The Observer view: Xi Jinping is playing deadly games with Myanmar and North Korea

<span>Junta chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has extended a state of emergency in Myanmar in defiance of western sanctions.</span><span>Photograph: Aung Shine Oo/AP</span>
Junta chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has extended a state of emergency in Myanmar in defiance of western sanctions.Photograph: Aung Shine Oo/AP

Military coups and dictatorships rarely come to any good. But has any army takeover in recent times led to more utterly disastrous consequences than those suffered by the people of Myanmar since February 2021? For sheer, vicious stupidity and criminality, Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the junta chief, and his bloodstained associates take some beating.

Yet a beating is what they are getting at the hands of Myanmar’s civilian resistance groups, known as people’s defence forces, and ethnic minority armed groups long opposed to discriminatory Buddhist-majority regimes. A big offensive begun in October has overrun swathes of the country, forcing the surrender and mass desertion of junta troops.

These setbacks have shaken the army’s confidence. Morale is reportedly low; there is open criticism of its leadership. But the generals are not giving up. Defying new western sanctions, they extended a state of emergency last week. Latest reports speak of an increase in indiscriminate air and artillery attacks on civilians, adding to a long list of documented war crimes.

The UN estimates that two thirds of Myanmar is experiencing conflict, with 2.6 million people internally displaced. Nearly 4,500 people have been killed. About 20,000 are imprisoned. One third of the population – about 18.6 million people – now requires humanitarian aid, a 19-fold increase since 2020. This is in addition to the 750,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled mass killings, rapes and village burnings in 2017 in what rights groups say was a genocide.

Myanmar’s unending agony represents a huge failure by the international community to uphold UN treaties and fundamental human rights. But while the US, Britain – the former colonial power – and other western democracies may be criticised for not doing enough, their leverage is limited. Shaming, too, is the inability (or refusal) of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to take effective action. Some member states actively connive with the regime.

Yet most dismaying, though unsurprising, is the self-interested stance taken by China, which prioritises national interest over law and justice. Beijing has long played a double game in Myanmar, sometimes backing governments, sometimes siding with ethnic rebels. Its current, unambitious aims are to protect its huge belt and road initiative investments, curb cross-border crime and prevent any spillover of the fighting.

This approach is typical of President Xi Jinping, who often lectures the west about non-interference in other countries’ affairs. Yet China and its close ally, Russia – both big arms suppliers – have unmatched influence in Myanmar and do in fact regularly interfere there, for selfish commercial purposes. Such hypocritical behaviour plainly contradicts China’s responsibilities as the leading regional player and would-be global superpower.

A similar situation obtains in North Korea, another rogue state over which China exerts considerable influence. Beijing is the principal diplomatic and political ally of North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, his main trade partner and biggest food supplier. Without China, his regime would probably implode.

Why then does Xi sit back and watch as Kim escalates his reckless campaign of nuclear weapons-related missile tests, the latest of which occurred last week? Western analysts suspect he enjoys the resulting discomfort of Japan and South Korea. The fact Kim’s antics distract US attention from Taiwan may be a factor, too.

But in the bigger, global picture China is setting a terrible example. The proliferation of nuclear weapons threatens all mankind. Kim’s threats to fire intercontinental ballistic missiles at the US mainland and bomb his neighbours are deeply destabilising and dangerous. And China itself is not immune. As a developing country that benefited immeasurably from the US-led global security order, China must now take its turn – and step up. With power comes responsibility.

Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 250 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at