Sun Guoxiang, China’s special envoy for Asian affairs, has repeatedly expressed public support for Myanmar’s peace process. According to the transcript of a meeting Sun held in late February with representatives of two Myanmar ethnic armed ceasefire groups Sun said: “China has a unique foreign policy towards Myanmar and respects the sovereignty of Myanmar…we are only doing our duty as a friendly neighbor.”
Sun’s cordial tone cuts a sharp contrast with the China-backed United Wa State Army’s (UWSA) militant message delivered with seven ethnic armed groups delivered around the same time against the Myanmar government’s “national ceasefire agreement” – a joint salvo which caught many observers off-guard and raised new questions about China’s true position towards de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s peace initiative.
China’s multi-layered policies towards Myanmar are often seemingly contradictory but under examination have their own logic. Envoy Sun’s positive message is the surface layer of China’s diplomacy, which is almost always publicly characterized as “amicable” and “friendly” with regional countries it engages.
The second layer consists of the International Liaison Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (ILD/CPC). The body was originally set up in the 1950s to develop contacts with other communist parties and support revolutionary movements across the globe.
These days, however, ILD/CPC representatives are often seen at conferences and fora hob-knobbing with political parties of all ideological stripes. The ILD/CPC also supports various non-state groups, including armed resistance organizations like the UWSA, which serve China’s long-term strategic and economic interests.
The third layer is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which maintain links with other militaries across the world. Apart from selling weapons to foreign governmental and nongovernmental clients, directly or through front companies, it has provided beneficiaries such as the UWSA with a wide variety of weaponry. Some of those armaments are then shared with other ethnic armed groups actively fighting against the government.
China may have transformed its economic system from rigid socialism to free-wheeling capitalism, but politically it remains an authoritarian one-party state where the CPC is above the government and military. And the old policy of maintaining “government-to-government” as well as “party-to-party” relations has not changed.
Consequently, China’s main man in dealing with Myanmar’s many political actors is not Sun but rather Song Tao, head of the ILD/CPC. Song, a senior politician and diplomat, was educated at Monash University in Australia and served as an assistant to the Chinese ambassador to India in the early 2000s before becoming ambassador himself to Guyana and the Philippines.
In October 2015, Song took part in a high-profile visit to North Korea and the following month took over the post as ILD/CPC chief from Wang Jiarui, a CPC veteran who was in charge of maintaining contacts with communist members in countries like North Korea, Cuba and Vietnam.
While Song is not a high-profile figure like Sun, he is known to work actively in the background and apparently prefers to meeting with Myanmar politicians and top soldiers in Beijing rather than Naypyitaw. Song did meet with Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw last August, just weeks before the launch of her peace process.
The differentiation between “government-to-government” relations maintained by China’s foreign ministry and the CPC’s “party-to-party” links with groups such as the UWSA — and with the CPC positioned above the government in Beijing as well as the PLA — explains why China can publicly praise Myanmar’s peace process while quietly providing the UWSA with heavy weaponry.
Recent arms shipments to the UWSA have included man-portable air-defense systems, armored fighting vehicles, heavy artillery and other sophisticated military equipment. “That is not the kind of stuff that falls off the back of a truck or could be sent to the UWSA by some local officials in Yunnan [province],” said one military observer, noting the deliveries were almost certainly directed from the highest level in Beijing.
Despite fighting between the Myanmar army and some UWSA-supported ethnic groups in the country’s north, it may not be China’s desire to see even more unrest along its southern border. But a strong UWSA, which sometimes shares its China-supplied arsenal with its armed ethnic group allies, serves as a “stick” in its relationship with Myanmar while diplomacy and promises of aid, trade and investment are the “carrot.”
Significantly, the participants in the Panghsang meeting called upon China to supervise the peace process, including their talks with the government, going forward. They also declared support for China’s “One Belt, One Road” development strategy proposed by Chinese leader Xi Jinping to open new trade routes between China and the rest of Eurasia.
Myanmar, China’s chief corridor to South and Southeast Asia as well as the Indian Ocean, is far too strategically important for Beijing to allow Western peacemakers, who have descended upon the country in droves since 2011, to seize influence over the country’s future direction.
China often shielded the previous rights-abusing military regime from international criticism, an arrangement that allowed Beijing to make deep economic and political inroads into Myanmar. After a brief hesitation during the transition from direct military to quasi-democratic rule, Beijing is now reasserting its power over the country through time-tested multi-layered policies.