Myanmar nears brink as self-interests of China, Russia stymy global efforts

Myanmar nears brink as self-interests of China, Russia stymy global efforts


Even with warnings of Myanmar’s imminent collapse eight months after a military coup, prospects are dim for a coordinated international response as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia remain likely to block any arms embargo against the ruling junta, a major customer for their weapons, according to media reports.

“Weapons of war continue to be deployed in towns and cities to suppress opposition,” United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a September 23, 2021, statement. “Myanmar’s stability and path to democracy and prosperity have been sacrificed over these last months to advance the ambitions of a privileged and entrenched military elite. … The national consequences are terrible and tragic — the regional consequences could also be profound.”

The global community of democracies, including the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States, have imposed sanctions on individuals and companies linked to Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, and called for the immediate return to power of the elected government, including its jailed leaders. Meanwhile, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has appointed a special envoy to try to broker a resolution in Myanmar, one of its 10 member states.

Despite the worsening humanitarian crisis, including the killing of more than 1,100 people by the security forces since the February 1 coup, the “U.N. is unlikely to take any meaningful action against Myanmar’s new rulers because they have the support of China and Russia,” which wield vetoes as U.N Security Council permanent members, The Associated Press (AP) reported in late September.

In June, the PRC and Russia abstained from a U.N. General Assembly vote on a nonbinding resolution condemning the coup and calling for an arms embargo, which was approved by 119 of the 193 member nations, AP reported. U.N. Security Council approval would be required for such a resolution to be binding.

The PRC and Russia are the biggest suppliers of major arms to the Tatmadaw, accounting for 44.2% and 43% of military imports, respectively, from 1999 to 2018, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Their self-interests extend beyond lucrative weapons sales, however.

The PRC has major investments in Myanmar’s infrastructure, including oil and natural gas pipelines, hydroelectric dams and the mining of rare earth minerals used in military equipment and consumer products. In September 2021, officials announced the opening of a trade route linking Myanmar’s port city of Yangon with the Chinese border province of Yunnan, giving the PRC access to the Indian Ocean, Reuters reported. (Pictured: Anti-coup protesters in Yangon, Myanmar, denounce the People’s Republic of China’s support of the ruling military junta in April 2021.)

Those projects, according to experts, help explain the PRC’s blocking of a U.N. Security Council statement condemning the coup just a day after the government’s overthrow. China’s mainly hands-off stance since “has emboldened the junta leaders’ violent assaults on civilians protesting their power grab,” noted a June analysis published by the United States Institute of Peace.

“But Russian support has been no less consequential, in terms of the supply of military hardware, veto-protection at the Security Council, and the training of Burmese [Myanmar] military officers in weapons engineering, information technology, and other military sciences,” Maung Zarni, a U.K.-based Myanmar activist, wrote in the article “An Axis of Evil: Why Russia and China Protect Myanmar’s Military Regime,” published in May 2021 on the website Politics Today.

With few allies in the Indo-Pacific, Russia’s support of the Tatmadaw gives it “a strategic toehold in mainland Southeast Asia,” Zarni wrote.

Russia announced in late August 2021 that it would continue with the scheduled delivery to Myanmar of a missile defense system that can shoot down aircraft, cruise missiles and drones, Reuters reported.

While money, influence and geopolitics are driving Chinese and Russian intransigence in resolving the humanitarian crisis, observers said, they also will likely keep the two nations’ self-interests on divergent paths in Myanmar.

“The military regime can only rely on China and Russia now,” political analyst Dr. Khin Zaw Win told The Irrawaddy news website. “Russia has become the main country that helps the junta. It recognizes the regime, continues to help and sell it weapons. … Russia will grab the market from China. The Russian navy wants access to the Indian Ocean.”