Myanmar Political Transition a Dilemma for China

Given Myanmar’s geographical proximity and lasting economic ties with China –and a convincing win by the National League for Democracy in November general elections, Beijing is watching events unfold in the political capital of Naypyidaw with great interest.

In the words of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s foreign policy will have to focus on balancing relations with both neighbors and nations far apart. However, for this diplomatic approach to be feasible, the new cabinet must reduce the country's historical dependence on China and diversify foreign partners.

Political conditions permitting – namely, as now seems likely – if the military does let the NLD sweep to power, the United States and the European Union (EU) can be expected to increase investments in Myanmar. Washington and Brussels eased sanctions on the Myanmar government as early as 2011, when a quasi-civilian government took the helm after five decades of authoritarian military rule. Since then, Western countries – along with India and Japan – have gained a foothold in the country to the disadvantage of China, which had been in essence the sole political and economic benefactor during the military’s reign.

Given the country’s constitution, which was written by the military, Suu Kyi and the NLD are faced with having to run the government in Naypyidaw in forced cohabitation with the generals, which could be expected to play into Chinese hands at first sight. But given that the former junta has ultimately been the architect of Myanmar’s economic overtures toward China’s competitors from Asia and the West, Chinese leaders will likely have to rely on something other than the generals if they want to maintain a clout over their southwestern neighbor.

Beijing’s “strategic assets” in Myanmar include Chinese ethnic armed militias – as well officers of Chinese origin in the national army, known as the Tatmadaw, in the eastern regions of the country, on the border with China’s Yunnan province.

Beijing remains Myanmar’s largest economic partner and is keen to defuse a hotbed of instability at its doorstep, in particular as it is stuck in territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas with its neighbors. In February, clashes between the Tatmadaw and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), a Chinese ethnic force, spilled over into Yunnan from the Kokang Special Region of Shan States in eastern Myanmar.

Not least, a bomb dropped by an aircraft of the Burmese air force killed some Chinese civilians. Immediately afterwards, the Chinese government lodged a diplomatic protest with Naypyidaw and scrambled fighter jets along the border. Then, three months later, artillery fire landed across the Chinese border and wounded five people. In June, in response to the “incidents,” China conducted a military drill in Yunnan in a show of strength that involved Beijing’s army and air force.

The decades-long military confrontation between the Burmese military and armed ethnic organizations has been damaging the potential economic development of landlocked Yunnan, which Beijing is eager to turn into an energy hub for shipping coming from Africa and the Middle East. Now, a gas pipeline and an oil conduit run from Myanmar’s coastal region of Rakhine, on the Bay of Bengal, to Yunnan. The development of these infrastructure projects has sparked environmental protests in areas where armed ethnic militias demanding more autonomy from the central government in Naypyidaw are combative and defiant.

Myanmar’s leadership has officially thanked China for its mediating role in the signing of the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) that the Myanmar cabinet and eight non-state armed groups inked on October 15. But in the lead-up to the conclusion of the negotiations, voices mounted in Naypyidaw that Beijing was sabotaging the settlement to prevent Japan and Western nations from taking a role in the future monitoring process – Tokyo, the EU and the US were invited to sign the NCA as international witnesses along with India and Thailand.

Some armed ethnic militias in Myanmar look to China for halting ongoing conflicts with the Tatmadaw. Current fighting between the army and the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) has triggered the displacement of over 10,000 people, according to a Shan state humanitarian organization. New skirmishes between government troops and the MNDAA have recently taken place in the Kokang Special Region, while air strikes and ground offensives continue in Kachin State, which was one of several organizations refusing to sign the agreement and where the Burmese military faces the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

On the eve of the November polls, during a summit of ethnic groups that did not sign the NCA (including the SSA-N, MNDAA and KIA), the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Myanmar’s most powerful armed ethnic militia, with a fighting force estimated at some 20,000 soldiers, overtly invoked China’s intervention to broker a deal between ethnic armed outfits in Shan State and Kachin State on one side and the Burmese military on the other.

The nature and timing of the plea made by the United Wa implies that China probably undertook some pre-emptive action ahead of the polls. Suu Kyi, who could prove to be a more pragmatic leader than is generally thought, is conscious of Beijing’s capacity to play the ethnic card for its own ends in Myanmar. It is no coincidence that she has recently highlighted the “special” position that China holds in the Burmese politics.

The attitude of armed ethnic formations linked to Beijing toward the new government in Naypyidaw will likely reveal something of how the Chinese leadership intends to handle the apparent transition of power.

Emanuele Scimia is an independent journalist and foreign policy analyst.