China has been pursuing a duplicitous policy towards Myanmar which hinges on border security, relations between Beijing and Naypyitaw and Chinas ambitious BRI projects in Myanmar.
China finds itself in an advantageous position given the geo-political matrix that prevails along the China Myanmar border and Chinese links with various Myanmar-based insurgent organisations.
The China-Myanmar border remains critical for China per se mainly because of the presence of ethnic groups along both sides of the border with strong common identities. For instance, the Kachins in Myanmar and Jinphos in China are of the same ethnic stock while the Wa are found on both sides of the border. There is also a significant Mandarin speaking Han population inside Myanmar who have close linkages with families inside China. These are people who have settled in the area over the years.
Such deep ethic linkages have been a concern for the Chinese as Beijing would not want to see the spillover of any intra ethnic confrontation into its own territory. Moreover, there have been times when Myanmar Air Force aircraft have accidentally flown into Chinese territory during anti-insurgency operations and shells fired by the Myanmar Army have at times landed on the Chinese side. With the insurgent groups usually resorting to arms and drug smuggling to sustain their operations, China remains concerned about them.
At the same time, Beijing realises the advantage of remaining in touch with such ethnic entities as it not only serves the purpose of better understanding their activities and keeping them under control, but also use them as a tool to exert pressure on the Myanmar government.
The peculiar geographical feature of Myanmar with various ethnic groups located at distant locations, almost disconnected from the centre, has opened the space for China to engage them with more alacrity. The Chinese approach has been to either collaborate with the government and neutralise such groups or to work closely with them groups. Given a choice, China prefers the latter option.
China has been maintaining close relations with the various ethnic groups spread along the border to the extent that their control over some of these groups is more impacting than that of the Myanmar Government. China has been able to influence these groups to participate in internal negotiations with the Myanmar government thus sending out a signal to Naypyitaw that China intends to play a positive and recognised role in Myanmar government’s negotiations with these groups.
China thus has been calibrating its relations with Myanmar at different levels with the ethnic issue being one of the crucial components of its Myanmar engagement. China designated a special envoy to serve as lead point of contact and formal observer to Myanmar’s peace talks who plays a crucial role in facilitating talks between ethnic armed organisations and Myanmar government. This excessive control of China over the Myanmar insurgent groups remains a cause of concern for Myanmar.
At the bilateral level, China has remained engaged with the Myanmar government at different levels, including in the international arena where China has supported Myanmar as and when Myanmar faced flak by the internationalcommunity on issues such as ethnic cleansing in the Rakhine State. China has protected Myanmar fromsanctions at the UN in the past on the issue.
There has also been a high frequency of visits between the two sides, especially after the military Junta came into position. Visiting Chinese leaders have reiterated the Chinese position that China intends to work closely with the military government in Myanmar to boost mutually beneficial bilateral cooperation and settle all problems jointly.
The BRI projects are of prime significance to the Chinese and they would go to any extent to safeguard theseprojects. On this issue, while they need the support and assist the Myanmar government, at the same time they would have to ensure that the insurgent groups operating in areas where the projects are being implemented are also kept on the right side of the Chinese.
There is no doubt that the BRI projects are of prime relevance to the Chinese and they would want them to be viable and safe from any hindrance. In July 2018, Myanmar approved three economic cooperation zones on the Myanmar-China border. Moreover, the China-Myanmar high-speed railway project or the Kunming-Kyauk Phyu Railway, was revived when China and Myanmar signed an MoU in October 2018to conduct a feasibility study.
China would never let go the natural advantage it has in Myanmar to be able to placate various insurgent groups and keep the power center in Naypyitaw on the edge. The ability of these insurgent groups to strike hard successfully against the Myanmar Army gives China the added advantage of keeping the Myanmar government in line.
The possibility of the Chinese adding teeth to select insurgent groups and enabling them to become more lethal, thereby exerting pressure on the Myanmar government in case the situation so demands remains a reality today. China has also been wary of Myanmar’s relations with other countries in the region and in the event of any deviation of track by Myanmar in as far as its foreign relations is concerned, China has enough possibilities to cause irritation to Naypyitaw playing the insurgency card. An unstable Myanmar would be detriment to the interest of the Myanmar government.