There are good reasons why the Chinese government covered the costs of attending the third Myanmar Union Peace Conference for the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FNPCC).
The members of the FNPCC include the EAOs who make up the Northern Alliance, which has been fighting with the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s armed forces) and attacking commercial interests like casinos in northern Shan state and Kachin state, on the border with China. The members of the Northern Alliance, which was formed in December 2016 in response to increased pressure from the Myanmar military, are the Arakan Army (AA), the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).
The remaining three members of the FNPCC are the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA), and the Shan State East National Democratic Alliance Association (NDAA).
None of these groups have signed the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the government. Originally, eight out of about 21 EAOs signed the NCA; three more have recently signed. It was agreed that the details of the NCA would be discussed and finalized by the participants at a series of Union Peace Conferences also known as the 21st Century Panglong talks, the third of which was held from July 11 to 16.
Previously, some FNPCC members had received funding from China to attend the Peace Conferences as observers. But the AA, TNLA, and MNDAA had never attended a peace conference because, until recently, the Myanmar government had excluded them from the NCA, saying that they had been formed too recently to be allowed to take part in peace process.
With Chinese help and diplomacy, this was the first time that all the members of the FNPCC had attended a Union Peace Conference.
But as Dr. Enze Han, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong who specializes in China’s relations with Myanmar, has pointed out, it is debatable how supportive the Chinese government is of the NCA process. All it really wants is stability in the border areas, and whether that is achieved with or without the NCA does not matter to China.
As Han said, “It is in China’s interest to have a stable border and I think to have a stable border is essential for increased connectivity across the border line.”
A stable border with Myanmar will benefit Chinese trade and the movement of goods and resources.
Muse on the border in northern Shan state, opposite Ruili in China, is Myanmar’s busiest land border crossing, accounting for more than 50 percent of Myanmar’s international trade across land borders. In the 2016 to 2017 financial year $5.41 billion of trade crossed the border at Muse; in the 2017 to 2018 financial year that rose to $5.83 billion.
But recently, border trade at Muse has been disrupted by fighting, including the first action by the Northern Alliance when they attacked the town in November 2016 and the attack on the casino there by the TNLA in May this year.
It is not just local border trade that is important to the Chinese. They are also interested in markets further afield, and Myanmar is one of the access points to those markets.
Myanmar is part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a grand infrastructure vision to build trade routes out of China that stretch all the way to Europe. Though it is presently, according to Han, “a very broad and vague thing,” some current and planned Chinese infrastructure projects connecting China to Myanmar and beyond via disputed areas in northern Shan state have been subsumed into the BRI.
Myanmar and China agreed to sign a 15 point Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for a China Myanmar Economic Corridor when Aung San Suu Kyi met President Xi Jinping on December 1, 2017 in Beijing. The economic corridor will run from Kunming in China’s Yunnan province, cross the border at Muse, continue to Mandalay, and then split, with one section continuing westward to Kyaukpyu on the Bay of Bengal in Rakhine state and the other going east to Yangon.
A twin gas and oil pipeline also follows the same or a very similar route running from Kyaukpyu to Kunming. The gas pipeline carries about 2.86 million tons of gas annually, about 5 percent of China’s total gas imports and the oil pipeline is designed to carry 22 million barrels of crude oil a year, about 6 per cent of China’s total oil imports, to a refinery in Kunming.
Transporting goods, oil, and gas via the port of Kyaukpyu and overland through Myanmar to China, instead of sailing on to ports on China’s southern and eastern coasts in the South China Sea, cuts thousands of miles from the journey. It also increases China’s energy security, because energy supplies will no longer have to go through the narrow bottleneck of the Strait of Malacca, which could be potentially blocked off by an adversary.
China’s official line on EAO and Tatmadaw fighting is to follow a policy of noninterference. Its official policy is “persuading for peace and facilitating dialogues,” though in reality the policy is a bit more ambiguous.
China intervened in February 2013 and organized peace talks between the KIA and the Tatmadaw after fighting between the two groups on the border. Since then, a Chinese special envoy has been present as an observer or participant at all the Myanmar peace dialogues.
But the Chinese have never just supported the government-sanctioned version of peace. For China, peace in the border areas does not necessarily have to come from the NCA. Individual ceasefires would be adequate to protect their interests.
According to the United States Institute of Peace Special Report “China and Myanmar’s Peace Process” by Yun Sun, Chinese officials realize that the NCA will be full of obstacles and that “a ceasefire is more probable than a comprehensive agreement with all ethnic armed groups.” Because of this, China will not “abandon” the EAOs.
The report goes on to say: “Beijing does not operate on the assumption that it must pick a side between the central government in Naypyidaw and ethnic armed groups. Instead it maintains good relations with both, and each serves a distinct purpose.”
Though the China seems at present to be behind the NCA process, there have also been times where China has appeared to take the EAOs’ side.
Sometimes local Chinese businesses and special interest groups in Yunnan have offered financial help to EAOs, though this has often been against the Chinese government’s wishes. But the government has also supplied weapons to EAOs, particularly the UWSA, who have then passed some of them on to the KIA and other EAOs.
The Chinese government also publicly censured the Thein Sein government for attacking the MNDAA in March 2015 after Tatmadaw shells fell onto Chinese territory and refugees from Myanmar fled into China.
But since Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy came to power in 2016, relations between the two countries have improved again, particularly in the last year as the West has become more critical of Myanmar because of its handling of the Rohingya crisis.
The Chinese government needs to have peace in northern Myanmar to keep its infrastructure projects viable, and it believes that encouraging the NCA could help it achieve those aims and will also give them increased political capital with the NLD, particularly in this time of frostier relations with the West.
Mark Inkey is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Irrawaddy, Frontier Myanmar, Asian Correspondent and Mizzima Magazine.