Wang Yi’s Myanmar trip could derail Asean’s peace plan by legitimising junta, analysts say
- While the visit by Foreign Minister Wang Yi reflected open dialogue channels, critics argue that it undermines Asean unity
- China is keen to protect its interests in Myanmar as anti-junta armed resistance groups attacked Chinese projects that harboured regime soldiers
During the foreign ministers’ meeting at the regional forum, Wang proposed plans across agriculture, water resources, digital economy, aerospace, education, and public health. He also pledged China’s commitment to provide additional coronavirus vaccines to Lancang-Mekong countries and strengthen relations in researching and developing Covid-19 drugs.
“Engaging publicly with the Myanmar junta is bound to embolden the junta,” Htwe Htwe Thein said. “It is not only bad timing, but also insensitive to the widespread and strong opposition to the coup.”
Charles Santiago, Chairman of the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said Wang’s visit to Myanmar could deepen the rift between Asean members that had lent legitimacy to the military government such as Cambodia and others like Malaysia which had pushed for greater engagement with the opposition. This rift would not help Myanmar or Asean, he said.
Jason Tower, Country Director for Myanmar at the US Institute for Peace, said China had pressed Asean to unite around its approach of resuming business with the junta and back the regime’s road map for addressing the crisis.
This blueprint would culminate in power handed over to the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party during elections in 2023, Tower said.
But with Asean’s unwillingness to adopt this approach and the “deadlock” faced by Cambodia as Asean chair, Tower said that an “increasingly frustrated” China had signalled in April its intentions of resuming business with the junta at all levels and to mobilise Southeast Asian nations, especially Lancang-Mekong countries, to deepen ties with the junta’s State Administration Council (SAC) at the subregional level.
During Asean special envoy Prak Sokhonn’s second visit to Myanmar last week, he was only allowed to meet SAC bodies, ethnic armed organisations and other entities “approved” by the SAC.
“This move will most certainly generate greater tensions within Asean, as it undercuts Asean’s decision to invite only non-political representatives from Myanmar to high-level meetings,” Tower said, noting that this week’s meeting was held despite a strong statement of concern issued by the National Unity Government, the government in exile.
“China could have easily opted to host the meeting in China, as it did last year with Laos as the co-chair, but it proactively pushed for the Mekong countries to convene in Myanmar with the junta as host,” Tower said.
Mikael Gravers, Associate Professor Emeritus at Denmark’s Aarhus University, said Wang’s visit was aimed at protecting Beijing’s interests, given concerns over the junta’s ability to protect Chinese gas pipelines and mining activities.
A mining firm was recently attacked by explosives, Gravers said, referring to the Chinese-owned Wanbao Mining in the northwestern Sagaing region.
Myanmar media reported that the company condemned the attacks, but did not comment on the sheltering of regime troops in its compound.
Anti-regime armed resistance groups have also attacked Chinese projects that had harboured regime soldiers, and local media has said Beijing wants to negotiate with the junta to send trained security guards to protect Chinese interests and projects in Myanmar.
In talks this week, Wang said China encouraged all parties in Myanmar to engage in political dialogue within the constitutional and legal framework, to restart the process of democratic transformation.
But Jason Tower, Country Director for Myanmar at the US Institute for Peace, said given Beijing’s growing economic and strategic relations with the junta, “it will be almost impossible for China to play the role of a fair broker in bringing about talks”.
Many Chinese state companies are becoming direct parties to the conflict as the military deploys troops inside company compounds, Tower noted, and use them as bases to launch operations against communities resisting military control.
“This is an extremely risky strategy, as pushing forward with the economic projects without addressing the underlying conflict will likely result in a dramatic escalation of violence”, Tower added.
For instance in Shan State, rival armed groups and the military are clashing over control of key logistics corridors, Tower said, adding that should the military attempt to assert control over the territories through which the proposed railroad is to pass, “this will become a new flashpoint in this war”.
Joel Ng, deputy head of the Centre for Multilateralism Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, however said it was “timely and good” for Wang to visit Myanmar and keep dialogue channels open.
“Many in the international community had called for China to play a greater role in mediation and pressuring the Myanmar military, and Wang Yi has now visited,” Ng said, adding that those who wanted China to exert pressure on the military would be disappointed.
Ng said that dialogue, engagement, and reaching a solution could only happen by meeting those in power in Naypyidaw, especially since “no progress has been made on the substantive issues of conflict resolution, national dialogue, and democratic reform”.
Ng said to keep the pressure on Myanmar, Asean needed to consider the mechanisms it could deploy to express its dissatisfaction with the junta’s lack of progress in the peace process.
“This may include further restriction of participation in meetings among lower-level working groups that have continued to operate,” Ng said.
He added that Asean should outline clearly what it would consider a failure in progress on the Five Point Consensus and what further steps would be taken if its efforts were obstructed, and then implement them.
Curtin University’s Htwe Htwe Thein agreed and said Asean needed to set milestones and timelines so that the situation “would not drag on”.