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Myanmar Caught Between a Regional Power Struggle


Myanmar Caught Between a Regional Power Struggle

Myanmar power struggle


The ongoing political struggle in Myanmar has been exacerbated by a regional power struggle between China and India which view any resolution to the ongoing conflict as tipping the scales in the favor of the other.


– Conflicting interests between China and India have led to gridlock in resolving Myanmar’s crisis.
– An external push toward conflict resolution is not likely to succeed without the cooperation of Beijing and New Delhi.
– A UN-mediated resolution of the conflict risks regional instability that would affect the economic and national security interests of India and China.

As with most intrastate struggles, external actors are playing a vital role in Myanmar’s internal crisis. While Myanmar’s military, or Tatmadaw, has abolished democracy and returned the country to authoritarian rule, the international community’s response to safeguarding stability has been thrust into the spotlight. 

Attempts to resolve the conflict have notably lacked action by the region’s largest powers: China and India. In Myanmar’s case, the peace process has been stalled by the refusal of these actors to partake in the collective effort to stabilize the country. Inactivity by China and India seems strategic as both countries hold security and economic interests in Myanmar and seem more comfortable with the status quo. With an understanding of the aspirations of each stakeholder, conflict resolution practitioners may open new avenues of dialogue that would represent the interests of China, India, and Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG). 


The trigonal relationship between China, India, and Myanmar stems from both Beijing and New Delhi being critical diplomatic and economic players in the country. With neither side having condemned the coup. China and India have been reluctant to take sides between the Tatmadaw and the NUG. Rather, both countries have approached the situation with a ‘‘business as usual’’ path. As such, China and India have chosen strategic ambiguity in diplomacy to protect their economic and security interests.


As its largest trading partner and Foreign Direct Investment source, China plays a central role in Myanmar’s economy. Additionally, with over one million citizens living in the country that maintain profitable businesses, Chinese citizens represent a portion of Myanmar’s economic elite and, by extension, wield influence within Burmese politics and society. 

Within the framework of bilateral relations, China and Myanmar have agreed upon a sea trade route that is to be built with Chinese funds and is of great strategic importance to Beijing. Signed in 2018, the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) is a large investment project meant to generate a network of new railways, commercial zones, and other significant infrastructure projects in Myanmar. Once complete, the CMEC will serve as a vital maritime route linking the Indian Ocean to China’s Yunnan province, helping Beijing redirect its supply chain for pertinent goods.  

CMEC is not only about deepening bilateral trade, but also about energy security. CMEC projects, such as the Chinese-built natural gas and oil pipelines along Myanmar’s west coastline, offer Beijing secure energy passage from the sea. Presently, 80% of China’s oil supply chain traverses the strait of Malacca. If the strait was ever to become blockaded or impaired, China’s oil imports would cease.   


India is also an important infrastructure investor in Myanmar. In 2017, the Indian government signed a housing agreement as a part of the Rakhine State Development Project (RSDP) pledging assistance to Naypyidaw. Since then, India has spent $25 million on development projects to facilitate the return of Rohingya Muslims to Rakhine State. India has also invested in other large infrastructure projects in Myanmar including the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project, a trilateral highway project that will connect Northeastern India with Myanmar and Thailand.

Similar to China, India has been hesitant to undermine the Tatmadaw’s power or to sever ties for domestic security reasons. Naypyidaw has been a crucial player in India’s containment strategy for military insurgencies in the latter’s eastern provinces. India and Myanmar have signed border cooperation agreements that gave New Delhi the green light to pursue insurgents across the border.  

Additionally, if the Tatmadaw were to lose control of the government, Myanmar would arguably enter a tumultuous period of uncertainty which would further destabilize the country. In the ensuing power vacuum, internal actors — such as religious extremists and nationalists — could feel justified to take direct action that could destabilize Indian economic and security interests. 


Owing to security and economic interests, Myanmar is an extremely important partner for both China and India. As such, taking action against the Tatmadaw could risk severing important bilateral relations for either country. For Beijing specifically, severing ties with the Tatmadaw could increase India’s footprint across the Indian Ocean to the detriment of Chinese projects. BRI plans between China and Myanmar, such as the CMEC, could be jeopardized providing New Delhi with the flexibility to step in and sign similar development project agreements with the Tatmadaw.

In comparison, India is walking a fine line in attempting to prevent Myanmar from aligning solely with Beijing. If New Delhi were to cut ties with the Tatmadaw, China’s partnership with Myanmar would not be hindered by Indian objections to future strategic and regional decisions. Furthermore, China would have the opportunity to strike deals with the Tatmadaw to expand the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) across the Indian Ocean region. This action would give China an increased level of leverage over India, which could find itself encircled


China and India have hesitated to join the international community or key regional organizations in their efforts to settle Myanmar’s internal crisis. Attempts by the UN to force a resolution have been hampered by Beijing through its veto power as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Since the military coup, China has twice blocked the UN’s actions against the Tatmadaw in February and March 2021.

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Photo: The Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/Wikimedia Commons

The UN has also been unsuccessful in responding to the ongoing humanitarian crisis that is taking place in Myanmar. Humanitarian access in the country remains extremely limited due to the UN’s inability to convince the coup leaders to grant and facilitate access. Attempts to get China on board for this mission have yet to bear fruit. The Chinese Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Zhang Jun, avoided pressuring the junta on the matter of humanitarian access stating in January that ‘‘some people do not like the kind of situation (now), but I think what we have to also bear in mind is that we should avoid the worsening of the situation, to avoid more violence, to avoid a civil war.’’          

The other regional power broker, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has also failed to resolve. As a regional arbiter, ASEAN is aware of the political environment in Myanmar. Despite its primacy, ASEAN tends to hedge against large powers, and without direct backing by China or India — both critical dialogue partners of the bloc — it faces difficulties in reaching consensus. Without an impetus, ASEAN is unlikely to act in a manner that may be seen as slighting one power over the other.


In the short term, with the complex economic, security, and strategic factors that are at play in the country, China and India are not likely to use their leverage over Myanmar to pressure the military junta. For both countries, the resolution of the crisis would result in one or the other regional power gaining an edge. With national security, economic interests, and foreign policy on the table, neither side is willing to push one way or the other lest they cede an advantage. For both, the preservation of the status quo or a natural resolution of the conflict seems to be the most appealing course of action. 

Further, Myanmar is too important of a regional ally and a potential security problem for them to lose as a partner. As long as both states continue ‘‘business as usual’’ dialogues, Western sanctions or other kinds of external leverage are unlikely to work. 

Equally important, without China or India, pressure through international organizations, such as the UN or ASEAN, will unlikely change the stalemate in Myanmar. In this precarious situation, the different stakeholders and their desired outcomes for the crisis conflict with each other. An expanded understanding of the conflict as a systemic regional issue rather than a singular democracy in crisis could better inform the efforts of the international community and the multilateral institutions involved. Within this context, shifting UN or ASEAN attempts towards conducting backdoor diplomacy with China and India may be more effective than seeking a resolution between the latter and the NUG. Achieving such a policy requires the development of trust, concessions on other issues, guarantees concerning matters of security dilemmas between Beijing and New Delhi, and other incentives that could entice the two regional giants to change their course of action and seek a resolution to the crisis.     

If China or India were more open to opposing the junta and willing to resolve the crisis, leverage could aid the international community in mediating a de-escalation between clashing Burmese parties. Further, if both countries allowed international action to take effect, the Tatmadaw’s power could be challenged by the NUG, pushing the junta to negotiate.

In conclusion, third-party pressure is significant in the conflict in Myanmar but its contribution has so far been symbolic. This pressure needs to be accompanied by Chinese and Indian support. In the meantime, conflict resolution practitioners could focus on the domestic realities in Myanmar, examining those elements of mistrust and mutual fear that have caused ruptures within Burmese society. These root causes of conflict have ultimately hindered a true reconciliation between all opposing parties.

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