Coup

Initially, China’s response to Myanmar’s 2021 coup was by and large muted. The state-run Xinhua news agency downplayed the crisis, describing it merely as “a major cabinet reshuffle” (Xinhua, February 2). The Chinese government neither condemned nor expressed concern over the power grab and only called on all parties to “properly handle their differences” and “maintain political and social stability” (PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, February 3). It defended the generals from international censure by blocking a UN Security Council resolution expressing “concern” over the military’s action and distanced itself from a UN Human Rights Council resolution on the situation in Myanmar, claiming it was the latter’s “internal affair” (The Irrawaddy, February 13, 2021).

However, China was reportedly apprehensive towards the military’s power grab as it had previously established strong ties with the NLD government. Between 2015 and 2020, Myanmar State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi visited China five times. Additionally, the NLD government joined the Belt and Road Initiative in 2017 and signed a series of agreements that furthered Beijing’s economic and strategic interests in the region.

Given China’s diplomatic and economic ties to the NLD, Beijing was concerned that the coup would plunge Myanmar into unrest and instability, hindering the implementation of its projects and jeopardizing the security of its sizeable investments. China was therefore incentivized to see the crisis defused quickly, preferably through dialogue. Consequently, in the initial months following the coup, Beijing refrained from official contact with junta officials, pledged support for ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus on ending the crisis in Myanmar, encouraged “all parties in Myanmar to engage in political dialogue… and restart the process of democratic transformation,” and even opposed the junta’s plans in 2021 to dissolve the NLD (The Irrawaddy, August 11, 2021).

Growing Collaboration with the Generals

However, within a few months of the coup, it was clear that the generals had no intention of reversing their power grab. Moreover, an armed anti-junta resistance group emerged, which saw militias under the NLD-led National Unity Government join hands with the EAOs. It was evident that stability would not come soon to Myanmar and that the battle between the junta and the resistance would be a long-drawn affair. In light of this development, the PRC concluded that it had no choice but to engage with the junta in order to safeguard its robust economic and strategic interests in the country.

On June 6, 2021, the Chinese Ambassador to Myanmar Chen Hai met Min Aung Hlain in Naypyitaw. Two days later, Wang met his junta counterpart Wunna Maung Lwin on the sidelines of a regional meeting in Chongqing, China, and assured him that China’s policy toward Myanmar is “not affected by changes to Myanmar’s domestic and external situation” (The Irrawaddy, June 10, 2021). More meetings between Chinese national and provincial officials with the junta followed as collaboration on commercial opportunities expanded.  Chinese expressions of solidarity with the junta grew. “No matter how the situation changes, China will support Myanmar in safeguarding its sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity, and in exploring a development path suited to its national conditions,” Wang said in April 2022 (PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, April 1, 2022).

An important impetus for China’s mounting collaboration with the junta is the US enactment of the Burma Act, which opens the door for American assistance to the Myanmar resistance. The law envisages the provision of “technical and non-lethal support” for the EAOs, PDFs, and “pro-democracy movement organizations.” While it precludes the supply of weaponry to anti-junta forces, many political analysts contend that the financial support garnered by the law will nonetheless prove “beneficial” for the military capabilities of resistance groups (Burma News International, December 13, 2022). In theory, resistance groups could still use the financial assistance to purchase arms and significantly enhance the firepower of anti-junta forces.

The Burma Act also states that Russia and China must be held accountable for providing support to the military regime (Burma News International, December 13, 2022).  Even prior to the aforementioned legislation, it was always assumed that the US and other Western powers were implicitly competing with China and Russia, representing the opposite side of Myanmar’s civil war. The passage of the Burma Act has further highlighted the already apparent fault lines of the conflict. Going forward, Washington’s involvement in the civil war is expected to strengthen China’s collaboration with the junta, especially if the flow of arms to resistance groups increases.


Overall, China’s decision to back the military regime was no doubt based on pragmatic calculations pertaining to the PRC’s financial investments and political interests in Myanmar. However, a strategy of supporting the junta is fraught with risk. Chinese-backed projects and nationals are already in the crosshairs of resistance groups, as evident from the fact that of the roughly 7,800 clashes recorded countrywide over two years since the coup, 300 occurred in areas where major Chinese projects are located, with 100 of them happening in 19 townships where China’s oil and natural gas pipelines run (Mizzima, January 26). As animosity against China’s ties to the junta grow, violent attacks on Chinese projects are likely to magnify in intensity and scope. Whether the consensus reached between the AA, TNLA and MNDAA holds — and works to keep Chinese projects secure — remains to be seen.

Furthermore, the junta may not be the formidable force it once was. Recent analyses indicate that the Myanmar military is “significantly smaller than earlier thought” (Mizzima, May 7). Pumping the Myanmar military junta with additional Chinese weapons may only make the regime more brutal, and potentially exacerbate anger among the masses, making Chinese economic projects more vulnerable to attack. This comes at a time when the junta maintains a tenuous grip over the country. While the civil war may currently be in a stalemate, the military regime’s control over its territory is anticipated to decline.

Considering the junta’s precarious position, it is possible that China’s leadership is currently engaging in strategic hedging. China may have calculated that in the event of the junta’s defeat and the rise of resistance forces, the new leadership, despite their current opposition to Beijing, would not adopt a hostile stance given the PRC’s substantial role in the country’s economy. Indeed, this aligns with China’s previous experience when the NLD came to power in 2015. Ultimately, only the future can ascertain whether the PRC’s strategic calculations — and consequent risks — serve to effectively safeguard Beijing’s interests in the region.


[1] On July 1, the three EAOs, which go by the name ‘The Brotherhood Alliance,’ issued a statement which said that they would “take effective actions against those trying to damage international investments” and that they would protect Chinese projects in areas under their control (The Irrawaddy, July 5, 2023).