Could the coup d’état in Myanmar be a sign of a bigger issue?

Could the coup d'état in Myanmar be a sign of a bigger issue?

Alex Kashtaliar. Senior analyst and military expert at COSA

Previously, he served in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, held analytical and command positions in one of the structural units of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, served as an officer of the NATO-led Multinational Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and participated in the anti-terrorist operation in eastern Ukraine.

Myanmar’s military has staged a coup d’état. Officially, it was because the country’s military leaders disagreed with the results of the 8 November 2020 parliamentary election that saw the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party win only 6% of the votes. In contrast, the ruling National League for Democracy got almost 83%. On the surface, the event does not look out of the ordinary for Myanmar that had spent 49 years (between 1962 and 2011) under military rule and preserved the political privileges of military leaders in its government at the legislative level, even after its democratic transformation.

The fact that, after ten years of civilian rule, the military arrested the leaders of the ruling party (who failed to respond to the protests by the Muslim Rohingya people in 2017 and were mostly loyal to the top brass without calling for a restriction of their part in the country’s internal and external policy, at least publicly) makes one think of external factors that could have influenced the event. Notably, a year-long state of emergency has been declared to give the commander-in-chief complete control over the country, which may indicate that the military expects something to happen during that time, either in the region or in Myanmar itself, something that may drastically change the country’s internal policy.

Here, it seems appropriate to mention that Myanmar’s geographical position in Southeast Asia, taking up nearly the entire shoreline of the Bay of Bengal and bordering China in the south, is of major strategic importance. A large investor in the country’s economy, China views it as a direct land route to the Indian Ocean. In Myanmar, China has many large infrastructure projects (deep-water ports, gas and oil pipelines, a road network, etc), including those that fall under the marine section of its Belt and Road Initiative. Moreover, China is the largest supplier of weaponry and hardware to the Myanmar military, which makes it easier for Beijing to influence the country’s military leaders.

Based on Myanmar’s strategic importance to China, some suggest that Beijing was the instigator of the coup d’état as part of its political and economic confrontation with the U.S.A. The leader of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, is viewed as a pro-Western politician. She lived in Great Britain and the United States for a long time, was educated in Great Britain, and is supported by the U.S., U.K., and EU leaders (particularly France). Moreover, she received numerous awards in the West, including the French Legion of Honour, the Congressional Gold Medal, the Nobel Peace Prize, and the Sakharov Prize. When the National League for Democracy came to power, Western European and American investments returned to Myanmar, but they were suspended in 2017, following the Rohingya crisis, which China did not fail to use to its advantage. Aung San Suu Kyi spent her childhood years in India, which is in a state of permanent territorial conflict with China. Furthermore, it was under Barak Obama that Aung San Suu Kyi met Hillary Clinton and her international career as an official representative of Myanmar began. Such close connections to the U.S., which has recently seen the Democratic Party return to power, cannot help but make China wary. This is further supported by the reports that the Myanmar military leaders were concerned about the possibility of the new parliament amending the constitution to limit the role of the military in the country’s political life.

Moreover, one must take into account the expanding cooperation between the U.S. and India and the general intensification of the military and political processes as part of QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) under both the previous and the current U.S. Administration, which could create difficulties for China on its marine transport lines.

Of particular interest is the visit of Russia’s Minister of Defence Sergey Shoygu to Myanmar on 21 January 2021 (ten days before the military coup). Officially, the two countries signed a number of military-technical cooperation agreements enabling Myanmar to purchase Russian military hardware. However, in hindsight, certain parallels can be seen between Shoygu’s visit to Myanmar and his coming to Azerbaijan on 25 August 2020, shortly before the Caucasus 2020 military exercise and a month before the war broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh. In the fallout of the latter, Russia increased its military presence in the region, which gives it the ability to hold a threat over a number of major international oil and gas pipelines (discussed in our previous article) and transport corridors from post-Soviet Central Asia to Europe by way of Turkey that fit perfectly into the land segment of the Belt and Road Initiative. It is hardly a secret that, until 2014, Ukraine had been one of the countries whose territory was to be used to build transport corridors as part of the Initiative. It was the reason behind the joint announcement with Russia and China of the Crimean Bridge Project.

This brings us to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine that began in 2014 and ostensibly removed Ukraine from this project. However, Russia did build a bridge spanning the Strait of Kerch, as well as the Tavrida Highway, and upgraded all of its roads and railways that lead to the north of the Crimean Peninsula. In 2017, the Ukrainian government announced the construction of a transport corridor connecting Lviv, Ternopil, Vinnytsia, Odesa, and Mykolaiv (which can easily be extended to reach Crimea, if need be). All this makes it appear as though Ukraine was still participating in the Chinese project, albeit clandestinely. (Incidentally, it was in 2017 that the Chinese investors acquired a majority stake in MotorSich.) It was only when the current Ukrainian government stepped up its efforts to push large Chinese businesses out of the Ukrainian economy in 2020 that Ukraine was finally out of the project completely. It seems that Turkey seized this opportunity to strengthen its position in the Chinese project by replacing Ukraine in it with Russia’s help, as a result of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. (This could be the reason for the increase in military-technical cooperation, as a greater combat potential of the Armed Forces of Ukraine would be conducive to a continuation or even an escalation of the conflict with Russia, which would make it impossible for Ukraine to come back to the Belt and Road Initiative).

Thus, it appears that as an active partner of China in the Belt and Road Initiative, Russia is using its military power to control the problem areas of the project’s transportation routes. On land, this has resulted in the annexation of Crimea, preservation of the Russian military bases and sites in the post-Soviet Central Asia (incidentally, new members have recently announced their intentions to join the Collective Security Treaty Organisation), and deployment of the Russian military in Nagorno-Karabakh and an additional task force of the FSB border forces in Armenia. Where marine transportation is concerned, this theory is supported by Russia’s building of full-scale military bases on the Mediterranean coast of Syria and an official military base in Sudan, as well as the active participation of Russian mercenaries in the armed conflicts in Mozambique, Madagascar, and Libya, Russia’s military operations in Laos, and the simplification of the terms of use of the port and airfield at Cam Ranh Air Force Base and the ports in Myanmar for the Russian Aerospace Forces and the Russian navy. These sites are easily matched to the points along the transportation routes in the Belt and Road Initiative. However, Russia does not have a single military base in Southeast Asia, which makes it difficult for Moscow to control the region.

Based on the above, it is reasonable to assume that, over the next year, the Russian armed forces will be able to build, if not a full-scale military base, then at least a logistics support base for its navy at a port in Myanmar, along the lines of the one being built in Sudan. It will enable Russia to control maritime traffic in the eastern part of the Bay of Bengal, the waters around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the Andaman Sea, and particularly the north part of the Strait of Malacca, which will to some extent undo the U.S. efforts as part of the QUAD. In turn, Myanmar will be able to hold back China’s increasing influence over the military and political bloc in its government and protect itself from the economic and political sanctions of the U.S., EU, and Great Britain by expanding its defence industry ties with Russia and through it, with India, which is actively cooperating with the United States, France, and even Israel.

In the context of using military force to connect the transportation routes of the Belt and Road Initiative, it appears strange that China only has one full-scale military base with access to the Indian Ocean, the Chinese People's Liberation Army Support Base in Djibouti. All other sites on the territories of other countries that are used by the Chinese navy and air forces have dual purpose. Their function is to replenish supplies, gather technical intelligence, and perform minor vessel repairs. In accordance with the existing treaties, the Chinese navy only uses a simplified procedure for entering the waters surrounding such sites.

It bears mentioning that the Chinese People's Liberation Army Support Base in Djibouti (officially opened in 2017) is next to the bases and military sites of the United States, France, Italy, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. China’s historical rival India is also interested in having its own military base in Djibouti. All this limits the operational freedom of the Chinese base. Further south, in Somalia, there is a Turkish military base (also officially opened in 2017), and to the north, in Sudan, a Russian navy logistics support base is being built (according to the media, the so-called Wagner Group has been operating there since, again, 2017).

Based on publicly available information, Myanmar has the largest amount of military sites and dual-purpose facilities used by Chinese People's Liberation Army. It does not appear to be a mere coincidence that the coup d’état happened ten days after the Russian Minister of Defence visited the country (notably, it has been reported than the Myanmar military leaders were looking to gain the support of the Russian government back in November 2020). Interestingly, there have been no expressions of concern from China, which may indicate that Beijing is coordinating its actions with Russia. If our theory is confirmed, and Russia builds a military base in Myanmar, it will become clear that China is developing its navy and air force at such a tremendous rate to use them in the short-term somewhere else besides the Indian Ocean where its interests will be protected by its partners Russia and Turkey.

Given that the previous U.S. Administration lifted the ban on official visits to Taiwan and the current administration has not reversed that decision, announcing instead its intention to speed up the process of recognising Taiwan’s independence, as well as the fact that due to their geographical position Taiwan and its neighbouring islands are blocking China’s access to the Pacific Ocean, preventing it from going around the Korean Strait and using the Northern Sea Route (which China is actively helping develop) for exchanging supplies with Russia, the threat of losing Taiwan becomes dangerously real for Beijing.

Thus, based on the above, China may be expected to try to annex Taiwan by force in the next two years. Meanwhile, access to the southern marine segment of the Belt, except for the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca, will be gained through the territory and ports in Myanmar, supported by the Russian military presence. In this context, it is important to note Russia’s strengthening of its forces in the Kuril Island and Chukotka where a new coast guard division has been deployed.