China and Burma: Not Only Pauk-Phaw

By Bertil Lintner 9 June 2017

Part 5 of a 5-part series.

Recovering Influence and Checking Rivals

The developing friendship between Burma and the United States prompted China to start searching for new ways to shore up the relationship. In 2012, academic-style journals in China ran several articles analyzing what went wrong with Beijing’s Burma policy and what could and should be done to rectify it. One proposed measure was to launch a public relations campaign in Burma aimed at overhauling China’s current negative image in the country. Beijing also began furiously reaching out to other elements of Burmese society—including the NLD and other democrats—utilizing the CPC’s “government-to-government,” “party-to-party,” and “people-to-people” strategy that lies beyond the CPC’s previous limited circle of regime leaders and their business cronies.

In addition to these ‘soft power’ tools, Beijing also has access to a range of more kinetic options as well as an ability to either facilitate or frustrate any efforts by Burmese leaders to assert control over and establish a durable peace in the totality of Burmese territory. Since 2011, China has been carefully implementing this mix of hard and soft power tools to regain a position of leverage with both the Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi governments.

To strengthen its position vis-à-vis China, Burma has also turned to its partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which it chaired in 2014. Even more significantly, when Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who was appointed commander-in-chief of Burma’s military in March 2011, went on his first foreign trip in mid-November, he did not go to China—but instead to China’s traditional enemy, Vietnam. Burma and Vietnam share the same fear of their common, powerful northern neighbor, so it is reasonable to assume that Min Aung Hlaing had a lot to discuss with his Vietnamese hosts.

While the Burmese government seeks to build deeper relations with other nations in the region, stark domestic challenges continue to hinder meaningful economic or political developments at home. As history has shown, China’s dual-track policy has maintained distinct leverage and influence over Burma’s rebel groups and government, further complicating Burma’s peace process, an initiative taken by Thein Sein shortly after he assumed the presidency in early 2011. The Chinese government consistently denies reports of interfering in the peace process but Beijing’s tacit support for the largest non-state armed group in Burma tells a different story.

In May 1989, the CPB’s successor, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government, which suited China’s new commercial interests. But it was also imperative for Beijing to find ways to strengthen the UWSA, and by extension its leverage over the Burmese government. After all, the Chinese had had a long-standing relationship with most of the leaders of the UWSA, dating back to their CPB days. Thus, the UWSA was able to purchase vast quantities of weapons from China and, according to the April 26, 2013 issue of the prestigious military affairs journal Jane’s Defense Weekly, these purchases included armed transport helicopters which: “[The acquisition of helicopters] marks the latest step in a significant upgrade for the UWSA, which has emerged as the largest and best-equipped non-state military force in Asia and, arguably, the world,” the journal wrote.

In the second half of 2012, the UWSA had acquired armored vehicles for the first time. These included both Chinese PTL-02 6×6 wheeled “tank destroyers” and an armored combat vehicle that IHS Jane’s identified as the Chinese 4×4 ZFB-05. Furthermore, the UWSA has obtained from China huge quantities of small-arms and ammunition—and around 100 HN-5 series man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), a Chinese version of the first-generation Russian Strela-2 (SA-7 “Grail”) system.

Thus, today the UWSA has become better armed than the CPB ever was. It can field at least 20,000 well-equipped troops apart from thousands of village militiamen and other supportive forces. Moreover, the top leaders of the UWSA are usually accompanied by Chinese intelligence officers who provide advice and guidance. So what is China up to? Why the arming and continued support of a non-state military force, while at the same time, Beijing has had cordial relations with the Burmese government since it abandoned its policy of supporting communist insurrections in the region?

United Wa State Army (UWSA) soldiers march during a media display in Pansang, Wa territory in northeast Burma on October 4, 2016. (Photo: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

Beijing’s policies are no doubt a way of putting pressure on Burma at a time when its relations with the United States are improving. China feels it cannot afford to “lose” Burma to the West, and seems to define Burma’s foreign relations with other regional actors in zero-sum terms. A strong UWSA provides China with a strategic advantage and is also a bargaining chip in negotiations with Naypyidaw. Significantly, when the President’s Office Minister U Aung Min visited Monywa in November 2012 to meet local people protesting a controversial Chinese-backed copper mining project, he openly admitted: “We are afraid of China… we don’t dare to have a row with [them]. If they feel annoyed with the shutdown of their projects and resume their support to the communists, the economy in border areas would backslide.”

By “the communists” he clearly meant the UWSA and its allies, among them the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in Kokang, another former CPB force, which returned to armed struggle in February 2015. China, predictably, has denied any involvement in that conflict, but the fact remains that most of the MNDAA’s weaponry and vast quantities of ammunition have been supplied by the UWSA. The Chinese have always denied giving any material support to the UWSA. But recent arms shipments to the UWSA that have included man-portable air-defense systems, armored fighting vehicles, heavy artillery and other sophisticated military equipment, which are not the kind of equipment that “falls off the back of a truck,” or could be sent to the UWSA by some local officials in Yunnan. The deliveries were almost certainly directed from the highest level of China’s intelligence and military authorities in Beijing.

According to one well-placed source, China is indirectly “teaching the Burmese government a lesson in Kokang: move too much to the West, and this can happen.” At the same time, Beijing is playing another “softer” card by inviting Burmese politicians and journalists on all-paid for “study trips” to China and being actively involved in so-called “peace talks” between the Burmese government and the country’s multitude of ethnic rebel armies. Whether China wants to export revolution or expand and protect commercial interests, it apparently feels the need to have a solid foothold inside Burma. There is no better and more loyal ally in this regard than the UWSA and its affiliates.

Sun Guoxiang, China’s special envoy for Asian affairs (foreign ministry), has repeatedly expressed public support for Burma’s peace process. According to the transcript of a meeting Sun held in February 2017 with representatives from two of Burma’s ethnic armed ceasefire groups, Sun said: “China has a unique foreign policy towards Myanmar [Burma] and respects the sovereignty of Myanmar…we are only doing our duty as a friendly neighbor.” Sun’s cordial tone cuts a sharp contrast with the China-backed UWSA’s militant message delivered with seven ethnic armed groups around the same time against the Burmese government’s “national ceasefire agreement”—a joint salvo which caught many observers off-guard raised new questions about China’s true position toward Aung San Suu Kyi’s peace initiative, which she inherited from Thein Sein. The seven groups rejected the government’s “national ceasefire agreement” and called for a more direct, political approach to solving Burma’s decades-long civil war.

Sun is right in stating that China’s multi-layered policies towards Burma are indeed “unique”–and, to many outsiders, they often seem contradictory. But under examination, China’s foreign policies have their own logic. Envoy Sun’s positive message is the first surface layer of China’s diplomacy, which is almost always publicly characterized as “amicable” and “friendly” with regional countries it engages.

The second layer consists of the International Liaison Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (ILD/CPC). The body was originally set up in the 1950s to develop contacts with other communist parties and support revolutionary movements across the globe. These days, however, ILD/CPC representatives are often seen at conferences and for hob-knobbing with political parties of all ideological stripes. The ILD/CPC also supports various non-state groups, including armed resistance organizations, like the UWSA, which serve China’s long-term strategic and economic interests.

The third layer is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which maintains links with other militaries across the world. Along with selling weapons to foreign governmental and nongovernmental clients, directly or through front companies, it has provided beneficiaries such as the UWSA with a wide variety of weaponry. Some of those armaments are then shared with other ethnic armed groups actively fighting against the government.

China may have transformed its economic system from rigid socialism to free-wheeling capitalism, but politically it remains an authoritarian one-party state where the CPC is above the government with the PLA serving as the armed-wing of the Party. The old policy of maintaining “government-to-government” as well as “party-to-party” relations has not changed.

Consequently, China’s main man in dealing with Burma’s many political actors is not Sun but rather Song Tao, head of the ILD/CPC. Song, a senior politician and diplomat, was educated at Monash University in Australia and served as an assistant to the Chinese ambassador to India in the early 2000s before becoming ambassador to Guyana and the Philippines.

In October 2015, Song took part in a high-profile visit to North Korea and the following month took over the post as ILD/CPC chief from Wang Jiarui, a CPC veteran who was in charge of maintaining contacts with communist members in countries like North Korea, Cuba and Vietnam. While Song is not a high-profile figure like Sun, he is known to work actively in the background and apparently prefers to meeting with Burmese politicians and top soldiers in Beijing rather than Naypyidaw. Song did meet with Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw August 2016, just weeks before the launch of her peace process. The differentiation between “government-to-government” relations maintained by China’s foreign ministry and the CPC’s “party-to-party” links with groups such as the UWSA–and with the CPC’s positioned above the government in Beijing—explains why China can publicly praise Burma’s peace process while quietly providing the UWSA with heavy weaponry.

Unlike Western democracies, China’s foreign ministry is not necessarily the lead actor in shaping policy, rather the Party is ever-present within the three different levels of engagement. The foreign ministry is the public face and its policies are always characterized as “amicable” and “friendly” with regional countries it engages with. However, to paint a more comprehensive picture of the PRC’s relations with the Burmese government and ethnic rebel groups, the other two levels of Chinese engagement (dominated by the CPC) must also be examined. The massive upsurge in outreach to Aung San Suu Kyi, pro-democracy activists, and even journalists—including innumerable “study trips” to China since 2012—as well as Chinese support for the UWSA essentially serves the same strategic purpose: Put pressure on the military, who really pulls the strings in Naypyidaw, and force it to keep its options open for the future, with the aim of securing the vital “Burma corridor.”


Seen from this perspective, pauk-phaw is little more than empty rhetoric. Beijing is not going to give up the secure position it has cultivated inside Burma since the late 1960s. Likewise, China will not easily give up its hard-won access to the Indian Ocean and Burma’s strategic importance to Beijing cannot be overestimated. More than 60 per cent of the world’s oil shipments pass through the Indian Ocean, from the Middle East’s oil fields to China, Japan and other strong economies in the region, as does 70 percent of all container traffic to and from the Asian industrial countries and the rest of the world. While traffic across the Atlantic has diminished and that which crosses the Pacific is static, trade across the Indian Ocean is increasing. Parts of the ocean, especially in the west around the Horn of Africa and next to the Strait of Malacca in the east, are areas where pirates are active and terrorists have been shipping arms to various conflict zones in the region. This has prompted tighter regional cooperation between the United States, Australia, India and Japan. Burma is in the middle of this imbroglio—and China is attempting its utmost to preserve its influence over the country.

Realities on the ground will not change. China is there, just across the northeastern border. Western countries, with which Burma would prefer to deal, are far away, lack the depth and subtlety of China’s relationships inside Burma, and have their own relationships and equities with Beijing. The West may be able to counter China’s influence in Burma, which would be welcome by most domestic stakeholders in the country—but that would require a sophisticated approach based on a better understanding of how China exerts its influence in the region as well as a willingness to devote real resources to a serious strategy toward that end. Given this mismatch in both interests and capabilities, it seems likely that China’s long-game will continue to be the more persistent challenge for Burma and its neighbors.

This concludes the 5-part series, China and Burma: Not Only Pauk-Phaw. Read part 4 of the series here.

This article was originally published here by The Project 2049 Institute, a policy group based in the US.