China has emerged as the most important outside player in Myanmar’s escalating crisis, endorsing the military administration just as the generals are losing control of large swaths of the country and consolidating dominance over various ethnic armed factions on their shared borders.
Last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Qn Gng made his first official visit to Myanmar, meeting with junta Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw. Peace talks between ethnic resistance organisations (EROs) and the junta were also held in Beijing. Meanwhile, the military’s proxies, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), paid a visit to Yunnan Province.
Analysts worry that Beijing has gained significant clout over Myanmar’s struggling leadership and a number of armed players operating along the country’s porous borders. For more over two years, the junta has used Chinese and Russian fighter jets and weapons to kill, airstrike, and shoot down people and resistance fighters throughout the country.
China has ceased aggressively pressuring the state to resume Myanmar’s democratic transition, as well as expressing support for jailed leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party. It has continued to ignore the underground National Unity administration (NUG), a parallel administration formed by elected and deposed NLD MPs.
The growing weight of China in Myanmar
Experts and diplomats warn that this is not without risks. According to some estimates, Myanmar’s generals control less than half of the country, and efforts to bring them to the bargaining table with ethnic forces have yet to yield dividends. Beijing’s backing also shields the junta from international pressure to back down, extending the civil conflict and jeopardising China’s strategic interests.
However, Chinese officials are unlikely to see it that way. China intends to ensure that Myanmar’s fragmentation — comparable to China’s historical “Seven Warring States” period over 2,200 years ago, according to one seasoned Burmese observer — will fend off any significant Western presence.
China’s increasing power
The growing weight of Beijing in Myanmar, a country larger than France situated between India, China, and Southeast Asia, has significant strategic ramifications for the area. The junta intends to provide Beijing with access to the Indian Ocean via a projected Chinese-led deep-sea port in western Myanmar, as well as railways and roadways connecting the port to Yunnan via northern Myanmar.
Myanmar’s military has also openly supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s claim to Taiwan. This has the potential to upset the balance of power in Southeast Asia, where the United States and China have been battling for influence.
According to China scholar and former diplomat Michael Ng, Beijing’s viewpoint is related to internal politics, after President X Jinping centralised decision making and marginalised the foreign affairs ministry.
Support for General Min Aung Hlaing
“In the same month [March] that he secured a convention-breaking third term, Xi paid a state visit to Moscow even as Russia continues to bomb and pillage Ukraine,” Ng, a former Hong Kong government official in charge of Southeast Asian affairs, said.
“It is clear that Xi is doubling down on authoritarian regimes worldwide as long as they support his ambitions.” It’s not surprising that Xi sent Qin Gang to Myanmar to show his support for Min Aung Hlaing.”
According to many Chinese sources, Min Aung Hlaing’s leadership has been pushing for Chinese investment to return. Under the Myanmar junta, which has stopped releasing details of investment permits, Chinese investments rank first among permitted foreign direct investments.
“China is now backing the junta,” a diplomat in Yangon observed, referring to the regime’s extensive interaction with the Chinese government.
According to the diplomat, the important concern is how the regime would accommodate China’s economic and geopolitical objectives in Myanmar, which include the projected port, dams, and highways.
A decade of reformist governments, first by Thein Sein and later Aung San Suu Kyi, strove to connect big infrastructure ideas with Myanmar’s economic and environmental objectives, but the junta lacks the competence and political clout to do so.
China had long regarded Myanmar as its backyard under past military administrations, but felt marginalised when then-President Thein Sein opened up the country in 2011 and launched a process that resulted in modest democratic reforms in the hitherto isolated country.
China’s Access to the Indian Ocean
China recently sponsored discussions between the junta and three members of Myanmar’s ethnic army coalition, known as the Northern Brotherhood Alliance, in the Mongla district of northern Myanmar’s Shan state, near China’s Yunnan Province.
According to VOA, the meetings were intended to persuade the ethnic armies to support the junta’s planned elections, but they ended without an accord on June 2. Mongla is a Chinese-speaking region under the grip of a rebel faction.
The Chinese government’s major objective in Myanmar is to get access to the Indian Ocean via the proposed port of Kyaukphyu, as well as connectivity from Rakhine to Yunnan.
According to Tower, Beijing is providing significant political, economic, and tactical military support to the United Wa State Army, a formidable Chinese-speaking militia organisation dominating territory in northern Shan State and pledging nominal respect to Myanmar’s sovereignty.
As a result, China is “tilting the balance of power in favour of the Wa and supporting consolidation of the critical northern EAOs under UWSA leadership,” according to Tower. “Beijing is using relations with northern armed groups to put pressure on the junta, and in practise has abandoned its support for ASEAN’s leadership role in the Myanmar crisis.”
However, sources close to the Chinese say that Beijing was just dealing with whoever was in control.
“After keeping some distance with the Burmese generals since the coup,” a source close to Chinese government officials said, “China moved to fully engage with the State Administration Council (also known as SAC, the official name of the junta) a few months ago.” “The engagement has resumed, but the results haven’t.”
“China’s top priority in Myanmar is to gain access to the Indian Ocean through the proposed Kyaukphyu port and connectivity from Rakhine to Yunnan,” the source stated. “Chinese officials are aware of how unpopular the SAC is and how strong Aung San Suu Kyi’s support is.” However, Daw Suu went too far in her attempt to remove the Burmese military.”
Many will disagree with this evaluation. Suu Kyi struck a deal with the generals more than a decade ago and agreed to participate in the system under the military-drafted constitution, which banned her from becoming president and gave the military a large position in administration and parliament.
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