Webinar on “Myanmar’s Relations with Russia and China: Convenience or Co-optation”

In this webinar, two long-time experts discussed Russia and China’s interactions with Myanmar since the military coup in February 2021, and also shared their thoughts on bilateral relations in the present scenario.


Tuesday, 16 April 2024 – The Myanmar Studies Programme at ISEAS invited Dr Ian Storey, Senior Fellow at ISEAS, and Ms. Yun Sun, Senior Fellow, Co-Director of the East Asia Program, and Director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, to discuss Myanmar’s relations with Russia and China. The session, moderated by Ms Moe Thuzar, Coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme, attracted 75 attendees.

Clockwise from top left: Ms Moe Thuzar (moderator), Dr Ian Storey and Ms Yun Sun. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Myanmar’s Relations with Russia

  • Myanmar-Russia relations significantly strengthened after the military coup in in Myanmar on 1 February 2021 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022.
  • Russia viewed the coup in Myanmar as a golden opportunity to expand its influence in Myanmar and Southeast Asia, utilising the strong personal relationships between senior leaders of the two countries to consolidate this relationship.
  • Since 2021, Russia has openly engaged with the State Administration Council (SAC) regime and supports the Myanmar military’s narrative by branding the resistance movement (against the military) as terrorists. High-level Russian officials have attended Myanmar Armed Forces Day parades. Russia has hosted SAC chief Min Aung Hlaing three times since the coup.
  • Reciprocating Russia’s support for the 2021 coup, the SAC endorsed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Myanmar is the only ASEAN member state to do so. However, Myanmar’s vote at the United Nations (UN) has consistently been against the Russian invasion, reflecting the position of the National Unity Government (NUG) which represents the civilian resistance position against the military. Myanmar’s permanent representative to the UN has openly supported the NUG since 2021.
  • Since 2010, Myanmar’s military has relied more on Russia for weapons due to distrust of Beijing and dissatisfaction with the quality of arms acquired from China. Under Min Aung Hlaing, this trend intensified, with acquisitions such as Sukhoi-30 fighters, Yak-130 light combat fighters, military helicopters, surface-to-air missiles, and drones. Since the 2021 coup, Russia has replaced China as the primary arms supplier of Myanmar.
  • The SAC’s increasing dependence on airpower in the ongoing conflict in Myanmar has led to more reliance on Russian-made aircraft, and less on Chinese-made aircraft. The SAC is also acquiring jet fuel from Russia.
  • The SAC has transferred spare parts for T-72 tanks and ammunition manufactured in Myanmar to Russia for use in the ongoing Ukraine war. Myanmar is the only ASEAN member to send such support to Russia.
  • The SAC has sought Russia’s help to address Myanmar’s worsening energy crisis following the coup. In the short term, Myanmar imported more Russian crude oil at a discount, some of which is transferred to China via Sino-Myanmar pipelines. For a longer-term solution, the SAC aims to enlist Russian assistance in developing offshore gas fields abandoned by international energy firms, as well as wind, hydropower, and, most controversially, nuclear power.
  • The SAC and the Russian state-owned atomic agency Rosatom have signed a Memorandum of Understanding, wherein Rosatom undertakes to enable Myanmar to generate electricity using nuclear power through cheaper, safer, and smaller modular reactors (unlike conventional ones). However, details regarding the operation of these reactors, funding, and responsibilities, remain unclear.
  • The SAC’s pursuit of civilian nuclear energy has reignited international concerns about its potential development of nuclear weapons. Rumors have circulated about Myanmar’s military operating a clandestine nuclear weapons program with North Korean support since the 2010s, but no concrete evidence has emerged. However, it is unlikely that Russia would undermine its relations with China and nuclear non-proliferation treaties by assisting Myanmar in acquiring nuclear weapons.
  • In 2022, the Central Banks of Myanmar and Russia agreed to a direct Rouble-Kyat payment scheme to facilitate commercial transactions. However, Myanmar’s bilateral trade with Russia is just over 100 million USD, while Myanmar-China trade is 11 billion USD. Despite rumours over potential Russian investments in major infrastructure projects, Russia is not in a position to pursue such investments.
  • The SAC’s attempts to attract Russian tourists also faces stiff regional competition from other (more attractive) regional destinations such as Thailand and Bali, Indonesia. Even so, Myanmar Airways has launched a direct flight to Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city, a major producer of Russian fighters and bombers, and the home of Rosatom.

Myanmar’s Relations with China

  • China’s position on Myanmar since the 2021 coup is a combination of (at time self-contradicting) ambivalences. Beijing has been reticent in responding to the situation in Myanmar decisively and upholds a non-intervention policy towards Myanmar unless China’s self-interests are critically threatened. China’s intervention in the aftermath of Operation 1027 launched by ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) including the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in Northern Shan State, thus differs significantly from its usual non-intervention policy.
  • Since January 2024, the MNDAA has regained control of the Kokang region, prompting the SAC to consider negotiating border-trade arrangements. China mediated an agreement between the MNDAA and the SAC to share tax revenue from border trade. Such arrangements between Naypyidaw and EAOs with territorial control in some border areas of Myanmar are not unprecedented, however.
  • The present border-trade agreement between the MNDAA and the SAC is separate from China’s ongoing concern regarding cybercrime (which prompted China’s initial involvement). The repatriation and deportation of the cybercrime leaders, which continued after the border-trade agreement was signed, includes prominent ex-Kokang militia leaders.
  • However, the present cybercrime crackdowns may not provide a lasting solution, as cybercrime gangs only require an internet connection and electricity to operate. It is highly likely that cybercrime operations may relocate from the China-Myanmar border to restart elsewhere, such as further south near the Thailand-Myanmar border.
  • Questions remain, too, on how the MNDAA and other EAOs which had relied on cybercrime operations for income/revenue in the past will find other income-generating activities to sustain themselves after (re)gaining territorial control of the region.
  • Nevertheless, China places an emphasis on stability in the border regions. For example, in early April 2024, China conducted a two-day live-fire drill near Kachin State along the China-Myanmar border, just after the Myanmar military lost a border town to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). This move was to check the fighting between the KIA and SAC troops, after China’s efforts to mediate between the SAC and the MNDAA to stabilise the situation along the China-Myanmar border.
  • China, like its Western counterparts, is concerned about potential fragmentation in Myanmar. In the present conflict, it is unclear how the Myanmar military can wrest back territories ceded to various EAOs after various offensives in different parts of Myanmar following Operation 1027. However, despite the success of the EAOs, the stalemate persists, and the question of how the resistance can advance to reclaim the SAC-controlled heartlands remains unanswered.
  • Beijing’s co-hosting (virtually) with Naypyidaw the Lancang-Mekong leaders’ meeting in December 2023 seems to indicate China’s view of the SAC as the authority or counterpart to interact with in Myanmar. Even so, and despite ongoing discussions between China and the SAC regarding the future of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in Myanmar, including the expansion of the Kyaukphyu port and Mandalay-Muse railway, chances are slim for realising these projects under the current circumstances.
  • The conflict situation in Myanmar after the coup has caused China to view Myanmar as “SAC is failing, NUG is not winning, however, EAOs are winning”. Beijing’s attitude is that historically, Myanmar has never been fully unified as a nation, and, as such, various ethnic identities seem to be stronger that a shared national identity. This view underpins Beijing’s attitude towards the NUG’s representation of a nationwide movement, though Beijing may not make any move to either prevent or support the NUG.
  • Nevertheless, China continues to monitor the current Myanmar conflict along various possible scenarios: a) a continuing stalemate with SAC in a weakened position and fragmentation potential more entrenched; b) changes in the SAC caused by either external or internal pressure; c) the resistance (the NUG, EAOs, and other forces resisting the military) restructuring respective visions of the future direction for the country.

The audience raised several questions regarding Myanmar’s relations with its immediate neighbours, the sustainability of the SAC’s airpower, China’s ongoing efforts to address cybercrimes, potential further engagement of China with EAOs along the China-Myanmar border, and the situation in Rakhine State.