As Myanmar prepares for yet another round of peace talks with ethnic armed groups, all eyes are on China.
With all the Western outfits involved in Myanmar’s peace process effectively sidelined, China has emerged as the only outside force that matters due to its substantial leverage over both insurgents and the government.
Unlike Western interlocutors, however, China has engaged with the various players in Myanmar’s decades-long ethnic wars for strategic reasons other than peacemaking. And Beijing has recently shifted its strategy to pursue those interests in response to shifting diplomatic currents.
The ultimate aim of China’s Myanmar policy is to secure access to the deep sea port at Kyaukpyu in southern Rakhine state, defend the oil and gas pipelines it has built across the country and maintain Myanmar as a safe corridor for its landlocked southwestern provinces to the Indian Ocean.
That link allows China to hedge its so-called “Malacca dilemma”, a strategic chokepoint through which as much as 80% of China’s maritime oil imports flow that Chinese strategic planners fear the United States could block in a conflict scenario.
Former Myanmar president Thein Sein shocked China — and the world — when he announced on September 30, 2011 that Myanmar had unilaterally decided to suspend the construction of the Myitsone hydropower dam in country’s far north because “it was contrary to the will of the people.”
The Beijing-backed US$3.6 billion dam would have submerged 766 square kilometers of forestland, diverted the flow of the nation’s main Irrawaddy river, and exported 90% of its generated power to China.
Until then, Myanmar was widely perceived as a mostly obedient Chinese client state. Thein Sein’s decision, in retrospect, was more an outcome of internal military politics than concern about the popular will. Indeed, it was the first clear signal to China that Myanmar wanted to be less dependent on its powerful northern neighbour and improve relations with the West.
The shift worked initially, with Myanmar’s ties to the US, European Union and others improving at a remarkable pace. Months after Thein Sein’s Myitsone dam announcement, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a high-profile visit to Myanmar, the first such trip by a top-ranking Washington official in more than 50 years.
Clinton was followed by then President Barack Obama in November 2012, who returned two years later with much fanfare as Myanmar finally took its turn as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In May 2013, Thein Sein became the first Myanmar head of state to visit the US since former military dictator General Ne Win’s tour in 1966.
Relations between Myanmar and the West became even more cordial after elections in November 2015 which catapulted former political prisoner and pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) to power.
Warming Myanmar-US ties in particular prompted China to seek new ways to shore up its then flagging bilateral relationship. In 2012, academic-style journals in China ran several articles that analyzed what went wrong with Beijing’s Myanmar policy and what could and should be done to salvage it.
One proposed measure was to launch a public relations campaign in Myanmar aimed at overhauling China’s negative image, including perceptions its investments and projects were designed only to benefit Beijing.
China also began to reach out to other sections of Myanmar society ― including the NLD and other democratic groups ― utilizing a “government-to-government”, “party-to-party”, and “people-to-people” approach employed elsewhere in the region by the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC).
The strategy has gone beyond building contacts with only a limited circle of military leaders and their business cronies. NLD members were invited to China, as were local intellectuals and journalists. “Party-to-party” relations also entailed contacts with Myanmar’s rebel movements, which the CPC has maintained with certain groups since the 1960s.
Since the suspension of Myitsone, China has repeatedly said that it wants to re-negotiate the multi-billion dollar deal to get it back on track. But a prominent businessman from the central city of Mandalay who has been dealing with the Chinese for decades and spends most of his time in border areas argues that the Chinese understand that the dam’s resumption is a nonstarter.
So, too, is the Letpadaung copper mine, a joint venture project between the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, a military run conglomerate, and China’s Wanbao Mining, a subsidiary of state-run North Industries Group Corporation (Norinco), a weapons maker.
For years, local villagers protested against the mine’s poor compensation schemes, environmental and health effects, and the destruction of a nearby important Buddhist shrine.
The businessman says that China realizes how unpopular both these projects are in Myanmar. And a resurgence of anti-Chinese sentiment is the last thing Beijing wants at a time when relations are fast improving and ties with the West have soured again due to the Myanmar military’s rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state.
The West has strongly condemned the carnage, which has driven around 800,000 Rohingya into camps across the border in Bangladesh, prompting talk of re-imposing sanctions against the Myanmar military.
China, on the other hand, has reassured Naypyitaw of its continuous support, which likely includes using its veto power to block any attempt by the UN’s Security Council to penalize Myanmar’s military for what the UN has described as “ethnic cleansing” and potentially “genocide.”
The International Criminal Court, meanwhile, is considering pursuing a case based on the Rome Statue that considers mass deportation a “crime against humanity.”
Until recently a darling of the West for its transition from direct military to quasi-democratic rule, Myanmar is now again viewed as an international pariah. State Counsellor Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has been accused of complicity in the carnage and stripped of some of the international awards she received during her long non-violent struggle for political freedom.
China is astutely leveraging into the shifting political winds to push its wider strategic aims. While frequently reminding Myanmar of its Myitsone dam and Letpadaung mine obligations, China is now pressing Suu Kyi’s increasingly isolated government to accommodate a stalled plan to construct a high-speed rail line connecting southern China to Rakhine state’s Kyaukpyu port.
A joint memorandum of understanding to build such a rail line was signed in 2011 but lapsed in 2014, mainly because the Myanmar side lost interest in the project.
The ultimate aim of China’s Myanmar policy is to secure access to the deep sea port at Kyaukpyu in southern Rakhine state, defend the oil and gas pipelines it has built across the country and maintain Myanmar as a safe corridor for its landlocked southwestern provinces to the Indian Ocean
Last year, China’s National People’s Congress members called for the rail line’s construction, with one NPC deputy reportedly saying that the project was needed to facilitate “China’s strategic plan of opening a trade route to the Indian Ocean”, according to a state media report.
In carrot and stick fashion, China is now using its influence over rebel groups and its self-assumed role as a peace broker to push that wider aim. It is an open secret that China has provided Myanmar’s largest and most powerful ethnic armed group, the United Wa State Army, with large quantities of advanced military hardware while at the same time talking about the need for peace.
Because China has not yet achieved everything in wants long-term in Myanmar, and in sight of its now much improved position in the country, Beijing is in no hurry to see a final, fast solution to the nation’s ethnic wars. That means Myanmar’s latest upcoming peace conference, tentatively scheduled for May, will likely be as inconclusive and uneventful as those held in 2016 and 2017.