China Stands Firm, it’s the Land that’s Shifting

by mohingamatters

The conflict and territorial control situation in Myanmar has shifted markedly since October 2023. Operation 1027 caused the junta to lose massive manpower, military hardware, and the control of a large swath of land to opposing forces. In the two main theaters of war, i.e. Northern Shan State and Rakhine State, the junta today has only minimal control of key territories. Other areas such as Kachin, Karen, and Sagaing also witnessed massive losses of military personnel, hardware and lands, albeit to a smaller degree than in Northern Shan and Rakhine. By the end of 2023, it was not far-fetched to assume that, if things were to keep on progressing at the same rate, the junta might not be in power when the Myanmar New Year comes in mid-April.

However, looking back now, that proved to be a big “if”. Militarily, the junta keeps on losing; in terms of public support, let alone the already overwhelming majority of pro-democracy masses, even the diehard military supporters are denouncing the junta, and the economy, despite the junta Min Aung Hlaing’s claims of achieving remarkable recovery despite “mismanagements by the democratically-elected ousted government”, is facing the worst turn in 20 years with no signs of arrest. Nonetheless, despite all of those, it now seems like the junta will not be removed that fast. The Three Brotherhood Alliance, three powerful ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) behind Operation 1027 now all face pressure and persuasion from China to agree to ceasefires with the junta.

It was widely speculated that China at least gave tacit approval to Operation 1027, after getting frustrated with the junta’s apathy towards pig-butchering scams which are defrauding massive sums of money from Chinese citizens and trafficking Chinese citizens to fraud factories operating under the junta-allied warlords along the Myanmar-Chinese border. While the pig-butchering scams also prey on other nationalities, China actually has better means to make the junta compliant, and at the very least, it seems that the Three Brotherhood Alliance member calculated that China would not stop their military campaign if that meant getting rid of pig-butchering scams along the border. The outcome was mutually beneficial for these EAOs and China, as much as it was devastating for the junta. However, with the scam factories along its border now shut down, the Chinese-brokered ceasefire in Northern Shan State was signed in January. While the war in Rakhine State broke out afterward, there are reports that China, despite its more limited capabilities due to not sharing a border with the Rakhine State, is now attempting to broker a ceasefire there as well.

Since the coup, the Chinese government’s stance on the junta drew ire from the people of Myanmar. Since the early days of the coup, Beijing reported the coup as a “cabinet reshuffle”, addressed Min Aung Hlaing as “the leader of Myanmar”, and repeatedly vetoed UN resolutions regarding Myanmar by dismissing incidents unfolding in Myanmar as purely internal affairs. However, the animosity between the junta and Beijing couldn’t be clearer in the last quarter of 2023, with the junta claiming Operation 1027 as Chinese-sponsored and the Chinese government turning cold shoulder to the junta’s misfortune. Yet, since we enter 2024, the junta now appeared more docile to Chinese influence: the junta-backed warlords who were wanted by Beijing for committing cyber scams and human trafficking are now being handed over to China, the ceasefire to save the junta’s uprooting in Northern Shan State was agreed and China is now openly calling Min Aung Hlaing as the leader of Myanmar once again.

The developments in Northern Shan State highlight how the Chinese government has both the patience and capabilities to set the game in its favor. Without complete eradication of the junta’s grip on the Northern Shan State, the junta’s forces and its rival factions of Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) are now put into a situation where both must be in the favorable side of the Chinese government.

When it comes to China-Myanmar relations, it stands to reason that China has never taken the views of the people of Myanmar seriously. In its pursuit of Chinese national interest (clarification: we do not think any nation pursuing its national interest is making a wrong move. If anything, we think that it would be making the opposite move that’s irrational.), Chinese policymakers seem to think only those with military power can decide anything in Myanmar. Thus, since the coup, while China has a relationship with both the junta and EAOs, the National Unity Government (NUG), despite having public support, seems to be not taken seriously by China. Meanwhile, the NUG’s platform of fostering federal democracy in Myanmar itself is at most an indifferent subject to the Chinese government. It seems as if, in the Chinese government’s mind, the NUG has little to attract them ideologically, and little to offer strategically.

Chinese interests extend beyond any single EAO control, and while EAOs along its border might be able to deliver security to Chinese interests in their areas, projects that extend across the country, such as the transnational gas pipeline or projects that are currently under junta-controlled areas pose different challenges, the latter due to extreme mutual antagonism between the junta and the public. Aside from individual EAOs for each territory they control, a national organization is required to protect Chinese interests in Myanmar. Unfortunately, China seems to entrust the junta and the military establishment for this role. Moreover, just as the Northern Shan scenario demonstrated, China seems to see the junta and different EAOs balancing each other as a solution to securing its interests, however, that could quickly backfire for China because China does not have the same means to influence EAOs far from its border.

Moreover, another, more important reason why this is a bad strategy for China is the much-shifted political landscape of Myanmar. Myanmar in 2024 is no longer a playground for strongmen and powerful militaries. The Spring Revolution has shown the world the resilience of the people of Myanmar in resisting oppression. From now on, it would be near impossible for anyone to govern the country securely if the governments lack the consent of the governed. Ignoring this shifted landscape and discounting the people’s will will only prolong the conflict, erode the goodwill of the people of Myanmar towards the Chinese government, and ultimately will do no good to either one.

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