Following a peaceful election and a smooth transition of power to the current National League for Democracy (NLD) administration in 2015, Myanmar has signaled its commitment to continued political reform and economic liberalization. However, threatening what could eventually culminate in a peaceful and democratic state are the unresolved conflicts with the nation’s armed groups. Since assuming power, the NLD has prioritized and advanced the peace process, first launched by the previous U Thein Sein government, and political dialogue with hopes of ending the long-enduring fracture afflicting the country and accomplishing what has been elusive reconciliation for the first time since becoming independent in 1948.
National reconciliation does not just impact Myanmar’s political and economic interests; it is also important to China. As the largest neighbor and sharing the longest border with Myanmar, China has and will continue to play a prominent role in the nation’s stalled peace process. Their role in talks is not without controversy in Myanmar and it will have to be cognizant of sensitivities to ensure that it can positively contribute and not undermine the overall process.
Beijing has previously been criticized for turning a blind eye to trading operations between Yunnan province and rebel groups such as the Kachin Independence Army and the United Wa State Army. Many of these ethnic insurgencies are located near China’s southern border and have established a robust network of trade relations with Chinese contacts. The flow of provisions, weapons, and money across the border is a vital source of survival for armed groups. Some of these insurgencies have even garnered support among Chinese netizens: the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), an armed insurgent group with a large ethnic Chinese population, manages a page on Weibo, a popular Chinese microblogging platform. MNDAA’s Weibo presence enables it to receive anonymous donations for its cause and has notably been marked as an official government channel by Chinese internet regulators, a striking sign of recognition.
Despite Beijing’s apathetic responses to past conflict, which at best could have largely been characterized as laissez-faire tolerance, China has recently demonstrated a recharged dedication to adopt a more resolute role in the reconciliation process. The Chinese Foreign Minister met with de facto head of state, Aung San Suu Kyi, a few days after the inauguration of the NLD administration with proposals of how Beijing can support peace measures. Beijing followed up by presenting a letter at the 2016 Union Peace Conference signed by three armed ethnic groups that previously abstained from signing the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. The state-owned Agricultural Bank of China also recently suspended bank accounts used by rebels, a move that earned praise from the NLD government. Such developments indicate a decidedly different tone in Beijing’s stance and a trend of Chinese willingness to engage in resolving friction between the Myanmar national government and ethnic armed groups.
Several factors can account for Beijing’s orientation to a more active role in the peace process. Amicable ties with rebel groups have become a liability to Chinese interests. Escalating violence poses the risk of engendering cross-border crises, with the possibility of rebel soldiers seeking haven in Yunnan’s dense jungles in order to consolidate against attacks from the Myanmar Army or innocent civilians crossing the Chinese border to escape the conflict zone. Moreover, there have been numerous reports of artillery shells landing in Chinese territory, resulting in Chinese citizens being wounded by stray bullets, putting citizens in danger of death or further injury from the neighboring civil war. Continued rebel activities in Myanmar may also inspire existing separatist movements in China, a risk that Beijing would be keen to prevent considering the Chinese government’s inherent distrust of its own ethnic minority separatist groups.
Perhaps the most significant impetus for the noticeable new direction of cooperative Chinese involvement is the domestic instability posed by armed groups, a liability that could beset Beijing’s One Road, One Belt (OBOR) initiative. By providing access to the Indian Ocean, Myanmar remains a critical pillar in China’s regional designs. Infrastructural projects may be obstructed by violence, compromising Myanmar’s ability to effectively act as the strategic conduit between South Asia and southern Chinese industries as Beijing envisions. The ongoing conflicts present a direct obstruction to infrastructural projects as China attempts to link Yunnan province to the Burmese coast. Indeed, observers have already voiced concerns that operations of the newly opened crude-oil pipeline between the Myanmar port city of Kyaukpyu and Yunnan will be vulnerable to conflict. This link is crucial to Beijing’s intentions of bolstering energy security, allowing China to circumvent the Straits of Malacca by importing oil from the Middle East on a quicker route. However, the pipeline runs through areas held by rebels and its services may suddenly be halted due to potential escalations in the volatile situation.
Although ethnic insurgencies may not singlehandedly derail China’s intentions to incorporate Myanmar in its OBOR framework, the lack of support from Myanmar could. Beijing already has experienced this when former President Thein Sein suspended all work on the Chinese-funded Myitsone hydropower dam in October 2011, a project that has yet to resume. The armed groups also present an indirect obstruction to the OBOR initiative as China’s perceived relationship with the rebels could harm Sino-Myanmar relations. Realization of a successful peace process could also improve relations with Naypyidaw at a time when Myanmar has expressed intentions to pivot away from Beijing’s economic clout and political orbit. Chinese stakes in Myanmar, including business investments and ambitious connectivity projects, are all affected by the Myanmar central government’s backing or lack thereof. China may view that assisting in the peace process may help secure the NLD’s support for OBOR related initiatives and Chinese enterprises.
Additionally, at a time of growing international engagement in Myanmar, China must compete with other states to preserve its influence. Beijing may very well be pursuing trust and preferred status with the NLD government – which has made resolving ethnic conflict as a top priority – via constructive involvement in the peace process. Cultivated relations could be a leverage Beijing seeks to harness as a tool to counterbalance aggressive Japanese foreign investments and increasingly closer ties with New Delhi, as India attempts to integrate Myanmar as the linchpin in its Act East policy.
China has an evident incentive to assume a peacemaking role in Myanmar. Its intentions cannot be portrayed as selfless but instead, are rooted in ulterior motives to safeguard its interests. Border safety, civilian protection, regional projects, energy security, and political influence are all considerations which might be liable to jeopardy, contingent on whether Beijing can successfully contribute to the peace process. Thus, China’s interests in Myanmar transcend geographic proximity and make Beijing an eager, although perhaps in some ways unwelcomed, participant in the peace process.
A growing distrust of Chin across civil, government, and military spheres in Myanmar indicates a recognition that China is not a neutral actor. Naypyidaw should acknowledge that despite the fact that Beijing is an impartial stakeholder in the peace process, it is not a tenuous variable but is and will continue to be a perennial presence. Viable paths to lasting peace will involve China in some capacity and Naypyidaw should craft a strategy to incorporate Chinese efforts cohesively. At the same time, the NLD should be cautious to not to be too reliant on Chinese involvement and understand that Chinese power has its limitations. Although China was successful in bringing more groups to the negotiating table at the 2016 Union Peace Conference, the notable absences of the Arakan Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army illustrated the extent of China’s influence in the peace process.
Ultimately, China’s role in the peace progress will be decided by how Naypyidaw decides to integrate Chinese involvement. Beijing should respect Myanmar’s status as a sovereign state and should refrain from conducting affairs with rebel groups in a unilateral manner. While concerns of whether China is an honest broker might be valid, Myanmar should be ready to lead the peace process and consider carefully deliberated avenues to exercise Chinese support. With calculated coordination between the NLD government and Beijing, both countries can calibrate a successful strategy to achieve enduring peace in Myanmar.