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Foreign Policy

China's Potential Role in Tackling the Myanmar Crisis

Jun 05, 2024
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

Myanmar’s civil war has now entered into its fourth year. The Myanmar Air Force has dropped more bombs per capita than have been dropped in the ongoing war in Ukraine, though international interest in the region appears to have waned considerably in light of the two ongoing conflicts in Eastern Europe and in the Middle East. 

The state finds itself enmeshed in turbulence, skirmishes, and conflicts between the military, a number of armed ethnic groups and secessionist armies, and pro-democracy activists and campaigners – reminiscent of the harrowing second half of the 20th century in the country’s history. Those who had yearned for a more democratic and accountable government after decades of military rule had their hopes dashed as the relatively brief period of civilian rule abruptly came to an end with the 2021 coup. 

Whilst rebel groups such as the Arakan Army and Karen National Liberation Army appear to have made some progress in seizing military-controlled territories, the opportunism of those who seek to play both sides such as Saw Chit Thu (with leverage over the Myanmar-Thai border) and the enduring presence of the military in more developed regions essential to the national economy, render the talk of an imminent rebel victory rather implausible. The Tatmadaw may not be prevailing, but it is equally unlikely that any other group will emerge clearly victorious in the foreseeable future. 

China’s interests in Myanmar 

A key stakeholder that some have touted as a prospective peacemaker is the northern neighbour to the country – China. Beijing’s stance on Myanmar’s trajectory and domestic politics remains deeply complex. Whilst the Chinese administration had enjoyed robust ties with the Aung San Suu Kyi-led NUD government prior to its toppling, many have suggested that the international isolation of the military junta state has conveniently – for Beijing – nudged the incumbent de facto ‘ruler’ of Myanmar, General Min Aung Hlaing, towards forging deeper cooperative ties with China for economic and geopolitical support. Indeed, as the West imposes further sanctions and Western multinational corporations continue to pull out of the country, Naypidaw has precipitously become more dependent on Beijing. 

Yet there is more to the China-Myanmar relationship than the apparent asymmetry and relation of dependence. Indeed, Beijing’s plentiful interests in the country are multi-faceted and vary over time in their relative weights. On one hand, Beijing evidently does not possess the ideological fixation over regime type and governing ideology as many in the West do – and has hence been able to manoeuvre and negotiate more dexterously with the junta in Myanmar. 

On the other hand, Beijing also recognises the clear defects and limits to the junta government’s ability to govern. Claims that China prefers the junta to the National League for Democracy-led cabinet under Daw Aung San on grounds of the former’s anti-Western sentiments fly in face of Beijing’s overarchingly economic regional objectives, as I argued in a piece when the coup first took place. A core component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative – specifically in relation to Sri Lanka and the rest of the Indian Ocean trade routes at large – turns on the infrastructural intactness of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). This requires the preservation of stability in both the border regions and the hinterland of Myanmar – something that the Tatmadaw is failing to deliver. 

Chinese diplomats are also keen on containing the violence and ensuring that the flare-ups do not spill over into its southwestern province of Yunnan. As the Chinese Ambassador to Myanmar Chen Hai wrote in an op-ed in January, China seeks “to play a constructive role in supporting the peace process in northern Myanmar and jointly maintaining peace and stability along the China-Myanmar border.” Indeed, as evidenced by Beijing’s tacit endorsement of at least elements of Operation 1027, an ambitious crackdown spearheaded by the Three Brotherhood Alliance on junta-affiliated associates and cyber-scamming criminal syndicates along the China-Myanmar border, Beijing is precipitously alarmed by the cavalier attitudes of the Tatmadaw towards regional security. 

How China has sought to navigate the quagmire

A complication rests with the fact that Beijing has less leverage over the Tatmadaw than many would expect. It is one thing to posit that Myanmar needs successful Chinese investment and continuous trade to flourish economically; it is another to thus conclude that the military regime’s survival turns on economic growth and dynamism. The basis of the junta’s durability rests with a combination of heavy-handed securitisation around politically significant locations – including Yangon and the capital – and the rifts that persist amongst those opposed to it.

Additionally, the junta has increasingly turned towards North Korea and Russia as alternative sources of military and technological support. Both states possess distinct conceptions of the international order and territorial laws as compared with China. Internationally, Beijing is seeking to maintain a delicate balance in deepening ties with Russia whilst arresting a free-fall in relations with Europe and the U.S. Regionally, China cares about maintaining its access to the Bay of Bengal whilst pressing forward with stagnating infrastructural projects. These are concerns that neither Moscow nor Pyongyang particularly shares.

More importantly, Min Aung Hlaing has neither a clear succession candidate nor a concerted viable opposition to his heavy-handed rule. Despite his hugely unpopular policies – including the deeply repugnant conscription law that has precipitated a significant exodus of the country’s talents – Min has managed to consolidate the security apparatus and rally enough of the military leadership against potential challengers to his rule. The Tatmadaw remains reasonably well-stocked in ammunition via both official imports and unofficial smuggling through its neighbouring countries, with which the country shares porous borders. Furthermore, the army’s co-optation of select militia groups has worked to its distinct advantage.

How Beijing should move forward

If China is indeed determined to facilitate peace and restore some semblance of normalcy to the governance on the ground, it is imperative that Beijing – through both diplomats on the ground and bureaucrats in Yunnan – undertake a more proactive set of steps to put real pressure on all parties to come to the negotiation table. A more progressive Myanmar policy remains firmly compatible with Beijing’s principled commitment to non-interference with the decisions of self-determining, sovereign nation-states.

Firstly, China should deepen and harness its ongoing engagement with all major parties and sides to the conflict, including the Three Brotherhood Alliance, the National Unity Government (which retains the representative post in the United Nations), as well as the other members in the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (e.g. the Kachin Independence Army). This should be done with the intention of facilitating negotiations – with China serving as a lead guarantor – between the warring parties in the country.

Secondly, Beijing should signal more explicitly to the military leadership that the status quo remains untenable, not only for the interests of Myanmar, but for the regional stability across both the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. Such messaging is vital in order to empower critical recalibration and calculations within the Tatmadaw, which would potentially compel them to re-assess their ongoing tactics towards the armed opposition and supporters. A viable exit strategy and off-ramp – one that could well feature drastic changes to leadership structure – might be necessary in order for the country to turn a new leaf.

Thirdly, it behoves China to work closely with ASEAN member-states in coordinating over questions ranging from humanitarian assistance to temporary ceasefire zones or United Nations peacekeeper presence in the country. The persisting instability in the Rakhine State has no doubt contributed towards the plight of the Rohingya people, and it falls upon Myanmar’s neighbours to the East to demonstrate that ASEAN can and should do more. Of course, such talk could be easier said than done, given the apparent divides between member-states. Yet the least that can be done is for Beijing to actively emphasise its desire for an expedient and relatively satisfactory resolution to the crisis.

The above three recommendations are by no means straightforward. It will take much shrewdness for Beijing to both grapple with the interests and mindset of the junta government whilst addressing the needs of those fervently opposed to it. Yet if there is a power that could pull it off, it would have to be China – in conjunction with regional partners.

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