Sino-Japanese Review

Myanmar Coup: A Battleground for Sino-Japanese Influence

On February 1st the world woke up to Myanmar under military rule following a coup against elected members of the ruling party. But it came as no surprise when the Chinese government emphasized that internal political tensions should be solved peacefully by the Burmese people and that outside powers should not “complicate the situation” further. Beijing also made sure that a UN Security Council statement on the crisis did not explicitly criticize the Myanmar army (the Tatmadaw) for its role in the coup.

In Tokyo, citizens gathered to protest against the coup and Japanese companies also announced the cancelation of joint ventures with military-affiliated businesses in Myanmar. However, the government’s official reaction has remained relatively soft with the initial response calling the situation in Myanmar of “grave concern” while also calling for a peaceful resolution. As is often the case with the Japanese response to political crises abroad, its strongest condemnation came in the form of a joint statement with its G7 partners. Tokyo is also mulling a temporary halt to new development assistance projects in Myanmar.

Both China and Japan have thus avoided burning bridges with the Tatmadaw and appear poised to continue engaging the Burmese authorities even after the overthrow of civilian leadership. For China, this fits with a long-standing diplomatic stance to avoid getting involved in the “internal issues” of other countries. Beijing is especially eager to preserve its interests in Myanmar as it is a strategically important neighbor which hosts several of China’s Belt and Road infrastructure projects as well as pipelines key to China’s energy security.

Both China and Japan have avoided burning bridges with the Tatmadaw and appear poised to continue engaging the Burmese authorities even after the overthrow of civilian leadership

China’s growing presence in Myanmar is a major motivator for Japan to remain engaged as well. After the coup, Deputy Defense Minister Nakayama Yasuhide publically emphasized the need not to cut the country off to avoid seeing it “joining the league of China”. In actual fact, Japan’s relationship with Myanmar predates both the country’s transition to democracy and Tokyo’s concerns over Chinese hegemony. Japan has long been a stable partner, ready to offer development assistance and keen to tap into a promising market. Geopolitical competition with Beijing has however undoubtedly strengthened the strategic rationale for supporting the country. 

This does not mean, however, that Japan has been competing on equal footing with China, who is Myanmar’s most important trade partner and its biggest source of foreign direct investments after Singapore. With Beijing’s ties to ethnic armed groups that have been battling the Tatmadaw for decades, it holds significant sway on the very fate of the “Union of Myanmar”, as the country is officially called. Japan can rival neither China’s strategic heft nor its economic resources.

On the other hand, Tokyo is a more trusted partner, seen as less domineering than the looming giant in the north and more reliable than western powers fixated on human rights issues. Even if Japan cannot match the scale of China’s Belt and Road projects, it has major development initiatives in Myanmar, such as two Exclusive Economic Zones near Yangon and on the southern coast, the building of roads to improve connectivity with Thailand as part of a region-wide “East-West corridor”, and the upgrading of aging public infrastructures. These have been enthusiastically welcomed for both their immediate benefits and because they allow the country to diversify its trade partners. It also helps that Japan has a better track record of delivering on promised development assistance compared to China. The case of Myanmar ultimately exemplifies broader dynamics in Southeast Asia, where Japan has managed to create a “strategic contrast” with China, effectively leveraging its lesser resources to present itself as a more attractive partner.

But Japan has managed to create a “strategic contrast” with China, effectively leveraging its lesser resources to present itself as a more attractive partner

The situation in Myanmar remains very volatile and it is far from clear if the military leadership will be able to assert its authority through repression or whether  popular resistance will force it to backtrack somewhat, or if the country will plunge into a period of prolonged turmoil. This political instability benefits neither Japan nor China. Both would prefer a peaceful and swift resolution and a return to the pre-coup status quo. They are unlikely to get their wish but for the sake of economic interests and their broader strategic objectives, both countries will try to make the best of a dire situation and maintain ties with the group who ends up ruling the country.

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Andrea A. Fischetti is a government scholar conducting research on Asia-Pacific Affairs and East Asian Security at the University of Tokyo and at the Asia Pacific Initiative. He was a visiting student at the Hiroshima Peace Institute of Hiroshima City University, and a research assistant at the House of Commons in the British Parliament. Mr. Fischetti earned his MA in War Studies from King’s College London, following a BA with First Class Honours in International Relations, Peace and Conflict Studies.

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Antoine Roth is assistant professor at the Faculty of Law of Tohoku University, working on Sino-Japanese relations, China's foreign relations, and East Asian international affairs. He holds a PhD in International Politics from the University of Tokyo and a MA in Asian Studies from the George Washington University and a BA in International Relations from the University of Geneva. He has previously worked at the Swiss Embassy in Tokyo and has been a visiting student at Fudan University in Shanghai.

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