When Chinese President Xi Jinping met Myanmar’s military commander-in-chief Senior General Ming Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw earlier this month, it was not clear which of the two raised the issue first. But side-stepping the 800 pound gorilla in the room — new Chinese weaponry fueling Myanmar’s civil wars — was never going to be an option.
Over the past year, those Chinese weapons have cost the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, hundreds of lives. And as the fighting season gathers pace in western Rakhine state, the likelihood of another high death toll in 2020 will cast a long shadow in army circles over the triumphant hailing of a “new era” in Sino-Myanmar amity and cooperation that attended Xi’s historic state visit.
Almost certainly not by coincidence, the day before the January 18 meeting – the sixth meeting between Xi and Min Aung Hlaing — the Tatmadaw’s public relations wing ensured that the “discovery” of a rebel cache of Chinese munitions made on January 15 in Hsenwi township in northern Shan state received wide media publicity.
Images released by the Tatmadaw did not fail to highlight production batch markings of “2018” stamped on the 107mm surface-to-surface rockets, indicating an arms pipeline that has been recently active and does not rely on legacy stocks.
The Hsenwi seizure followed an even larger one in November in nearby Namhsan township that included a Chinese FN-6 surface-to-air missile, an ominous development which Min Aung Hlaing reportedly raised in a meeting in early December with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
Xi’s diplomatic handling of the increasingly thorny issue was predictable, but at the same time notable for the fact that for the first time it was being publicly articulated by China’s supreme leader.
First came pointed assurances that Beijing would continue to have Myanmar’s back in international fora over Tatmadaw war crimes and possible genocide visited on the Rohingya – atrocities for which Min Aung Hlaing risks being held personally responsible.
Xi then reaffirmed that China never permits its territory to be used to harm its neighbor and that accusations that it has supplied ethnic armed organizations in Myanmar with munitions were baseless.
He did, however, add that these organizations could acquire Chinese weapons through what the official Tatmadaw account of the meeting translated as “other ways” and promised that China would “carefully scrutinize” matters and “solve (the) problem.” Both men understood perfectly what “other ways” involve. Some of them have been, if not public knowledge, at least open secrets for some time.
In Xi’s China, “other ways” almost certainly do not include purportedly out-of-control corruption among “rogue generals” of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) stationed in Yunnan province bordering northern Myanmar.
Contrary to years of speculation and rumor in Myanmar and beyond, today’s PLA is a modern and disciplined force that does not allow surface-to-air missiles, wheeled artillery and container loads of modern small arms to be slipped out of its arsenals and across international borders in exchange for brown envelopes.
In the real world, the primary, if not sole, conduit for arms reaching northern ethnic armed organizations in Myanmar runs through the Special Division administered by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), a powerful, well-organized ethnic force in a long-standing ceasefire with the Tatmadaw and with historic ties to Beijing.
Over the last decade, the UWSA has reportedly sold a variety of munitions to allies of the so-called Northern Alliance comprised of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Arakan Army (AA) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
In addition to Chinese-designed Type-81 assault rifles that the UWSA manufactures and markets itself, these transferred weapons have included Chinese-manufactured 107mm rockets, Type-69 rocket propelled grenade launchers and 12.7 millimeter M-99 sniper rifles which have been used to lethal effect by the MNDAA and AA in particular.
In recent months, Asian intelligence officials and well-placed ethnic sources have confirmed to Asia Times that much of the Chinese weaponry purchased by the UWSA since 2011 has been channeled through neighboring Laos.
Official end-user certificates (EUCs) issued to cover exports by state-run manufacturers such as North China Industries Group Corporation (NORINCO) and China National Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation (responsible for FN-6 foreign sales) have listed the Lao Defense Ministry as the recipient, the same sources say.
In Laos, “grey zone” trading takes over: the munitions are understood to be trucked through the northwest of the country, across the Mekong River to the port of Sop Lui, and into Wa-controlled territory via Special Region 4 run by the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), or Mong La group, an UWSA neighbor and ally also observing a ceasefire with the Myanmar military.
Whether the role of the Lao and Mong La authorities is compensated in cash or kind is, like much else in the illicit trade, opaque.
To the extent that the Lao connection has emerged as the major conduit in providing Beijing plausible deniability for arms sales to non-state actors in Myanmar, it appears unlikely that Chinese weaponry is still crossing the China-Myanmar border directly, as in the days of Beijing’s support for the defunct Communist Party of Burma and through into the 2000’s.
But at the very least armed groups in Myanmar are still able to use China to acquire dual-use technology, hire technical experts and invest money.
How long it will take Chinese authorities to “scrutinize” these matters and “solve” Min Aung Hlaing’s growing problem as Xi promised is likely, however, to depend as much on the Tatmadaw and its approach to Myanmar’s peace process as on China.
Unsurprisingly, Xi’s comments prompted a wave of skeptical media commentary in Myanmar suggesting that China was playing a double game aimed – in the words of the online publication The Irrawaddy — at keeping its smaller neighbor “unstable and weak.”
But while reflecting long-latent distrust of the country’s giant northern neighbor, that argument fails to recognize a central reality that is hardly of China’s making: Myanmar’s own chronic inability to solve its ethnic minority problem as the Tatmadaw persists in attempts to impose centralized rule enshrined in its 2008 constitution on wide regions of the country that have resisted it fiercely for decades.
Short of ethnic surrender or the Tatmadaw’s willingness to consider meaningful autonomy – neither of which appears today remotely likely – abandoning a policy of tolerating the grey market arms trade that sustains ethnic forces has little to recommend it in Beijing.
A Chinese arms cut-off would arguably only encourage the Tatmadaw to ramp up its campaign of bludgeoning minorities into submission, thereby inviting further instability, conflict and refugee flows along Myanmar’s northern borders with China.
And that would effectively put on hold indefinitely Beijing’s strategic plans for advancing China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) ambitions that seek to give China a strategic opening on to the Bay of Bengal.
Beijing’s best option is thus arguably the one it is pursuing: maintaining cordial relations with both sides while pushing for a ceasefire that would at least freeze or reduce hostilities, and at best underwrite a more durable stand-off of the type that has brought 30 years of peace and development to the autonomous regions run by the UWSA and Mong La group.
The situation in northern Myanmar is arguably already close to the former scenario – a fragile but probably sustainable bilateral ceasefire with Northern Alliance members.
In Kachin State, the tired and aging leadership of the once proud KIA has already shown no stomach for further fighting since taking a battering at the hands of the Tatmadaw in 2018. Throughout 2019, the Northern Alliance’s largest force with 8,000-9,000 troops under arms was conspicuously missing-in-action.
In contrast, the KIA’s guerrilla allies based in northern Shan state, the TNLA and ethnic-Chinese MNDAA, launched a telling offensive in August 2019 that underscored their strength as potential spoilers in Sino-Myanmar relations.
Several days of attacks severed major trade arteries between Myanmar’s central city of Mandalay and China and humiliated the Tatmadaw with a salvo of rockets on army facilities in the garrison town of Pyin Oo Lwin, not far from Mandalay itself.
Since then, however, both groups have participated in Northern Alliance negotiations with the military and in January extended a unilateral ceasefire until the end of February – all apparently in response to Chinese pressure.
For both Beijing and Naypyidaw the main stumbling block to a settlement is the Northern Alliance’s fourth member, the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army and the escalating war it is waging hundreds of kilometers away on Myanmar’s western seaboard in Rakhine state, where China has ambitions to build a strategic port at Kyaukphyu.
[This installment is the first of a two part series]