Chinese President Xi Jinping listens to Myanmar's President Htin Kyaw during their meeting at the Great Hall of People in Beijing, China April 10, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Yohei Kanasashi/Pool

The second in a planned series of meetings between the Myanmar military, the government and various ethnic armed groups aimed at establishing peace in the country’s decades-long civil war was concluded last week in the capital Naypyitaw. The clear winner of the event’s deliberations: China.

Myanmar authorities insisted before the meeting that talks would not he held with three of the seven ethnic armed groups active in the country’s conflict-ridden north because they had taken up arms after the peace process began.

The groups that were invited to the conference were told they must sign a detailed accord, known as the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), before any major political talks are held.

Yet China flew representatives from all seven northern armed groups, none of which have signed the NCA, in a chartered plane that departed from the nearby Chinese city of Kunming and landed in Naypyitaw. The move effectively presented Myanmar’s civil and military authorities with a fait accompli to include the ethnic armies that Beijing tacitly backs in the peace process.

United Wa State Army soldiers during a media display in Panghsang, Wa territory in northeast Myanmar October 4, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

Some Western observers had somewhat naively believed that Beijing would put pressure on the northern groups to sign the NCA, not realizing that China’s pressure was applied instead on the Myanmar government to include its allies in the talks without pre-conditions.

The seven groups, led by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), a close Chinese ally, had already made clear that they were interested in holding dialogue before signing any NCA.

Not surprisingly, the meeting — dubbed 21st Century Panglong after an agreement signed by Myanmar nationalist leader Aung San and Shan, Kachin and Chin representatives on February 12, 1947, which paved the way for Myanmar’s independence — ended inconclusively.

China is playing a complex political game, part of which includes the rehabilitation of the UWSA, traditionally the region’s largest drug-trafficking militia. In recent years, the heavily armed group has been more media friendly than ever, even allowing foreign journalists to visit its secretive headquarters at Panghsang.

Over the past year, the UWSA has played host to several meetings with many ethnic armies, mainly those situated in the north, but also others that have long operated along the Thai border. China has shown directly and through its UWSA ally that it is now the most important foreign actor in Myanmar’s peace process.

While the West, including the European Union, Norway, Switzerland and the United States, have spent millions of dollars on seminars for issues such as women’s participation in the peace process, conflict sensitivity and capacity building, and sponsored study trips to post-conflict Northern Ireland, Colombia and South Africa, China has played its cards more subtly.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Brussels, Belgium May 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Eric Vidal

The longer talks in Naypyitaw and Panghsang continue, the stronger China’s role will become. An immediate end to Myanmar’s long-running civil war is in many ways not in China’s strategic interest.

Rather, a prolonged peace process would give China a chance to assert its mediating role and pressure Myanmar authorities to reciprocate through concessions and privileges, including Beijing’s desired strategic access to the Indian Ocean in western Rakhine state.

While maintaining close relations with Myanmar’s government and military, China has also supplied the UWSA with sophisticated weaponry, some of which has been shared with the group’s six armed allies, among them the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army in Kokang, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Shan State Army-North and, to a lesser extent, the Kachin Independence Army.

A smaller group, the Arakan Army, is also a member of the Northern Alliance, as is the National Democratic Alliance Army in easternmost Shan State. China’s relations with those seven groups, which by some estimates account for more than 80% of all rebels under arms, puts it in a position which no other foreign power can match.

The Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), a Palaung ethnic armed group, parading as they mark the 51st anniversary of its resistance in Myanmar’s northern Shan state. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

Sources familiar with the peace process emphasize that China’s interests in Myanmar go far beyond peace between the government and ethnic armed groups.

“Peace-making is a tool, not a goal for the Chinese,” said one well-connected observer. By playing the role of interlocutor, China can regain some of the influence it lost when the previous quasi-civilian government reopened to the West, including the US, beginning in 2011.

The Myanmar government’s suspension of the US$3.6 billion Myitsone dam project in northern Kachin state in September of that year is known to have surprised and angered Beijing. It subsequently watched with apprehension as Western leaders, among them US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, paid high-profile visits to the country.

Now, while Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government recoils from Western criticism of its abusive treatment of the Rohingyas, Muslims living in the country’s west, China has blocked attempts to raise the issue at the United Nations Security Council. As was the case when the US and Europe imposed harsh sanctions on the previous military regime, China is seemingly now again Myanmar’s top diplomatic ally.

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, May 16, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Damir Sagolj

Beijing’s bid to regain lost influence through the peace process should also be viewed from the perspective of its broader geopolitical interests, analysts say. Multi-billion dollar hydroelectric dams, mining ventures and other commercial interests are not at the top of China’s strategic priorities in Myanmar.

“Access to the Indian Ocean is,” says one well-placed Myanmar observer, noting China’s CITIC Group Corporation’s won a contract last year to build a deep-sea port at Kyaukpyu in western Rakhine state that faces the Bay of Bengal.

A prolonged peace process would give China a chance to assert its mediating role and pressure Myanmar authorities to reciprocate through concessions and privileges, including Beijing’s desired strategic access to the Indian Ocean in western Rakhine state.

China is already involved in similar port projects in Gwadar in Pakistan, Chittagong in Bangladesh and Hambantota and Colombo in Sri Lanka. Of all these, however, analysts say Kyaukpyu is the most important as it provides China’s southwestern industrial areas with a direct corridor to the Indian Ocean.

It is uncertain when the next 21st Century Panglong meeting will be held in Myanmar. While Western nations and nongovernmental organizations have been largely sidelined and marginalized, China has taken a clear leading role in the peace process.

Myanmar’s fiercely nationalistic military, which has made clear its desire to diversify the country’s diplomacy and strategic relations away from over-reliance on China, is now no doubt on a back foot.

But given China’s relative strength — and the West’s haphazard, ad hoc approach to Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts — Naypyitaw may have no choice but to accommodate Beijing’s requests for economic and strategic concessions in exchange for peace in its ethnic hinterlands.

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