China has been vying to lead the region, if not the world, economically and politically since President Xi Jinping took power. As Xi’s power has grown, China has sought to expand its leadership role across the region and beyond through economic expansion, political influence and military modernization.
On the economic front, China has initiated the far-flung and ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which will be instrumental in expanding its investment and power projection in many countries.
Myanmar occupies a strategically important geographical position for the BRI projects, through which China seeks to build links to the Indian Ocean, then to the Middle East and Africa. Myanmar’s political instability and civil war, however, are major barriers to the BRI. Particularly, fighting in northern Shan State, where many of the BRI projects are to be implemented, is disrupting the scheme’s implementation.
Furthermore, the fighting in northern Shan poses a security threat to the Chinese-Myanmar pipelines which started operation in April 2017, as the pipelines stretch from Kyaukphyu in Rakhine State through northern Shan to Yunnan Province, China. The pipelines have an annual transmission capacity of 22 million tons of oil and 13 billion cubic meters of gas, and already supply gas to three Chinese provinces—Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi.
Fighting could hit the pipelines either intentionally or unintentionally, and clashes near them clearly have China worried.
China prioritizes the security of the existing pipelines and planned BRI projects; hence its decision to step up its role as a peace mediator between the Myanmar military and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in the hopes of halting the fighting and stabilizing the areas.
China also seeks political influence in Myanmar and beyond. Thus, it has departed from its traditional noninterference policy in foreign relations and started to get involved in Myanmar’s political affairs.
For example, China is mediating the Rohingya repatriation process between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met Myanmar Minister of the State Counselor’s Office Kyaw Tint Swe and Bangladeshi Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen on Sept. 23 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York to discuss the issue.
On top of its involvement in the Rakhine crisis, China has been closely involved in the Myanmar peace process since 2013, when the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) attempted to invite representatives from foreign countries, including the US, to peace talks.
On Nov. 19, 2013, the KIO’s Lieutenant General Gun Maw visited the US Embassy in Yangon and met then-Ambassador Derek Mitchell, reportedly seeking an avenue for US involvement in talks. In April 2014, Sumlut Gun Maw visited the US and met senior State Department officials and officials from the UN.
China perceives the US government’s attempt to facilitate peace talks as an effort to undermine Beijing’s longstanding influence in the region, and rejects the involvement of other foreign powers, particularly the US, in Myanmar’s peace process.
Since then, Beijing has ramped up its own involvement by appointing special envoys and inviting Myanmar leaders to China.
In March 2013, China appointed Wang Yingfan as the first Special Envoy for Asian Affairs to focus on Myanmar’s peace process. Sun Guoxiang then became a Special Envoy for Asian Affairs and personally facilitated meetings between the Myanmar military and ethnic armed groups.
Chinese mediation between the Myanmar military and the Northern Alliance resulted in the bloc’s four members—the Arakan Army (AA), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA)—attending the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference initiated by State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
In so doing, China appears to be positioning itself as a key player—committed to supporting the Myanmar peace process, inviting Myanmar leaders on regular state visits and making deals on economic, political and military cooperation.
As a result of China’s long involvement, the Myanmar military took the unprecedented step of declaring a unilateral ceasefire in December 2018—a step it had previously refused to take even when ordered to do so by then-President Thein Sein, who tried to get the military to halt an offensive against the KIA in December 2011.
Undeniably, the recent meeting in Kengtung, Shan State between the Myanmar Army and the Northern Alliance was held as a result of Chinese intervention.
The meeting was abruptly convened after the AA, MNDAA and TNLA launched coordinated attacks on the Myanmar military along the Mandalay-Muse Road, the key trade route between Myanmar and China. China immediately called on both sides to meet and cease the fighting.
Unsurprisingly, the meetings have not achieved any tangible results to stop the fighting or bring about peace. To the contrary, the Myanmar military ended its unilateral ceasefire in mid-September, citing the EAOs’ lack of interest in peace; the Northern Alliance has declared a unilateral ceasefire through December 2019.
The fighting continues in Rakhine and northern Shan states, and threatens to erupt in Kachin State and elsewhere at any time.
In fact, China benefits from Myanmar’s conflicts because it sells weapons to both the Myanmar Army and the EAOs. It is conventional wisdom that the longer the fighting goes on, the more weapons and equipment China can sell and the more revenue it can generate. China also benefits from illicit trade in natural resources such as timber, jade, gold, amber and other minerals extracted from the conflict areas.
Looking at the bigger picture, it is clear that China will never be an honest broker capable of mediating a peace process that can bring lasting peace to Myanmar. Rather, China conducts a peace process guided by its own interests—one that goes nowhere.
Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of an analyst based in Kachin State.