Within the ASEAN, Myanmar’s renewed autocratic tilt means the country could join Laos and Cambodia as key lobbyists for China’s interests, said people aware of the matter.
Where China has friction with ASEAN states such as Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea, it can leverage support from Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand to keep the grouping off balance and deprive it of consensus decision-making, said one of the persons, who did not wish to be identified. More than half of India’s trade passes through the South China Sea Region.
China has been working through Cambodia to deny consensus on South China Sea issues at the ASEAN. Myanmar’s support could strengthen China’s case, said experts.
While Myanmar’s generals were growing wary of China over the past few years over the Belt and Road Initiative debt and interference in local ethnic issues, China could come to their rescue at the United Nations.
If the US and Europe impose sanctions, it will be a big blow to Myanmar’s economy. The military junta could be forced to shift attention to China. Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia are the three countries that rely heavily on China. All three have accepted Chinese investment and loans that are 1.6 to 2 times larger than their annual expenditures.
Even as Myanmar’s trade with Japan, the US and Europe has been increasing, China is still the largest importer and exporter, accounting for more than 30% of its trade. The trend of economic ties with the international community should continue to disallow Myanmar from getting totally close to China, said another person.
According to the World Bank, Myanmar’s outstanding debt to China was $3.34 billion at the end of 2019, down 26% from the end of 2015. This is in contrast to the 72% and 34% increase respectively in neighbouring Laos and Cambodia over the period. China’s share of external debt in Myanmar fell to about 30% in 2019 from nearly 45% in 2015.