During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2020 visit to Naypyidaw , the NLD government and China signed 33 memorandums of understanding to advance the oft-stalled CMEC. Western sanctions and condemnation of Myanmar’s human rights violations against the Rohingya further drove Aung San Suu Kyi’s party into Beijing’s orbit. China-NLD ties thus looked to be on an upward trajectory after the NLD’s resounding electoral victory in 2020.

For several decades, China’s interests in Myanmar have been significant and growing . These include ensuring internal stability in Myanmar, advancing the strategic China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), and preventing Western countries from pulling Myanmar into their orbit. To those ends, Beijing fostered relatively warm ties with the NLD government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. As ties with the civilian government grew, Tatmadaw-Beijing relations suffered as Myanmar’s military chafed against both growing economic dependence on China ( which is widely unpopular ) and China’s support for rebels along the border.

The February coup may be a disaster for China’s interests , and Myanmar’s new military rulers (the Tatmadaw) indeed crave greater autonomy from unwanted Chinese interference , but the two countries will always be neighbors. But one of those neighbors is much larger—and has strategic interests that it will act to protect in the smaller country. Despite the military takeover undoing years of careful outreach to the now-ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) and destabilization spilling over into China’s Yunnan province , Beijing has accommodated itself to the junta while carefully hedging through both public and private pressure to come out on top in Myanmar.

The February coup may be a disaster for China’s interests, and Myanmar’s new military rulers (the Tatmadaw) indeed crave greater autonomy from unwanted Chinese interference, but the two countries will always be neighbors. But one of those neighbors is much larger—and has strategic interests that it will act to protect in the smaller country. Despite the military takeover undoing years of careful outreach to the now-ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) and destabilization spilling over into China’s Yunnan province, Beijing has accommodated itself to the junta while carefully hedging through both public and private pressure to come out on top in Myanmar.

For several decades, China’s interests in Myanmar have been significant and growing. These include ensuring internal stability in Myanmar, advancing the strategic China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), and preventing Western countries from pulling Myanmar into their orbit. To those ends, Beijing fostered relatively warm ties with the NLD government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. As ties with the civilian government grew, Tatmadaw-Beijing relations suffered as Myanmar’s military chafed against both growing economic dependence on China (which is widely unpopular) and China’s support for rebels along the border.

During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2020 visit to Naypyidaw, the NLD government and China signed 33 memorandums of understanding to advance the oft-stalled CMEC. Western sanctions and condemnation of Myanmar’s human rights violations against the Rohingya further drove Aung San Suu Kyi’s party into Beijing’s orbit. China-NLD ties thus looked to be on an upward trajectory after the NLD’s resounding electoral victory in 2020.

This trajectory veered in an unwelcome direction for Beijing following the Tatmadaw’s takeover on Feb. 1—so much so that the military takeover arguably constitutes a serious setback. Instead of a smooth assumption of power like the 2014 coup in Thailand, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing was surprised to encounter stiff and sustained popular resistance and a growing armed rebellion by a diverse and loosely aligned coalition of ethnic armed organizations (EAO), civilian militias, and the National Unity Government (NUG) led by ousted parliamentarians. Although divided and ill-equipped, armed opposition forced the junta to stretch its troops thin, encouraged some defections, and inflicted deaths in guerrilla raids. The chaos was naturally unwelcome in Beijing, as it both threatened its long-term interests in Myanmar and harbingered a possible total meltdown and collapse that could spill over into China itself.

Beijing could not sit idly by and allow its interests to be harmed, so it seemingly sided with the apparent winner: the Tatmadaw. This was unlikely to be a prearranged deal, as some in the Myanmar opposition suggested. Although the military did telegraph its actions beforehand, including to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the Tatmadaw did not need Beijing’s approval and is unlikely to have warned it in advance because the military remains quite wary of China and its ties to the NLD. Instead, Beijing simply assessed that Myanmar’s military is the likeliest victor and adjusted accordingly.

The need to preserve China’s interests drove this calculation. Faced with the difficult situation of either backing a decapitated NLD or siding with the China-skeptical but dependent junta, the Chinese government chose the latter. Supporting the opposition would have required expending substantial resources and arms for a then-leaderless pro-democracy movement, as the NUG and the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw took at least a month to organize and lacked pan-ethnic acceptance or internal unity to this day. Furthermore, it likely would have incurred the short-term loss of billions of dollars in CMEC investments. In the likely event of failure, China’s stance would have closed off access to the country’s new military rulers. For Beijing, a government that is not subject to concerns about human rights and typically opposes public international intervention, the Tatmadaw was the only logical choice. Interestingly, China has taken the opposite approach toward the Guinean coup on Sept. 5 and backed the overthrown government out of pragmatism to protect Chinese interests in the country. Both cases demonstrate how Beijing will pragmatically defend its own interests regardless of past relationships or ideology.

With a decision made, Beijing soon worked to smooth the transition. The Chinese government was quick to downplay the severity of the crisis by labeling the takeover as a “cabinet reshuffle” and engaging in regular diplomacy like nothing had changed. As it did during the Rohingya crisis, China defended Myanmar at the United Nations Security Council from international sanctions and serious pressure. Despite the junta’s violence destabilizing Myanmar, the U.N. General Assembly’s resolution calling for an arms embargo, and its support incurring the population’s wrath against China, Beijing has not halted the flow of weapons to the Tatmadaw. Furthermore, China has pursued new investments and CMEC acceleration, which the junta is only happy to oblige to given its dearth of international supporters. In recognition of the COVID-19 pandemic’s scale, China has also delivered vaccines to the military. These efforts increasingly indicate Beijing is inching toward de facto recognition of the junta, most recently by referring to it as the “government.”

However, accepting the junta’s rule is different than being happy about it or allying with it, and Beijing has been careful to hedge its bets in Myanmar. Most importantly, China’s interests in Myanmar remain deep and long term, and any prolonged instability (or complete alienation of the anti-junta opposition) could jeopardize its position. In fact, anger at China’s willingness to work with the junta has already resulted in attacks on its assets. Thus, there is a real risk of blowback to completely embracing the Tatmadaw, so China feels the need to hedge.

To that end, Beijing occasionally applies public pressure on the junta to advance its interests. Despite its rhetoric calling on outside powers to refrain from “intervention” in Myanmar, China’s ambassador issued a statement in mid-February saying “the current development in Myanmar is absolutely not what China wants to see. We hope that all parties of Myanmar could handle differences properly under the framework of the constitution and laws and maintain political and social stability.” More recently in August, China’s foreign minister expressed his desire for Myanmar’s factions to “find a political solution within the constitutional framework” and “restart the democratic process.” China has remained consistent on these points and its support for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ five-point consensus over the past few months. Similarly, despite watering down language critical of the junta, China allowed statements from the U.N. Security Council to express “deep concern,” call for the release of detainees, and “strongly [condemn] the violence.” Granted, these statements were not as harsh as originally intended and Beijing still blocks concrete policy action, but their public nature is a soft form of pressure.

Behind closed doors, China is waving a bigger stick. Amid Myanmar’s out-of-control pandemic, China closed its border to the detriment of trade and its friendly EAOs, which depend heavily on Chinese tourism and commerce. When its factories were targeted, Chinese representatives reportedly admonished the Tatmadaw to better defend them. They then followed up with public criticism as well. After heavy fighting last month between the Tatmadaw and the China-armed Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, artillery shells landed inside Chinese territory in Yunnan. Chinese officials then reportedly rebuked the junta, warning it would take “the necessary response” if need be and calling for a halt to offensives near the border.

Perhaps most worrying for the junta, China has not completely jettisoned its previous ties to the ousted NLD. Chinese officials reportedly made contact with ousted lawmakers in April. In response to rumors that the junta plans to dissolve the NLD, Chinese representatives also reportedly pressured the Tatmadaw to refrain from doing so. Additionally, its public statements often equivocate by expressing its desire to see “both the military of Myanmar and political parties shoulder the important responsibility for the country’s stability and development.”

Furthermore, according to knowledgeable sources and a leak on Facebook by an NLD publication, the NLD sent a congratulatory letter following the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) World Political Parties Summit in July, and the CCP’s International Department Central Committee issued a private response singling out “friendly exchanges” and mainlining a “partnership.”

Although China has not confirmed nor denied the letter’s veracity, it points toward China’s hedging strategy as well as its historical differentiation between party-to-party and state-to-state relations in Myanmar. In a further sign of this dual-track policy, a Chinese envoy visited Naypyidaw in August and reportedly requested a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi but was denied. The Tatmadaw was quiet about a meeting it would typically publicize, and Chinese officials first revealed its occurrence. Most recently, the CCP invited the NLD and several other Myanmar parties to attend a virtual summit for Asian political parties in early September.

China has always played this double game in Myanmar. During much of the 20th century, the CCP supported the Communist Party of Burma at the same time as it engaged in relations with Yangon. During Myanmar’s earlier peace process, it both encouraged the EAOs it backs to play ball and it ignored their actions as semi-autonomous officials in Yunnan provided the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Northern Alliance with Chinese arms.

In doing so, Beijing maintains leverage along Myanmar’s borderlands and keeps a thumb on the peace process. Moreover, this balancing act extended to other political actors, which is perhaps best exemplified by efforts to satisfy the Tatmadaw with official visits during NLD rule. Today, Chinese leaders still balance ties and support between the central government and insurgent EAOs. China-backed groups, such as the UWSA and Arakan Army, exert their control and autonomy with the benefit of Chinese guns. More recently, it supplied the EAOs along its border with COVID-19 vaccines, including those actively fighting the Tatmadaw.

More directly, Chinese arms fight on both sides of the current conflict. While black market weapons from Thailand reach groups in the south and east, Chinese-produced equipment fuels the EAOs in the north and west. For example, the Kachin Independence Army deploys Chinese-made weapons, including FN-6 man-portable air defense systems, as it doggedly wages war against the junta to regain lost territory. In May, it reportedly shot down a Tatmadaw helicopter—perhaps with those surface-to-air missiles.

China’s collaboration with the Tatmadaw is a marriage of convenience with little love lost between the two—but one that will remain together for the foreseeable future. As self-proclaimed prime minister, Min Aung Hlaing recently traveled to Moscow to court Russia and balance against Beijing, but there are limits to the junta’s maneuvering. Russia is far away, and China is all too close. Considering the billions of dollars China pours into infrastructure and other licit and illicit businesses, such as jade mining, the junta and its leaders need China’s support, its money (both for relatively aboveboard and under-the-table private wealth), and its cooperation on the peace process. Certainly recognizing this reality, the junta has worked diligently to reassure Beijing and advance China’s chief interests, most notably CMEC.

Thus far, Beijing’s strategy simultaneously shields the Tatmadaw and hedges its bets with the EAOs and anti-junta opposition behind closed doors, even if it is at considerable reputational cost and risk. If it pays off, China could see its influence expand and interests advanced. But as widespread public anger at China and the junta’s outreach to Russia may suggest, this approach may not satisfy everyone over the long term. It may even be counterproductive, for CMEC delays can be attributed to Myanmar’s ongoing internal instability and wariness of China.

However, there is little prospect for a change to China’s strategy. Some have argued the United States could cooperate with China or that China is incentivized to support the opposition. But these arguments neglect the fact that an opposition victory is unlikely, and China likely views its current strategy as the correct one—not to mention Chinese interests at stake are greater than those of the United States. Perhaps if central authority seriously collapsed, armed intervention by China could be possible to protect its investments or it could tilt its support toward the opposition. However, the international community should not expect China to jettison the military absent a fundamental shift in the balance of power on the ground—even as it still hedges its bets.