Fearing US Influence, China Steps Up Engagement With Myanmar Junta, EAOs

By Thet Htar Maung 9 March 2023

China’s appointment of a new special envoy to Myanmar in December last year followed the United Nations’ first resolution on Myanmar in 74 years, and the US Congress’ passage of the Burma Act. Observers say it was not a political coincidence.

The Burma Act authorizes funds and technical assistance for anti-junta forces in Myanmar, including EAOs. The US has pledged to continue to support Myanmar opposition forces inside and outside of Myanmar. The UN resolution demands an end to violence and urges the military junta to release all political prisoners, including ousted leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

China’s new special envoy Deng Xijun met seven of Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in China’s Yunnan Province in the last week of December. Then he flew to Naypyitaw and met junta chief Min Aung Hlaing. In less than a month, he visited the headquarters of the powerful EAOs including the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA). His visit was different from previous ones.

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


Interestingly, the Chinese envoy was accompanied by the Mandalay-based Chinese consul. The consul did not participate in talks with the EAOs, and the reason Deng brought the consul along with him was not clear.

Secondly, he visited displacement camps in Laiza, the location of the KIA headquarters in Kachin State. It was followed by reports that China would provide assistance in health and education for EAOs as well as displaced civilians, indicating a new level of relationship between China and EAOs at the border.

Thirdly, Deng echoed his predecessor Sun Guoxiang, and urged EAOs to join peace talks and sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). But while Sun said he was acting according to Beijing’s policy, Deng stressed that his urging of the EAOs came at the request of Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing.

The flurry of activity by Deng after the US Congress’ passage of the Burma Act indicates that China does not want to see US aid and influence reaching EAOs based along the Chinese border.

China will be cautious about potential US influence and possible spying efforts that will come along with its assistance. It will use even greater caution now as tensions are rising over the Taiwan issue. This is why China has made a move to cement ties with EAOs at the border and provide them with non-military assistance.

Myanmar people are interested to see whether China will pressure the EAOs to stop fighting the Myanmar military regime, as some of them are fighting alongside resistance forces from central Myanmar.

Of the EAOs based in northern and northeastern Myanmar along the border, only the UWSA and the NDAA have de facto control of their own territories, so it is inevitable that the five others will continue to fight the Myanmar military to achieve greater status.

The Myanmar military’s policy is that EAOs must disband and turn themselves into militias or border guard forces under its control as per the 2008 Constitution. This will not be acceptable to the KIA, the Shan State Progress Party, the Arakan Army (AA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), which have high political ambitions and relatively strong armies. So, it is important to keep an eye on the moves of the Chinese special envoy in this regard.


Some Chinese investment projects have come back to life following the activities of the Chinese special envoy, the Chinese ambassador and the consul to Myanmar. The first one is the Letpadaung copper mining project. Around the end of February, junta troops shelled and raided around eight villages near the copper mine. Soon after junta troops were deployed along the road to the mine, 150 to 250 people believed to be Chinese employees of Wanbao Co. arrived at the copper mine in five vehicles from Monywa.

In a May 5, 2022 statement, Wanbao said mining had been suspended since the coup, but employees were paid their basic salaries, and only a maintenance team was working for maintenance of the mines. There have been reports lately that Wanbao is contacting its Myanmar employees to return to work.

The second one is an agreement with Chinese companies to install wind turbines in Ann, Thandwe and Gwa townships in Rakhine, western Myanmar. The project is scheduled to start in December this year and to be completed in 2025.

The Chinese ambassador attended the agreement signing ceremony, and it is the only Chinese investment project officially announced since the coup. The project emerged as a result of the ceasefire between the Myanmar military and the AA in Rakhine.

The third is construction of the Ruili-Mandalay-Kyaukphyu railroad linking China’s Ruili with Kyaukphyu in Rakhine, an important part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Neither the Myanmar regime nor China have officially talked about the project, but media outlet Frontier Myanmar, citing senior officials of Myanma Railways, reported that the regime and a Chinese company carried out an environmental impact assessment on the railroad construction in 2021-22, and that the first section of the railroad linking Ruili and Mandalay is in the process of being constructed. This is part of the reason China has urged EAOs in northern Myanmar to observe ceasefires and hold talks with the Myanmar military regime.

Shortly after the coup, the Myanmar military granted approval to the China-backed, US$2.5-billion power plant in Meelingyaing in Pathein, Ayeyarwady Region. China has not made any move regarding that project. But it is no coincidence that some Chinese investments have resumed following the trips of the Chinese special envoy this year.


The area along the Chinese border with northern Shan State is overseen by the Myanmar military’s North-Eastern Command. In 2021-22, its presence in the area comprised a light infantry division and seven military operations commands.

Surprisingly, the regime has pulled out three military operations commands or around 30 battalions from the area since early this year, after over 1,000 troops trained by the MNDAA—most of them fighters from central and southern Myanmar who decided to take up arms against the regime following the coup—finished their military training.

Why has the Myanmar military pulled out a large number of troops while its enemy has got over 1,000 new soldiers? Perhaps the regime is taking advantage of the fact that China wants to de-escalate military tensions in northern Shan State for its Ruili-Mandalay railroad.

Thanks to the troops it has pulled out of Shan, the regime has been able to send reinforcements to Kayah (Karenni) State, and Yedashae and Pinlaung, where People’s Defense Force groups (PDFs) and the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force are active, as well as to Karen State.


The latest developments in politics, the economy and the military situation in Myanmar following the UN resolution, Congress’ passage of the Burma Act, and moves by the Chinese special envoy, are interesting. Besides the US and the West, China might also consider the steps of the Indian nationalist government, which is blindly supporting the regime to establish a foothold in Myanmar.

After both China and Russia declined to exercise their veto power and block the UN’s resolution on Myanmar, the regime came to understand that Russia will not go against China regarding important decisions on Myanmar. Since then, the regime has made moves to improve ties with China, after getting too close to Russia over the past two years. Again, the regime is saying China is Myanmar’s good neighbor.

The regime might also be considering seeking advantage in the competition between China and India. The regime replaced its foreign minister in February, appointing a former Myanmar ambassador to the US to the post. Political observers suggest the regime is planning to approach the US.

We have seen complicated diplomatic moves alongside hostilities over the past two years. The parallel National Unity Government (NUG) says it is the only government that can guarantee stability and safety for foreign investors.

We need to monitor the policies and moves of US and Western governments that directly engage the NUG and EAOs; of China, which has avoided getting too close to the NUG though it is engaging with both the regime and EAOs in northern Myanmar; and of Russia and India, which are closely cooperating with the regime.

Following his meeting with EAOs, Deng met junta chief Min Aung Hlaing on Monday in Naypyitaw, the second such meeting since the envoy’s appointment. The two vowed to cooperate in various sectors including the economy. The two discussed the role of China in border security and internal peace in Myanmar. It appears their ties have improved since the previous meeting.

The main question is whether China will turn a blind eye to the wishes of the Myanmar people in its involvement in the Myanmar issue. If it overly focuses on its rivalry with the US and ignores the wishes and popular revolt of the Myanmar people, it will face a stronger response from Myanmar people.

We must pay special attention to Deng’s shuttle trips between the junta chief and EAOs in northern Myanmar. According to credible sources from the border, Deng and seven EAOs in northern Myanmar plan to meet soon for a third time, this time collectively.

China has officially supported ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus on Myanmar. One of the points is a visit by the ASEAN special envoy to meet all parties concerned. Neither the ASEAN envoy nor the Chinese envoy have yet been able to do this.

If Deng fails to meet all parties concerned and his moves help support the regime politically, economically and militarily, the Myanmar people, especially the armed resistance who are fighting the regime, will not accept it.

If the situation goes on like this, Deng’s move will do more harm than good for the Myanmar people, and anti-Chinese sentiment will rise again, which could result in further complications.

Thet Htar Maung is a Myanmar political observer.