Guest Column

Does China Want Peace in Myanmar?

By Joe Kumbun 14 August 2017

China’s recent involvement in Myanmar’s peace process has caused people to question whether the country’s path towards peace is being shaped by its northern neighbor’s close participation. China historically maintained a non-interference policy in its foreign relations, yet they have appointed a Special Envoy for Asian Affairs, Sun Guoxiang, to assist in facilitating discussions between the Myanmar military and ethnic armed groups.

After China stepped in to mediate between the Myanmar Army and the Northern Alliance in the second session of the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference held on May 23, 2017, people have asked what its intentions actually were.

China became closely involved in the Myanmar peace process after 2013 when the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) attempted to invite representatives from foreign countries, particularly the US, to the talks.

On November 19, 2013, Kachin Independence Army (KIA) Maj-Gen Gun Maw visited the US Embassy in Yangon and met Ambassador Derek Mitchell, reportedly seeking an avenue for American involvement in peace talks.

In April 2014, Sumlut Gun Maw visited the US and met senior state department officials and officials from the United Nations.

China perceived the US government’s attempt at facilitating peace talks as an effort to undermine China’s long-held influence in the region; China continues to reject the involvement of other foreign powers, particularly the US, in Myanmar’s peace process.

Since then, China has geared up its own involvement through the appointment of special envoys, and invitations for Myanmar leaders to come to China.

In March 2013, China appointed Wang Yingfan as the first Special Envoy for Asian Affairs to focus on Myanmar’s peace process. Three years later, in April 2016, Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, was the first foreign guest received by State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. In July of that year, Minister of State Security Geng Huichang followed.

Just weeks later, on July 27, 2016, Sun Guoxiang, China’s current Special Envoy for Asian Affairs, attended the Mai Ja Yang summit for ethnic nationality groups, hosted by the KIO.

Song Tao, the chief of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, visited Myanmar the following month and met with a diverse group of Myanmar political and military leaders. Sun Guoxiang also visited the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the National Democratic Alliance Army-Eastern Shan State (NDAA-ESS) to ensure the two groups’ participation in the first session of the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference initiated by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

China recently sent Song Tao to visit Myanmar on August 2 this year. He met Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders.

In doing so, China seems to position itself as a key player, committed to supporting the Myanmar peace process, inviting Myanmar leaders on regular state visits and making deals in economic, political and military cooperation.

In June 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi visited China and met President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. In August 2016, she again paid an official visit after her party, the National League for Demoracy (NLD), swept to power.

Military chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing visited China in Nov. 2016 and met Guo Sheng Kun, the Minister of Public Security in China and General Wei Liang, the Political Officer of the Southern Command, as well as other officers.

In April 2017, President U Htin Kyaw paid an official visit to China at the invitation of President Xi Jinping.

As China appears to be accelerating the frequency of meetings with Myanmar’s leadership, there will inevitably be an impact various developments throughout the country. But, China’s interest in Myanmar’s peace process seems to be limited to issues concerning the groups located along the Sino-Myanmar border. Much less attention has been paid to the ethnic groups in southeastern or western Myanmar, such as the Karen, the Mon, or the Chin. China’s priority, in fact, is to maintain peace and stability around its periphery, not throughout the whole of Myanmar. In addition, China also prioritizes stability alongside its gas pipelines and other areas in which their huge development projects have been vested.

It is quite conspicuous that China turns away from conflicts which do not directly affect its interests. For example, when the Myanmar Army carried out major offensives against the KIO and took control of several geostrategic areas—such as Hka Ya Bum, Bum Tawng, Hpun-pyen Bum, Gideon and Lai Hpawng outposts, and the No. 6 battalion in Hpakant and the No. 8 Brigade in Indawgyi—China kept silent. Notwithstanding the latest attack that occurred in the gold- and amber-rich Tanai area in June and displaced thousands, China again kept quiet, demonstrating that the conflict lay beyond their immediate interests.

China primarily concerns itself with conflict in Myanmar when it directly affects its borders. For example, when artillery fire and airstrikes reached within its territory as the result of the fighting between the ethnic Kokang army and the Myanmar Army in 2015, China urgently summoned the Myanmar ambassador to China to condemn the bombings, which caused casualties of Chinese civilians.

Unlike other neighboring countries, China has frequently denied basic refuge to displaced people fleeing conflict in Myanmar, apparent as recently as January of this year, when 4,000 ethnic Kachin were forced back across the border by Chinese police.

Many observers speculate that China supports some ethnic armed groups, particularly the United Wa State Army and the Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army. Of course, China may use these groups as a stick against Myanmar if its military turns away from China and cannot secure its investments.

But, conventional wisdom is that a person or a country always seeks to ally with those who can offer better and larger incentives and benefits. In this scenario, the Myanmar Army provides larger incentives to Beijing than ethnic armed groups: China can gain greater benefits from their ties with the Tatmadaw than from those with ethnic armies.

Beijing paradoxically does not want to topple the Myanmar Army, leading China to apply the same policy toward Myanmar as they practice toward the North Korean regime. Beijing will continuously support them to remain in power as long as they continue to benefit from their major investments.

It is obvious that China and the Myanmar Army provide mutual benefits to one another: through its seat on the UN Security Council, China protects the Burmese military from international punishment and drives potential supporters of ethnic armed groups out from China. Conversely, China benefits from a range of lucrative investments in Myanmar.

To secure these mutual interests, both China and the Myanmar Army strongly reject international involvement by other actors in Myanmar’s peace process.

Therefore, domestic and international peacemakers should remain vigilant and aware of China’s involvement in affairs concerning peace in Myanmar. Placing too much trust in the momentum of a peace process mediated by China may, in turn, be misleading.

Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of a Kachin State-based analyst.