China’s influence in Myanmar's peace process has grown amid recent intense fighting in northern Shan state and ongoing armed conflict in northern Rakhine state, with government officials pushing for ethnic armed groups to meet with peace negotiators and agree to a bilateral cease-fire with the Myanmar military.
But not everyone in Myanmar trusts Beijing or sees its role as beneficial.
China jumped in last month after three members of the Northern Alliance group — the Arakan Army (AA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) — launched coordinated attacks on various locations in war-torn northern Shan state and neighboring Mandalay region, killing 15 Myanmar troops, policemen, and civilians.
The combined forces carried out further armed assaults on various bridges and border passages to disrupt overland trade with China in retaliation for what they said were offensives by Myanmar soldiers in areas the ethnic armies control.
As fighting intensified last month, Sun Guoxiang, special envoy for Asian affairs from China’s foreign ministry, met with the ethnic armies to express Beijing’s displeasure with the attacks and increased instability in the border region, and pressured them to stop fighting.
Chinese Ambassador Chen Hai met with Myanmar military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to condemn the violence, but said Beijing would “continue to support Myanmar’s peace process and possible ways to improve [the] peace dialogue,” according to a report by the online journal The Irrawaddy.
The armed groups decided to meet with Myanmar peace negotiators on Aug. 31 after China said it would guarantee them safety during the talks amid heightened mutual distrust on both sides because of the hostilities.
Now the Myanmar government has invited Northern Alliance leaders to meet with peace negotiators and Myanmar military representatives on Sept. 16 and 17 to discuss the cessation of hostilities and the possible signing of a bilateral peace treaty amid temporary cease-fires called by each side to allow time for trust building and discussion.
Analysts, however, say that China’s involvement in the efforts is largely self-serving and will not automatically yield an end to the fighting in the border region.
“As I understand, China’s primary interest is not securing peace in Myanmar,” said veteran journalist Bertil Lintner who writes for the digital news platform the Asia Times. “They want stability along the border. In addition, as a part of their policy, they want to maintain their relationships with both the government and the armed groups in the region.”
Belt and Road Initiative at stake
China’s primary motive for getting involved in Myanmar’s peace process is driven by its interest in securing border areas so that its infrastructure investments in Myanmar under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as the New Silk Road project, are not endangered, analysts believe.
A signature policy of Chinese President Xi Jinping, the multitrillion-dollar BRI infrastructure investment and lending program designed to link China with Asia, Africa, and Europe entails the building of three border economic cooperation zones in Myanmar’s war-torn Shan and Kachin states and the construction of the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone in Rakhine state where conflict between the AA and Myanmar troops has raged for months.
The Chinese have also pressured Naypyidaw to allow it to continue building the highly controversial Myitsone Dam project near the Kachin state capital Myitkyina, which was put on hold in 2011 amid protests over its social and environmental impacts.
“Since China is a powerful country with multiple interests, they will prepare [to intervene] from many sides,” said Hla Kyaw Zaw, an analyst on China-Myanmar relations, adding that the Chinese have also gotten involved in unstable regions in Africa to safeguard the country's BRI investments.
“For example, they are committed to bringing stability in Sudan,” he said. “Its New Silk Road project requires consistent stability in the region. … Likewise, the success of its projects [in Myanmar] depends on the stability in the border region where the northern ethnic armed groups are based.”
Despite China’s bid to use its influence to secure peace in Myanmar’s restive regions, what matters most is the willingness of Myanmar’s military and ethnic armed groups to reach consensus, said Hla Kyaw Zaw.
“The primary goal is to reach an agreement between the Myanmar military and the Northern Alliance groups,” he said. “It largely depends on the attitudes of the Myanmar military and its stance toward national ethnic groups or other ethnic groups.”
Though China has much at stake in Myanmar, the country’s direct influence in the peace process will be limited going forward, said Maung Soe, an analyst on ethnic armed group issues.
“China can only facilitate the peace process,” he said.
By way of example, he noted that China has managed to secure stability on its side of the border by meeting the needs of the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Shan and Wa people from Myanmar’s Shan state who now live there.
“But it is not the same on Myanmar’s side,” Maung Soe said.
Though China allows the ethnic minority groups who live on its territory to retain their cultural traditions and ways of life, it cannot force the Southeast Asian government to do the same in order to mitigate the unrest, he said.
“This is something that the Myanmar government has to decide for itself,” he said.
The four Northern Alliance members are among about a dozen ethnic armies that have not signed the Myanmar’s government’s nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA), balking at military demands that they surrender their arms, form a single army, and not secede from the federal union that the government of leader Aung San Suu Kyi seeks to create once peace is established.
China is believed by security experts to be the direct or indirect source of weapons for many of the ethnic armies fighting the Myanmar government, including the ethnic Kokang MNDAA in Shan state.
But even if these holdouts eventually join the 10 other ethnic armies that have already signed the NCA, China will end up with the short end of the stick, Lintner suggested.
“Let’s say hypothetically the Myanmar government, the military, and all ethnic armed groups reached an agreement on establishing a federated union, and all the armed groups agreed to give up their armed movements and transform into political parties or police forces,” he said.
“Although it is very unlikely, if all of these happen one day, China will be the biggest loser,” he said. “China will lose its influence.”
Because of its connections to the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the Kokang MNDAA, ethnic Palaung TNLA, and the AA, China would not be interested in achieving genuine peace in Myanmar and abolishing its armed groups, Lintner said.
“China would prefer maintaining regional security while maintaining its influence through the ethnic armed groups,” he said.
RFA could not reach the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar for comment.
Reported by Moe Myint for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.