Written by Christopher B. Primiano.

In autumn 2017, both the US and the UN stated that Myanmar’s actions toward its Rohingya population amounted to ethnic cleansing. In addition to such censure, Myanmar received strong criticism from its south Asian neighbours. Amid the apparent persecution and a mass exodus of the minority, tense talks have been held between Myanmar and western leaders. However, Myanmar has been able to find a powerful state that is willing to work with it on its terms. Instead of adding to the chorus of countries and international organisations condemning Myanmar’s leaders for complicity in the persecution of the Rohingya, the Chinese government seeks to assist the Myanmar government in a deferential manner. As a result, Beijing has hosted many of Myanmar’s leaders—both military and civilian.

China’s support for Myanmar is consistent with a pattern of issuing statements and voting in the UN General Assembly to shield the governments of developing countries regarding perceived human rights abuses. At the same time, China also regularly votes in the affirmative on human rights resolutions that target the governments of Western countries. For example, while Chinese representatives have issued statements in the UN that support Palestinians and others that are oppressed by ‘Western’ states, they do not tend to issue statements or vote to condemn developing states that oppress their own populations. This pattern is reflected in China’s accommodation of Myanmar’s leaders.

China’s actions regarding the Rohingya crisis stand in contrast to the more productive deeds on other issues involving humanitarian affairs, such as UN peacekeeping operations (UNPKOs). In the 1970s, China viewed UNPKOs as examples of exploitation of developing countries by the US and the USSR, and thereby did not provide any funding or troops. The Chinese government has fundamentally changed its views of UNPKOs and now commits the largest number of UNPKO troops among the UN Security Council’s five permanent members. Speaking at the UN in 2015, Xi Jinping pledged that China will commit 8,000 troops to a standby force for UNPKO missions. In contrast to this turnaround, Chinese governmental actions on resolution of humanitarian crises caused by civil or ethnic conflict haven’t changed a great deal.

Why the inconsistency regarding, on the one hand, China’s positive evolution on UNPKOs but, on the other hand, the lack of evolution on support for other human security issues? The bulk of Chinese UNPKOs are involved in some respect with infrastructure development. In other words, the vast majority of China’s UNPKOs are for non-combat operations. This reflects the emphasis that the Chinese government has on infrastructure development globally rather than human security issues per se. Regarding infrastructure, the bulk of Chinese foreign aid is allocated for related projects in developing countries, especially African countries. This overall emphasis on infrastructure fits neatly with the China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s desire to be more active internationally is especially relevant for both the BRI and the China-created Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (AIIB). In order for the BRI to succeed, political stability is essential, especially in Southeast Asia. While Xi Jinping and the Chinese government enthusiastically promote BRI and the AIIB, human security in itself does not appear to be a high priority objective.

China’s growing economic strength and internationalisation has also seen a massive increase in Chinese nationals living and working aboard. Such a situation places the Chinese government in a positon that it needs to protect its overseas nationals. This was demonstrated when China evacuated over 35,000 of its citizens from war-torn Libya in under two weeks. Such a desire to protect its own citizens whilst avoiding involvement in contentious domestic issues of other countries is reflected in the debate occurring within China about whether or not the country should amend its stated principle of non-interference. Having said that, we should not expect China to pressure non-democracies to reform. China will in all likelihood, maintain strong support for leaders who are viewed as despots in the West, as the case of Myanmar demonstrates.

In stark contrast to western governments, China is now aiming to help rehabilitate Myanmar. The Chinese government even prevented a UN resolution denouncing Myanmar’s behaviour over the Rohingya crisis. China is, in short, using its influence at the UN and in world politics to help the Myanmar government and, by extension, to delay action regarding the plight of the Rohingya people.

Chinese conduct over the Myanmar Rohingya crisis serves to illustrate its position vis-à-vis international politics more generally. The Chinese government has even stated that it is willing to help advance dialogue between Myanmar and Bangladesh (the country that, despite its inadequate resources to house such a massive influx of refugees, has absorbed well over half a million of the Rohingya) on this issue. Put differently, China does not appear to be interested in organising a coalition of states, international organisations, such as the UN or any of its organs such as the UN High Commission for Refugees, regional organisations such as ASEAN, or involving non-governmental organisations that have experience in dealing with a crisis of this magnitude. Despite its positive evolution on UNPKOs, it is not calling for a UNPKO mission. Instead, it wants to limit the talks only to the main country involved (Myanmar) with possible Bangladeshi involvement regarding Rohingya repatriation. In short, China’s handling of this crisis reflects its more familiar preferences regarding world politics, that is, support for the governments of the developing countries rather than the minority groups that are suffering.

Christopher B. Primiano is a Teaching Fellow in the School of International Studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China and a Fellow of the China Policy Institute. Image Credit: CC by Prachatai/Flickr.