China’s Complex Role in Burma’s Peace Process

By Sandy Barron 17 March 2017

RANGOON — Relations between Burma and China have improved during the first year of the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government, aided in part by Chinese support for the government’s peace process, according to a report.

China has devoted considerable efforts to improving bilateral ties with Burma while promoting its official policy of non-interference and support for “persuading for peace and facilitating dialogue,” in the peace process, according to the analysis by scholar Yun Sun for a prominent US government-funded institute.

For its part, the NLD government has opted to try to enlist Beijing’s support for its national priorities, including ethnic reconciliation, rather than continue to “cater to anti-China sentiment” in Burma, according to Yun Sun.

China’s official policy on the peace process, however, is tempered by a variety of factors, including differences between policy makers in Beijing and provincial interests.

Historic, cultural, and economic links between different Chinese interest groups in Yunnan and ethnic armed organizations in Burma continue to significantly complicate the bilateral relationship, the analysis published by the US Congress-funded United States Institute for Peace (USIP) points out.

Thus, the immediate outlook for the evolving ties between the two countries remains a work in progress, according to Yun Sun in the report whose research was conducted before the recent renewal of violence in the north, which has seen thousands of refugees from Burma spilling into China.

As Burma’s largest neighbor, China has been and will remain a critical player in the peace process, Yun Sun said in the analysis based on more than 80 interviews with officials in China and representatives from ethnic armed groups in Burma.

China’s positive attitude towards Burma’s peace process is based on “its observation that the NLD is inclined to improving relations with China and on the hope that it might induce NLD cooperation and goodwill,” the author states.

Beijing’s overriding geo-strategic concerns relate to its ability to achieve its goals to build connectivity in the region with initiatives such as its One Belt One Road strategy and Indian Ocean strategy.

Though some influential analysts in China favor a “buffer” policy of developing ties with ethnic armed groups in order “to temper the Myanmar [Burma] government’s treatment of China and Chinese business interests,” this is not the view of China “the nation,” the report says.

Beijing’s official approach is, however, problematized by the complexities of historic and current localized relations with armed ethnic organizations along the border in Kachin and Shan states—in particular, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the United Wa State Army (UWSA), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) also known as the Kokang Army.

Yun Sun notes that historical ties bind people of the same ethnicities living on two sides of a borderline between the two countries that originated during the colonial period.

The policies of the provincial government of Yunnan and the activities of Yunnan business interests in areas controlled by armed groups, including in activities such as logging and mining, are often cited as a “key independent variables” undermining the effectiveness of Beijing’s policy toward Burma, said Yun Sun.

Unofficial and independent Chinese financial support, mainly involving private businesses, for ethnic armed organizations is difficult to assess, the author says, “though rumors remain rampant.”

The former Chinese business giant the Yucheng Group, currently under criminal investigation in China for massive internet-based financial fraud, possibly provided support to six ethnic armed groups in northern Burma after 2015 when conflict broke out between the MNDAA and the Burma Army, according to the report.

Chinese links with the KIA, the UWSA, and the MNDAA are explored in the analysis which makes clear that the relationships with each are very different and complex, but in all cases are significant, a fact often overlooked in analyses of Burma’s conflicts.

The sum of the complex picture is that China does not see an immediate solution to Burma’s conflicts, according to the author.

Among the barriers to achieving piece from the Chinese perspective, she indicated, are included a belief that “Burmese chauvinism” is a main barrier to a successful negotiations process.

The NLD’s delicate relationship with the Burma Army “which perceives the separatist ethnic rebels as a threat to the nation and the battle against them as an inherent mission of the military,” is also seen as a block on progress, Yun Sun said.

Some Chinese doubt whether all ethnic armed groups are genuinely seeking peace, and Chinese attitudes are also colored by apprehension about the potential for an increased US presence in the peace process and Burma’s border regions, the report said.

For the foreseeable future China will seek to prepare for different uncertainties and “maximize its flexibility in the process,” the author stated.

The report is released at a challenging time for Burma’s peace process after the second Union Peace Conference scheduled for February was postponed amid deadlock over government pressure on armed groups to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement, and as armed conflicts escalate in Burma’s north.

Foreign support for Burma’s peace process is also seen by many as stalled in a state of uncertainty amid the deteriorating security environment and a lack of evident forward movement in the negotiations processes.

Washington DC-based USIP has operated peace-related programs in Burma since at least 2012. Two years ago the organization created by the US Congress set up an Asia Center that is currently headed by the former US Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell.

Mitchell and other USIP leaders visited Burma in February and met with State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma Army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

Last year, the organization hosted a discussion in Washington about US plans to reengage with The Burma Army. The engagement would be conducted in a “limited and calibrated way,” according to Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Southeast Asia Patrick Murphy.