Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi, right, shakes hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, left, during their meeting at the…
Myanmar's de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, right, shakes hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, left, during their meeting at the President House in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Dec. 7, 2019.

TAIPEI, TAIWAN - Myanmar has crafted a neutral foreign policy since its colonial years to avoid leaning too much on any foreign power, but a spiraling political crisis at home is pushing it toward China as a buffer against international outrage.

Western leaders say the poor but quickly developing Southeast Asian country is trying to wipe out Muslim Rohingya people near its border with Bangladesh. Myanmar’s state counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi, met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to discuss the issue days before going before the International Court of Justice on December 11.

Myanmar faces charges of genocide against the mainly Muslim Rohingya minority group in Rakhine state.

China had backed Myanmar in the U.N. Security Council when a military junta ruled the country before 2011. China is grappling with international criticism over perceived repression of ethnic Uighur people who oppose living under Beijing’s rule.

“I can see why Myanmar authorities want to meet with the Chinese counterparts, because Myanmar is being isolated and alienated from the international community on the Rohingya issue in Rakhine state,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political science professor at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand. “This Rohingya issue is now the single cause of Myanmar’s lack of international credibility.”

A Myanmar more beholden to China would alarm India and a bloc of Southeast Asian nations that hope to contain Chinese influence over the larger member states.

Myanmar's de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, center, and Gambia's Justice Minister Aboubacarr Tambadou, left, listen to judges in the court room of the International Court of Justice, in The Hague, Netherlands, Dec. 9, 2019.

First China, then The Hague

During a visit to Myanmar December 7-8, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met Aung San Suu Kyi to discuss ways China could help.

The two talked of “providing continued assistance to Myanmar’s efforts for the peace and national reconciliation process, as well as for the repatriation process in the Rakhine State (and) continued cooperation between Myanmar and China at the United Nations,” the Myanmar foreign ministry website says.

Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader told the international court on December 12 that her military’s actions against the Rohingya people were responses to terrorism. She described issues in Rakhine state as “reconciliation” and asked that the court in The Hague remove her country’s genocide case.

The military is accused of mass killings, rape and torture against the Rohingya Muslim minority in 2017, forcing more than 700,000 to flee into Bangladesh.

“I think that it’s aligning up with China to ensure that there’s kind of a shared front to deal with these accusations of human rights violations and ethno-cultural genocide,” said Stephen Nagy, senior associate politics and international studies professor at International Christian University in Tokyo.

The Myanmar government regards the Rohingya as illegal immigrants who entered after the country gained independence from Britain in 1948 and after the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971, when more people fled to Myanmar to avoid violence.

Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, left, arrives to attend a welcoming banquet for the Belt and Road Forum hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, and his wife Peng Liyuan at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, April 26, 2019.

Distrust of China

Myanmar has strived for a nonaligned foreign policy for decades, probably to avoid a return to colonialism, said Priscilla Clapp, former permanent charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar. Britain ruled Myanmar for more than a century.

Today’s government distrusts China, Clapp added. Myanmar business people sometimes feel “condescension” from Chinese partners, she said, while Yangon hopes to avoid any sovereign debt. The Chinese-funded $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam project and China’s stake in a seaport have worried the government about owing a debt.

Myanmar now wants any foreign investment to benefit the country, not just the investor, Clapp said. It vets projects at international standards, she added.

Aung San Suu Kyi and the Chinese foreign minister, however, discussed earlier this month “promoting bilateral cooperation” under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the website statement from Yangon said. The $1 trillion initiative extends Chinese-funded infrastructure around Asia with the aim of building new trade routes.

The cozying up to Beijing now reflects back to China’s historic protection of Myanmar in the United Nations, Clapp said.

“Myanmar was always dependent on China for political protection in the U.N. during the years of military government when China and Russia protected them in the Security Council against international sanctions, and today they’re still protecting Myanmar’s civilian government against international sanctions, but for other reasons,” she said.

Western countries had condemned the human rights record of Myanmar’s junta rule of nearly 50 years, likewise China’s treatment of political dissidents.

Asia watching

Closer Myanmar-China relations would unsettle India, Pongsudhirak said.

India disputes tracts of its own border with China and struggles now with a trade deficit. It signed a defense cooperation pact with Myanmar in July. If any country moved against China, the Thai scholar said, “India would be one player to make that kind of move.”

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc that includes Myanmar wants to engage China without giving it outsized leverage, Pongsudhirak said. It also hopes the fleeing Rohingya do not create a refugee crisis in Indonesia or Malaysia, both predominantly Muslim members of the bloc, he added.