Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG) has warned China’s government that its engagement with the country’s military junta could seriously damage China’s international reputation, just days after China’s foreign minister pledged Beijing’s support for the military, “no matter how the situation changes.”
The warning was issued in a statement on Monday by the NUG’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Wunna Maung Lwin, the junta’s foreign minister, in China on April 1. The meeting saw Wang make the most forthright signal of Chinese support for the military administration since its seizure of power in February 2021. He told his Myanmar counterpart that Beijing “has always placed Myanmar in an important position in its neighborly diplomacy” and wants to forge a China-Myanmar community with “a shared future.”
In its statement, the NUG, which was formed last year by elected lawmakers of the ousted National League for Democracy government and their allies, said that the shadow government was committed to good relations with China, but that this had to be constructed on the basis of the NUG as the legitimate government of Myanmar. “Any effort to build a ‘Community of Shared Future’ with an illegitimate and genocidal regime risks serious damage to the international reputation of the People’s Republic of China,” it stated. “Equally important, the people of Myanmar will soundly reject any efforts by foreign governments to establish such a partnership with the illegitimate military regime.”
The NUG added that the best way to build good relations with Myanmar is “to immediately compel the military junta to stop all violence, restore civilian governance, and to work with the NUG and Myanmar’s diverse ethnic nationalities to deliver humanitarian assistance to end the suffering of the Myanmar people.”
It is unlikely that Beijing will heed the NUG’s pleas. In reality, it made its peace with the military administration several months after the coup. Last June, Wang met with Wunna Maung Lwin and said that “in the past, present, and future, China supports Myanmar to independently choose a development path that suits its national conditions.” These comments were echoed by Wang on April 1, when he said that China “will support Myanmar in safeguarding its sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity, and in exploring a development path suited to its national conditions.”
Geography imposes natural limits to how far the NUG can and will go in proscribing China’s engagement with the military administration. While China’s return to “business as usual” will no doubt stoke already considerable anti-Chinese sentiment among the Myanmar population, as it did in the months immediately following the coup, the NUG still has incentives to ensure that this does not escalate into serious attacks on Chinese-backed infrastructure projects.
After all, should the shadow government ever come to power, it will find itself in the same position as the NLD did upon its landslide election in 2015: forced to establish a degree of fruitful coexistence with its giant northern neighbor.
There are some signs that the NUG recognizes this. In January, when a civilian militia aligned with the NUG blew up three electricity pylons supplying power to a China-backed nickel processing plant in Sagaing Region, the NUG’s Defense Minister Yee Mon assured Chinese diplomats that the NUG did not “have a policy to attack the investments of neighboring countries.” Similarly, when a Chinese oil and gas pipeline facility was damaged by anti-junta attacks the following month, the leader of the militia that carried out the attack was at pains to clarify that it was targeting the military personnel, not the pipeline station itself.
The one possible restraint on the NUG would be popular sentiment toward China, which since the coup has dipped to perhaps the lowest point since outbreaks of anti-Chinese violence in the late 1960s.