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OpinionsChina keeping its options opens in Myanmar as rebels capture new areas...

China keeping its options opens in Myanmar as rebels capture new areas from army junta India has to assess Beijing’s move to work out a strategy to meet the challenge


By Girish Linganna

When Myanmar's military ousted the elected government in February 2021, China downplayed it as a “significant cabinet reshuffle.” Despite the ensuing civil war, causing numerous casualties and displacements with allegations of crimes against humanity by the military, China remained supportive of the generals. China criticized Western sanctions on Myanmar's military, labelling them as “worsening tensions.” Despite being Myanmar's main trading partner and supplying the junta with over $250 million in arms, China seemed to reassess its stance on its conflict-affected neighbour in late October.


A notable attack on the military in northern Myanmar was conducted by a coalition of ethnic militias called the Three Brotherhood Alliance. This group, connected to China's security services, highlighted a shift in dynamics. In the vicinity of the China-Myanmar border, within a tumultuous jungle region informally seen as part of China's influence in Myanmar, the Three Brotherhood Alliance quickly emerged as the most significant security threat to the junta. Without any apparent dissuasion from China—and purportedly with some minimal assistance, as claimed by Burmese analysts—the forces associated with the Three Brotherhood Alliance assert that they have captured more than 200 army bases and four crucial border crossings essential for trade.


Encouraged by the Three Brotherhood Alliance's achievements, various armed adversaries of the junta—comprising ethnic and political groups in a growingly intricate conflict—intensified their assaults. The UN reports that the conflict has now extended across two-thirds of the country. Since the initiation of the offensive, named Operation 1027 after its commencement on October 27th, hundreds of thousands of individuals have been displaced. Notably, the Brotherhood Alliance declared its objective to eradicate a network of online scam operations that had emerged over the past three years along the Myanmar-China border. A significant security worry for China, these activities are believed to be linked to the trafficking of around 120,000 unknowing workers to Myanmar, including a substantial number of Chinese individuals. The operations are estimated to generate billions of dollars in annual revenue, with a significant portion obtained through scams targeting Chinese victims.


In November, there were suggestions that China had changed its stance in the conflict, and there were speculations about the junta's imminent decline. In a display of their dissatisfaction, the generals allowed their backers to organize uncommon anti-China protests in various cities in November. Since then, China has taken measures to reassure the junta. China engaged in joint naval drills with Burmese vessels and, in early December, China's leading diplomat, Wang Yi, held discussions with Myanmar's deputy prime minister, Than Swe, in Beijing. Subsequently, on December 14th, China declared that it had facilitated a temporary truce between the army and the ethnic militias.


This situation illustrates China's self-serving, occasionally contradictory approach to Myanmar, often at the expense of its 54 million people. The inconsistency stems from the tensions between China's long-term strategic interests—mixing economic considerations with a goal to prevent the nation from aligning with pro-Western democrats—and its more immediate security concerns.


While and Russia also engage in transactions with the junta, China holds the most extensive economic connections with Myanmar. Despite the ongoing conflict, China has continued its efforts to construct a comprehensive infrastructure network, including roads, railways, pipelines, and ports across the country. This initiative could potentially provide China with direct access to the Indian Ocean. China views this as an alternate path to bypass the strategic Strait of Malacca, a crucial point for much of China's maritime trade. To support this ambitious initiative, China has committed to investing more than $35 billion. In contrast, India intends to allocate only $500 million for a road construction project linking Myanmar to northeastern India.


China's substantial long-term investments and a certain reluctance towards Myanmar's democratic factions have solidified it as a staunch supporter of the country's military, which has dominated Myanmar for the majority of its independent existence. However, China's security concerns in the region can also be seen as more strategically calculated. Since gaining independence in 1948, Myanmar has struggled to manage its densely forested border region. Consequently, China has expressed concerns about the potential spill-over of insecurity along the 2,000-kilometer (1,250-mile) frontier between the two nations. This puts at risk China's infrastructure investments, which often traverse the border, and occasionally leads to the influx of refugees, drugs, and other illicit goods into China. The latest concern in this regard is the online scam industry.


The extensive criminal activities, with Chinese individuals both as victims and culprits, have elevated the issue to a priority in Chinese foreign policy. In May, China's former foreign minister, Qin Gang, visited Myanmar, urging the junta to take decisive action against the scam industry. At that point, tens of thousands of Chinese citizens had been unlawfully transported to Myanmar, confined in expansive, factory-like facilities, and compelled to engage in online scams involving fake romantic connections and fraudulent investment schemes. Individuals who resist may face torture or even death. However, Myanmar's military, considered both ineffective and suspected of receiving bribes from the scammers, took no action to intervene and disrupt their operations. Therefore, it seems that China has shifted its focus towards the ethnic militias. One such group is the Myanmar Democratic Alliance Army, consisting mostly of ethnic Chinese individuals, with many fighters proficient in Mandarin.


These ethnic armies do not simply act as direct proxies for China. They pursue their own interests, which may involve territorial gains, and also form alliances with groups less favourable to China, such as Myanmar's growing and well-organized pro-democracy faction. However, China has intermittently exerted influence over these militias, as evidenced by the recent offensive. On December 10th, it tried to take advantage of the militias' progress by issuing arrest warrants for ten scam leaders operating in northern Myanmar. Four days later, seemingly satisfied that its goal had been achieved, China facilitated the ceasefire.


Currently, China is once again aligning itself with the junta, which retains control over the majority of Myanmar's airports, banks, and major cities, including the capital, Naypyidaw. Despite facing Western sanctions, the junta continues to purchase fighter jets from both China and Russia, enabling it to conduct indiscriminate bombings of civilian areas held by its adversaries. China will generally support the Myanmar generals, occasionally siding with their adversaries. While this divide-and-rule strategy may not be the sole cause of the Myanmar crisis, it likely contributes to exacerbating the situation. Indian foreign policy officials have to closely assess Chinese actions and its impact on the emerging political shape of Myanmar in the event of the fall of the junta. (IPA Service)

The Northlines is an independent source on the Web for news, facts and figures relating to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and its neighbourhood.

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