Narrow Chinese Interests Shaping Security Landscape in Northern Myanmar: US Expert

By Igor Blazevic 24 March 2023

In this second installment of a two-part interview, human rights campaigner Igor Blazevic asks Jason Tower, country director for the Burma Program of the United States Institute of Peace, about Beijing’s moves to keep the National League for Democracy and National Unity Government at arm’s length, its goals in relation to the northern EAOs, and what role other international actors can play in Myanmar’s crisis. 

Blazevic: Is ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] just a proxy that will in the end serve China’s interests in Myanmar, or is ASEAN concerned with increased Chinese influence in Myanmar, and ready and able to counterbalance it?

Tower: If you look at China’s policies, statements and bilateral encouragements that Chinese diplomats have been giving to ASEAN, you see that China actually emphasizes ASEAN unity. But by unity, this means going with the least common denominator type of approach, meaning ignoring calls by maritime ASEAN states to take bold steps towards addressing the Myanmar crisis, and throwing out the failed ASEAN Consensus. Instead, this means prioritizing the voices of mainland ASEAN states, who are calling for a long wait-and-see approach, and who would much rather focus on quietly conducting business with the military regime rather than looking for long-term solutions.

Where ASEAN can be effective in pushing back is when China starts openly meddling in the region in ways that are counter to ASEAN efforts. Last year China became quite aggressive in trying to leverage the divisions between the mainland and maritime ASEAN countries. China started convening the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation [LMC] Forum in ways that undermine the agreed position within ASEAN around no engagement with the Myanmar military at the level of foreign minister or above. China completely ignored that when convening the LMC in partnership with the junta last July, bringing the FMs of four ASEAN countries to meet with senior junta officials towards the achievement of a “new normal.” The ASEAN maritime states, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia, pushed back when China did this, noting that the LMC’s own founding documents emphasize the platform as contributing to ASEAN’s objectives.

Blazevic: At the beginning and for quite a long time China was treating the junta, ethnic revolutionary organizations and the National League for Democracy [NLD] as stakeholders. Where does China stand today? Has it excluded the NLD in the meantime or is China still interested in keeping the NLD as a relevant and an unavoidable stakeholder?

Tower: For the first nine months following the coup China continued to give the NLD party a high level of public legitimacy. Chinese diplomats referenced the NLD in statements. The Chinese Communist Party was openly inviting the NLD party to participate in its major party dialogues with other political parties around the world. Through its envoy Sun Guoxiang, China was encouraging the military not to dissolve the NLD party and trying to gain access to Aung San Suu Kyi. While doing so, it prefaced all of these efforts on a resolution based on dialogue and in accordance with the military’s 2008 Constitution.

By October of 2021, as China became increasingly aware that the NLD and NUG [National Unity Government] were moving away from the 2008 Constitution and towards revolutionary, transformative change in Burma, China increasingly departed from the strategy of giving public legitimacy and recognition to the NLD. China started downplaying relationships with the NLD.

China has not completely burned all bridges, and the Chinese Embassy’s occasional outreach to the NUG when violent conflict threatens its economic interests does signal that it has concerns about the junta’s capacity to manage the situation. But the Chinese are increasingly less and less responsive to the NLD party and to the NUG and are much more focused on the military’s own plan for so-called “disciplined democracy” and engagement with political parties that are more willing to accept solutions within the frame of the 2008 Constitution.

China’s new special envoy Deng Xijun and Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyitaw on March 6, 2023 / Cincds

Blazevic: China probably sees the NUG as a pro-Western, pro-democracy, and people’s power revolutionary movement. All three, being pro-Western, pro-democracy, and rooted in people’s power, are no-no’s for China. Is there a way the NUG can reframe itself and make itself more acceptable to China? Or will China still not see the NUG as a factor to deal with, whatever it does?

Tower: There are three things that I think the NUG could do. The first is sending as many signals as possible of a diversification of the NUG’s international relations. This means reaching out much more to developing countries, and building stronger ties with Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and the rest of Asia. One significant entry point for these conversations is the growing global security challenge that the military junta represents to countries around the world. Because of the lawlessness left by the coup, transnational criminal actors from around the world are now deeply embedded in Burma, and use it as a hub for global fraud operations, financial scams and for human trafficking into what is known as “cyber-slavery.” These novel forms of trafficking have resulted in nationals from over 37 countries being trafficked into Burma—something that the junta has neither the political will nor interest in addressing. This could be a perfect entry point into engaging countries around the world on the situation in Burma, and around which a strong coalition might be built to end the chaos generated by the Myanmar army.

The second thing that the NUG could do is to build relationships with the United Wa [State] Army, with the MNDAA [Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army] and the NDAA [National Democratic Alliance Army]. Some of them have recently sent quite interesting and even public signals, which indicate that they legitimate the National Unity Government. The most interesting is that the Wa is publicly voicing in its central party meeting that they see Lower Burma having two governments; the military on one side and the NUG on the other side. That is something that the NUG could try to leverage. For example, the military has a liaison office in Wa. What about the NUG, should the NUG have a liaison office there?

The third thing is getting ahead some narratives on what the NUG is actually doing when it comes to stabilizing Chinese investments. It’s remarkable, given what is happening in the country, that we haven’t seen greater threats to or disruptions of Chinese investment projects. We have heard China reaches out to the NUG to secure Chinese interests, but often with a threatening type of tone. That needs to be turned around by saying “Look, the NUG has done quite a lot to ensure that Chinese projects are not targeted, and are even protected by PDFs” [People’s Defense Forces]. Together with its own allies the NUG can play an important role in offering some degree of stability or protection to Chinese projects. China needs to give it more credit for this role, and there is a huge risk that if China fails to do this that rogue PDFs will eventually become frustrated, and may even quietly target these projects.

Blazevic:  More and more small arms produced by the UWSA are seen in Sagaing and other heartland Burma regions. Is it possible that China is intentionally allowing the Wa to provide weapons to ethnic revolutionaries and PDFs, or is the Wa doing it on its own?

Tower: A lot of the different types of businesses the Wa is engaged in are not things that [China] is terribly excited about—the meth business, the scams, online frauds, and money laundering across borders, and small arms sales. All of these are incredibly profitable illicit forms of business.

Due to COVID-19 and because of the partial crackdown on cross-border telecommunication fraud, you saw the Wa economy taking a big blow. The callback of 30 or 40,000 Chinese nationals out of Wa really decimated the Wa economy. So, no surprise the Wa is looking for all sorts of business opportunities.

China knows very well that the Wa are going to supply arms to a lot of their allies. China probably feels quite comfortable with arms flows to any of those alliances. Those arms flows are enabling some of those EAOs to take steps that will be helpful for China’s influence in the border areas. However, there are red lines. You don’t see the Wa transferring sophisticated equipment to PDFs. The Wa’s leaders during the Wa central committee meeting a couple of weeks back, openly said that the Wa is not going to be arming the NUG.

Wa is probably trying to give reassurances to China that when China provides the Wa with more sophisticated equipment in order to enable the Wa to protect themselves in case of the increasingly sophisticated junta air force, that this equipment is not for transfer to other actors.  Regarding the small arms, many of which are produced in Wa State, China has much less ability to control that. The Wa has a quite diverse means of getting those smaller arms to whoever they want to ultimately sell at a probably significant profit.

Blazevic:  Will China be ready to actively facilitate negotiations between the SAC [State Administration Council, the junta’s governing body], NUG, ethnic revolutionary organizations [EROs] and PDFs for the sake of its own strategic and business interest? Or would China rather stay away and let ASEAN be the facilitator of the negotiations? Or can China play a role in facilitating negotiations between the SAC and northern EROs, but leave out the NUG?

Tower: So far, the newly deployed Chinese special envoy is focusing on eight parties; seven northern EAOs (the FPNCC [Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee] members) plus the military. You don’t really see any effort so far to reach out to the NUG, the NLD party, or other more democratically oriented ethnic armed organizations and EAOs outside China’s immediate influence in the border area.

China is going to try and manufacture dialogues with a very narrow set of stakeholders which is something that ultimately will be beneficial for the very immediate interest of some EAOs, but also beneficial to the junta in terms of its strategy of dividing the resistance actors. That’s not a good thing for Myanmar overall though, because it’s going to create more fragmentation and likely cause a resumption of forms of ceasefire capitalism that lead to greater and greater influence of illicit business actors. This could also result in frustration and higher levels of violence in some parts of the country, particularly in the Burma heartland.

China is somewhat emboldened in this approach because you have some other international actors, such as [Japanese envoy] Mr. [Yohei] Sasakawa doing the same thing in Rakhine State with the AA [Arakan Army], and still others, including some European foundations and diplomats pushing the EAOs on the Thai border to do the same. All of these things are emboldening China and are supporting [its] strategy.

Deng Xijun is welcomed by EAO representatives in Mong La on Feb. 20, 2023.

Blazevic:  China is openly engaging with the northern allies. Why is the SAC not complaining about that?

Tower: China has a wide range of interactions with all the members of the FPNCC. This includes direct business relationships, developmental assistance, or local government to government dealings. During COVID-19, these dealing scaled up considerably to combat COVID in the border area. These are seen as normal, ongoing. The interactions alone are not something that you would see the junta protest.

Frankly, the junta now probably sees some value in getting China’s involvement in pushing the EAOs in the North to have some engagement with the military. The military would probably extract some benefits from China’s engagement, as it would put some pressure on those northern EAOs to limit their interactions with the West and potentially also limit their interactions with other EAOs and with the NUG. The junta also sees that it can gain legitimacy from its ability to have dialogue with these powerful EAOs, and to have regular interactions with Chinese envoys. This helps its overall strategy. Of course, the junta does not want the northern EAOs to establish a robust buffer in the China border area, but frankly it has very little capacity or capability to do anything about this.

Blazevic: How can the NUG balance the diplomatic narratives between the West and China? When the NUG is reaching out to the West, one of the narratives says that we will have a democratic Burma and there will be geopolitical benefits for the US. But that is far from what China wants.

Tower: All countries—the U.S. and China included—have a very strong interest in stability in Burma and across the region. At the end of the day, through its efforts to contribute to inclusive and sustainable governance,  a strong coalition between the NUG and the EROs offers the best possible option for stability in Burma over the long term. The alternative is perpetual wars between militia groups over control of territories and the further rise of illicit business as “ceasefire capitalism” once again emerges.

Second, the focus should be on what’s more beneficial for the Myanmar people, who are increasingly being forgotten as special envoys emphasize dynamics between powerful armed actors.

When it comes to stability and giving priority to the will of the Myanmar people, these are things that all countries should be ready to support. If you look at public statements from [China], it certainly indicates that it wants to see stability. That it does not want transnational crimes spreading across the region. Both China and the US should have a shared interest in an outcome that is positive for the Myanmar people. Those are some common denominators between the two.

Blazevic:  In December, the US Congress passed the Burma Act. China has been very quick to react to it, however we have not seen the US administration moving on this yet.

Tower: A challenge here is that the Chinese, and to some extent some other regional actors, have clearly misread the incorporation of the Burma Act into the NDAA. One of the key issues here is the mention of assistance to EAOs and PDFs, which is meant to recognize the tremendous contributions that they are playing in the overall movement to end the military’s ongoing reign of terror against the Myanmar people. The US interest is in supporting coalitions of stakeholders to achieve long-term peace in Myanmar, and for this to happen, the military must ultimately end the violence and step back from the political space. This will create conditions for inclusive conversations about the country’s future. One risk right now is that  China, Russia and other countries may dramatically increase support for the SAC, or exert much greater influence in Burma out of fear that Western actors may be getting much more involved in shaping the trajectory of the conflict. On the whole, it is critical that all international stakeholders interested in a free, stable and peaceful Burma dramatically increase their support for the emergence of a strong coalition between the NUG, the EAOs, civil society and the many other actors on the ground working for the country’s future. Failure to act decisively and swiftly could unfortunately result in miscalculations by neighboring countries shaping outcomes that are highly unfavorable to the people of Burma.  At the same time, this also points to the need for some type of dialogue between the US and its partners on the Burma issue, as well as between the US and the neighboring countries, including China.

Jason Tower is the Country Director for the Burma Program of the United States Institute of Peace. Jason has over 20 years of experience working on conflict and security issues in China and Southeast Asia. Since 2019, his research has focused on a range of issues at the nexus of crime and conflict in Southeast Asia and on China’s influence on conflict in Myanmar.

Igor Blazevic is a senior adviser at the Prague Civil Society Centre. Between 2011 and 2016 he worked in Myanmar as the head lecturer of the Educational Initiatives Program.