A LMOST AS SOON as the tanks rolled into Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, in February, rumours began circulating on social media about how China would respond. It is a sign of its influence: China is probably the only country that could coax Myanmar’s generals to the negotiating table. The speculation was laid to rest only in June, when the Chinese embassy referred to Min Aung Hlaing, the Burmese commander-in-chief, as Myanmar’s “leader”. The next day, China convened a meeting of foreign ministers from ASEAN, a club of South-East Asian nations, and included the military government’s representative. With their putsch, the generals are trying to wind the clock back to 2010, when they still ran the show. China appears to be adjusting its calendar.

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China’s leadership and Myanmar’s top brass possess similar authoritarian instincts, but it was not inevitable that they would arrive at an understanding. The “Sinophobic” army has long been suspicious of China, says Yun Sun of the Stimson Centre, a think-tank in Washington. During the decades of military rule, when Western sanctions choked the Burmese economy, the regime survived because of Chinese trade and investment. But the junta was wary of depending too heavily on its northern neighbour. Intent on improving relations with the West, it liberalised the economy and put Myanmar on a path to democracy.

In turn, China made a friend in Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy activist who became de facto leader of the country in 2016. She went on to sign billions of dollars worth of deals with China before being toppled by the army. China probably would have preferred Ms Suu Kyi’s party to remain in government, says Ms Sun. It helped that she was wildly popular with the public; her imprimatur on investments from China served to allay anti-Chinese sentiment.

But Ms Suu Kyi is now under house arrest, and China is worried that the chaos in Myanmar will spill over the border, says Jason Tower of the United States Institute for Peace, an American-government think tank, also in Washington. Criminal syndicates are ramping up their activities in the lawless zones abutting Thailand and China. Refugees fleeing the violence are, despite border closures, trickling into China. Some carry covid-19. A Chinese city on the border was locked down on July 7th after the virus was detected there.

The fortunes of Yunnan, the poor Chinese province adjacent to Myanmar, hinge on stability on the other side of the border. Chinese investors flocked across because they see Myanmar as a portal to South-East Asian economies. Oil flowing through a pipeline from Myanmar supplies a refinery that contributes 8% of the province’s GDP. China’s cherished hope of finding a trade route that bypasses the Strait of Malacca, whose waters are clogged with American warships, also rests on Myanmar. At the terminus of the pipeline, on Myanmar’s western coast, China is bankrolling the construction of a deep-sea port which, once completed, will enable it to import oil and gas via the Bay of Bengal.

China has bet that the Tatmadaw, as the army is known, will deliver on its promise to restore stability. True, the coup has provoked formerly quiescent rebel groups to take up arms once more. But the Tatmadaw, which has the ear of the Chinese government, argues that it has a good record of preventing the country from disintegrating. China suspects that the opposition—a grab-bag of ethnic rebels and deposed parliamentarians—is no match for the organised, disciplined military. Generals are speeding up several big Chinese infrastructure projects to show their sincerity.

Yet by publicly backing the Tatmadaw, China may in fact provoke attacks on its interests. China’s refusal to condemn the coup was interpreted by many Burmese as tacit acceptance. Thirty-two Chinese-linked factories were torched in March. In May, three security guards at the natural-gas pipeline were killed in an attack.

China is concerned about an escalation of such attacks. But it is doing nothing to assuage the anger of potential saboteurs, to avoid crossing the army. Its officials have only limited communications with Myanmar’s shadow government, which most Burmese regard as their legitimate rulers. Chinese state media are also antagonising the resistance by suggesting that they are being “manipulated” by democracy activists in Hong Kong. China reckons that the hot-heads fighting the coup will lose steam before long, says Mr Tower. But it is a bet it would rather not have had to make.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “The Myanmar trap”