Will ASEAN turn to China to put pressure on Myanmar?

China supports the implementation of the ASEAN consensus aimed at resolving the crisis as long as it sticks to the non-interference policy

Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi stated that China’s support for the implementation of the five-point consensus—aimed at resolving the Myanmar crisis would be highly appreciated amid the growing criticism that ASEAN was too slow in taking actions to reduce the tension.

China is one of Myanmar’s closest allies which expressed support for the implementation of the five-point consensus on Myanmar as long as it does not violate ASEAN’s long-criticized non-interference mechanism.

“ASEAN’s current task is to implement it immediately. China’s support to ASEAN to follow up on the five-points of consensus will be highly appreciated because this will contribute to efforts to reach a peaceful solution to the crisis,”  Retno Marsudi said in the ASEAN-China meeting in Chongqing.

The ASEAN Leaders’ Summit in Jakarta at the end of April produced the five-point consensus, which includes humanitarian aid distribution, constructive dialogue involving all concerned parties, a cessation of violence, a visit from a special envoy to Myanmar which will facilitate a dialogue.

ASEAN also called for the release of Myanmar’s political prisoners even though such a clause was not included in the consensus.

Singapore and Malaysia admitted ASEAN’s slow progress in resolving the Myanmar crisis

ASEAN’s member countries’ foreign ministers expressed their disappointment over the organization’s very slow process in ending the turmoil triggered by the military coup that stemmed from its rigged election allegation in November 2020.

During the meeting between ASEAN countries’ foreign ministers with China on 7 and 8 June in Chongqing Singapore’s Foreign Minister, Vivian Balakrishnan stated that ASEAN’s diplomatic effort would only succeed if Myanmar had a sincere willingness to have a dialogue and negotiation, and a heartfelt reconciliation.

“All of us were united on the need for an immediate cessation of violence, on the need for the release of detainees and for meaningful negotiations and dialogue to occur among all parties,” the minister spoke to Singapore journalists on a phone call from Chongqing cited in Channelnewsasia.

International relations expert Dr. Yulius Purwadi Hermawan told TOC that ASEAN’s need for China to pressure Myanmar can be seen from two perspectives.

“ASEAN may admit that its patience had been waning in dealing with Myanmar. But we can see from a more positive point of view. Indonesia wants to create a global peace ecosystem with a regional approach, which is good as a concept. Who knows what is happening in Myanmar? Of course, it’s the country’s close neighbor. Still, I have no ideas why ASEAN is seeking help outside its bloc.” the lecturer at the Parayangan University said.

China’s projects in Myanmar

China is the main investor of solar energy projects in Myanmar. The former provides the technology while the latter provides land.

In May 2020, China also announced it had formally invested in Myanmar’s largest e-commerce platform Wave Money worth $ 73.5 million.

China’s investment in Myanmar reaches US$ 21.5 billion, data from Myanmar’s Directorate of Investment and Company Administration said.

While Singapore tops the list with a total investment of US$ 24.1 billion, data cited in CNA said. Singapore’s investment focuses on residential and industrial property and the hospitality sector.

More than half 57 per cent of China’s investment in Myanmar goes into the power sector, while the rest is diversified into oil and gas, mining, agriculture, and other sectors, data cited in Trendeconomy said.

As a special administrative region of China, Hong Kong also contributes to the amount of Chinese investment in Myanmar. In the last year, Hong Kong’s investment reached 26 per cent of the total investment received by the country, data cited in South China Morning Post stated.

China along with Hong Kong is also the largest sources of foreign direct investment for this Southeast Asian country, with a total investment of US $2 billion, Nikkei understood.

China needs a stable Myanmar

On 1 February, the Myanmar military took over the government after accusing the National League for Democracy (NLD) of rigging the November 2020 election.

The coup caused political and economic instability and sparked protests and condemnations from Western nations.

Myanmar’s instability is likely to have a major impact on China’s flagship project, the Belt and Road Initiatives. In other words, the stability of Myanmar is one of the main factors that support the success of this global project.

Despite the pressure and condemnations from the U.S and the European Union (EU), China chooses to cooperate with Myanmar.

Anti-junta activists in Yangon suspected that China played a role in the coup due to its close ties with the Myanmar military.

However, China snubbed the circulating rumours.

“The PR that it has done to improve its image over the past five years working with the NLD has all gone to waste,” Enze Han, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong who studies China’s relationship with Myanmar, told The Atlantic, adding that China is the biggest loser from the coup.

Myanmar’s anti-junta groups lost their trust in ASEAN

Myanmar’s opposition groups were disappointed with ASEAN, claiming that the regional bloc does not have a solid plan in ending the chaos in Myanmar-which led to the arrest of the country’s de-facto leader and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

Myanmar’s shadow Foreign Minister, Moe Zaw Oo, stated in a streamed press conference-interrupted by the internet connection’s cut-off–that he had lost his hopes in ASEAN’s credibility in conflict resolution.

A social worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity sent the latest updates on violence in Myanmar for the past few weeks.

“In Yangon, the situation is relatively stable. However, in Kayah State, Chin State, and Kachin State, the situation is like a civil war. Soldiers can shoot anyone without further consideration. Soldiers and police officers were also killed. Civilians’ trust in Myanmar’s police and military has reached its lowest level,” he said in a Whatsapp message.

Between pressuring Myanmar and initiating a dialogue

The disappointment gets deeper when the junta promised a fresh election when meeting with ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi and Brunei’s Second Minister for Foreign Affairs, Erywan Pehin Yusof.

Indonesia denied reports saying that it supported a new election in Myanmar.

“A fresh election will be strongly opposed by Myanmar’s opposition groups. What I heard from my friend who is there that there has been no evidence of electoral fraud. Yes, there were some flaws such as the disenfranchisement of Myanmar’s minority groups, but that does not mean that the election had been rigged,” Yulius said, adding that in the dialogue ASEAN may ask the military to provide the rigged election evidence.

China will likely oppose international intervention in ending Myanmar’s chaos, claiming that what’s happening in Myanmar is the country’s internal problem.

Tougher action is necessary to end the violence that has killed more than 800 people in Myanmar.

Indonesia and ASEAN recently opposed the UNGA draft bill on an arms embargo in Myanmar, arguing that such an embargo would not be effective.

Yulius is not optimistic that China could pressure Myanmar’s junta military to hand over the power to the opposition, given that Beijing has backed Myanmar amid a worldwide strong criticism over the junta’s coup.

“China may be able to persuade or put pressure in Myanmar. But we don’t know if it fails, will ASEAN blame China? We don’t know, just wait and see,” Yulius wrapped up the interview.

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