Russia and China draw closer over Myanmar and Taiwan

Foreign Affairs

The Dragon and the Bear will only get closer as Western tensions with China and Russia mount.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with the leader of Myanmar since the February 2021 coup, Min Aung Hlaing. Image via Russian Foreign Ministry on Twitter.

With U.S.-Russia relations reaching new lows, and U.S.-China relations set to go from worse to even worse, Beijing and Moscow were reminded about the “positive” aspects of their arranged marriage amid political crises in Myanmar and Taiwan.

United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week has thrust the island into the international limelight — and into Russian foreign policy. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Pelosi’s visit to the self-governed democracy, saying that her visit was “a clear provocation in keeping with the U.S.’s aggressive policy of comprehensive containment of the PRC.”

  • The Foreign Ministry also stated that it believes that Beijing “is entitled to take any measures necessary to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity” (including military force, presumably).

Pelosi’s visit to the island comes amid growing concerns in the Biden administration that Beijing will seek to militarily coerce Taiwan near the time of its January 2024 presidential election. Greater U.S. concerns about a potential military crisis in Taiwan will also have implications for the war in Ukraine, and may constrain Washington’s willingness to supply scarce military arms to Kyiv.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, met with his counterpart in Myanmar on August 3. In official remarks reported by the Russian Foreign Ministry, Lavrov expressed “solidarity with the efforts of the Prime Minister and Government of Myanmar to normalize and stabilize the situation in the country.”

  • Russia is the top arms supplier to Myanmar’s ruling government, which seized power in a coup on February 1, 2021, violently suppressed peaceful protests, and executed four political prisoners on July 27. The country is in the midst of a civil conflict, and potentially even a civil war, with some Western analysts calling on Washington to supply arms to the opposition.

China’s foreign minister, Wáng Yì 王毅, had signaled Beijing’s support for the military junta at a meeting on July 3. While putatively urging talks between the junta and the opposition, Beijing, along with Moscow, vetoed a UN Security Council vote that expressed concern about the “violence and serious humanitarian situation in Myanmar.”

  • The Myanmar junta is also leveraging surveillance technology purchased from China to identify regime opponents, although it isn’t clear if the military government is receiving any technical assistance or implicit support from Beijing, as some of this software was purchased by the prior government.

Despite its growing support for the junta, Beijing’s backing of the military regime may be conditional: In the early days of the coup regime, some analysts believed it would hedge its bets.

  • India, meanwhile, is pursuing an uneasy balancing act between supporting democratic reforms in Myanmar while also seeking to preserve its interests in a key neighboring country.
  • Refugees from Myanmar are a contentious issue in India, while Myanmar is a major exporter of rare earth minerals to China.

While Moscow and Beijing have squabbled over sanctions compliance, spy scandals, and the Kremlin’s meddling in Kazakhstan, this week’s events in Myanmar and Taiwan served as a reminder to both authoritarian powers about the benefits of their relationship. Whether you want to call their relationship an axis of convenience, an arranged marriage, or an entente, both Moscow and Beijing are drawn together by a shared distrust of the constitutional democracies, led by Washington and Brussels.