Myanmar’s domestic politics are central to China’s strategic interests, and are testing Beijing’s core principles.
Myanmar’s political transition has spawned debates and deliberations in policymaking circles and strategic communities across the world. The economic and strategic spinoff of the political changes has generated immense attention and interest. Not least in China.
As recently as 2011, prior to its “opening up,” Myanmar was not only considered cut off from international engagement, it was mostly seen as a Chinese vassal state. Yet the history of China-Myanmar relations reveals that the “Pauk-Phaw” (fraternal) era has in fact been rather checkered. Under U Nu’s presidency (1948-1962), bilateral relations have been described as “cautious but friendly.” Myanmar’s initial cautiousness towards its much larger neighbor was an outcome of an incursion by the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) in 1952. The incursion was designed to cut off Kuomintang forces trying to attack China from Myanmar’s northern Shan state. In 1954 however, the “Pauk-Phaw” phase began, based on the tenets of peaceful coexistence.
In the 1960s, relations hit a rocky patch with anti-China protests in the then capital, Rangoon (Yangon). The protests were a reaction to the active support China provided to the Burmese Communist Party (BCP) and other insurgent groups in the northern reaches of Myanmar bordering China. The Chinese support was seen as an extension of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution and caused anti-China sentiment within Myanmar.
By the late 1980s, bilateral relations were gaining traction. China’s leader Deng Xiaoping’s visit to Myanmar, President Ne Win’s assistance in China’s bid to improve relations with Cambodia, and the end of Chinese funding of the BCP all led to stronger ties. Significantly, during this period internal politics within Myanmar were also undergoing a shift. The policy of isolationism followed by Ne Win led to deteriorating economic conditions at the domestic level, resulting in anti-government protests in 1988. A military regime subsequently took over, as Ne Win’s influence receded.
The advent of the military junta in 1988 marked a shift in relations between China and Myanmar. Several factors, external and internal, encouraged closer ties. The military junta was not recognized by the international community because of its use of force against civilians during the 1988 protests. Moreover, the military regime overruled the 1990 election results, which favored the National League for Democracy (NLD) headed by Aung San Suu Kyi. This led to sanctions against the state and a collapse in international support. Meanwhile, China itself was being condemned for its brutal putdown of the Tiananmen Square protests, which had their corollary in the “8.8.88” peoples uprising in Myanmar. The disintegration of the BCP in Myanmar in 1989 removed a major impediment to bilateral relations. What followed has been described as a “Sino-Burmese military entente.” Relations subsequently strengthened markedly, to the point that Myanmar has been called a “vassal” state of China.
The decision by the military regime to open up Myanmar (albeit economically more than politically) has, by and large, been seen as a reaction to the country’s over-dependence on China and the latter’s allies. Proponents of this argument point to the Myitsone dam. The project has prompted protests against the Chinese developers so intense that President Thein Sein elected to cancel it. The issue of the controversial dam is presently uncertain, with China contesting the legality of the cancellation.
But while fissures seem to be erupting between the two states, the reality is quite different. In fact, given the likely motivation for China’s engagement with Myanmar – the development of China’s Yunnan province – the changes taking place in the Southeast Asian country are not as unfavorable for China as is generally perceived. Moreover, China has invested heavily in oil and gas pipelines in Myanmar, as an alternate energy route that eases its heavy reliance on energy transport through the Malacca Straits. The recent opening of the China-Myanmar pipeline is a step in this direction. The Kyaukphyu pipelines that run through Myanmar and into the hinterlands of Yunnan Province and the construction of the port at Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) are indicative of how China is using infrastructure development within Myanmar to promote its energy security. Myanmar also plays a crucial role in China’s One Belt One Road policy and is a significant partner in the Maritime Silk Road initiative being promoted by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Myanmar’s ongoing reform could also help China capture new markets. China has already entrenched itself in various sectors in Myanmar over the years and understood the nuances of working with the country. This puts the Chinese in an advantageous position when it comes to maneuvering in the evolving economic landscape in Myanmar. However, dealing with the internal tensions within Myanmar could prove to be the real challenge.
Politics in Myanmar is a complex conflict between the center and periphery. The center comprises the majoritarian Burmese identity which controls the seat of power. The periphery consists of the minority ethnic identities, such as the Kachin, Shan, and Wa. The center-periphery dynamics are manifest even in the geographical disposition, which has the ethnic minorities residing in the peripheral areas and the central region controlled by the majoritarian Burmese group. Most resources such as jade, hydropower, and timber are situated in the periphery, while resources such a natural gas can be found in the center. As rebel groups from the periphery launch attacks against the central forces, it not only takes a toll on national cohesion but creates problems for neighbors.
Myanmar’s internal churning clearly impacts how external players such as China engage with it, especially since they share a long 2,000 km border. The implications are clearly reflected, for instance, in the spillover of conflict as seen in the recent clashes between the Kokang rebels and the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s army is called. The infighting has led to the loss of Chinese life. Apart from stray bombs landing within Chinese territory, reports have emerged suggesting Burmese warplanes have entered Chinese air-space and conducted air strikes.
Importantly, the Kokang rebels – called the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) – are ethnically Chinese. According to the provisional results of the 2014 census, the Kokang region has a population of around 95,000 who are predominantly ethnic Han Chinese. The rising hostilities between the rebels and the Tatmadaw could stoke Han Chinese nationalism. In a move to allay nationalist sentiments against the Burmese forces, some reports have indicated that the Chinese government has blocked images of ethnic Han Chinese injured or killed by the Tatmadaw on Weibo and other social platforms. At the same time, though, MNDAA Chief Peng Jiashen has used social media to appeal to the Chinese to “remind themselves of our common race and roots and give money and efforts to rescue our people.”
In reaction to the recent bombings and loss of Chinese life, the People’s Liberation Army is said to have increased its presence along the border areas. The PLA and Air Force have stepped up patrols in the border villages, where incursions have been reported.
Meanwhile, the conflict in Myanmar is creating a humanitarian problem for China, with an influx of more than 30,000 refugees into China. In previous Kokang incidents – in 2009, 2012 and 2013 – China was criticized for being slow with its humanitarian response. This time around China has reacted quickly, setting up refugee camps and bolstering the presence of PLA along the border. This signaled to the Tatmadaw that Beijing was taking the issue seriously.
In light of these recent developments, the extent to which China will stick to its cardinal principle of non-interference remains critical. Although China has stayed out of the domestic issues of the states it actively engages with, Myanmar is more complex. As the Kokang incident shows, ethnic border tensions pose threats on multiple levels. From causing humanitarian crises along the border to possibly fuelling Han Chinese nationalism against the Tatmadaw, the fighting in Myanmar is a potential worry for China. That puts Beijing in a tricky spot, one in which instability in a neighbor impinges on its strategic interests.
How Beijing balances its principle of non-interference with management of the problems emerging along the border will largely determine the future of relations between China and Myanmar. Past experience suggests that China will be reluctant to become directly involved in Myanmar’s center-periphery conundrum. The anti-China protests of the 1960s, which resulted from Beijing’s support for the BCP (which also included the Kokang group) were a lesson that meddling in internal affairs can be more trouble than it is worth.
Yet China did play the role of an interlocutor in the Kachin conflict when it had implications for border stability in 2012. So to some extent Beijing has already been actively involved in the center-periphery conflict. The military signaling and more frequent patrols along the border underscores the increase in tensions on the border. Clearly, staying true to that policy of non-interference won’t be easy.
The strategic interests outlined previously, and which range from energy security to building the Maritime Silk Road and developing the Chinese interior are all linked to Myanmar. The extent to which these strategic interests will trump ethnic border issues remains a key question. In all likelihood, Beijing will push for improved ties with Myanmar even as local Yunnan officials pursue their own interests and interact with rebel groups for resources such as jade and timber. In the long run, this duality could create a rift in bilateral ties. To avoid that, China will have to keep a close eye on the internal politics of Myanmar and find new strategies for practicing its cardinal policy of non-interference.
Ramya P S is a junior research fellow at the International Strategic and Security Studies Programme, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore.