In late October, three ethnic rebel groups in Myanmar known as the Three Brotherhood Alliance – Kokang’s Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and the Arakan Army, initiated Operation 1027 against the junta. In the weeks since, they have successfully seized control of hundreds of security outposts and three government-controlled areas in northern Myanmar. The MNDAA, in particular, has advanced and encircled the junta-aligned town of Laukkai, situated merely five kilometers from the border with China.
This conflict reflects a perpetuation of the ethnic tensions in northern Myanmar over recent decades, specifically concerning the control of Kokang territory – a strategically significant area in the northern part of Shan State with a Mandarin-speaking population. The MNDAA held control of Kokang until 2009, when the Myanmar military seized it. In February 2015, the MNDAA launched an unsuccessful attack to reclaim the territory, setting the stage for the current conflict. Despite the MNDAA’s justification for Operation 1027 as being partly a crackdown on a recently exposed mega telecom scam operations in Laukkai, its underlying objective is to regain control of Kokang.
Although the junta has military advantages in terms of the number of soldiers, weapons, and equipment at its disposal, it has suffered great losses in the fighting against the rebels. Considering the overall economic downturn in Myanmar since the pandemic and the nationwide anti-military movements, particularly those led by insurgencies such as the People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) under the National Unity Government, it is unlikely that the junta can launch a large-scale counterattack in a very short time. However, frequent air strikes remain possible. Hence, the conflicts in northern Myanmar are unlikely to conclude in the next few weeks.
Affected by the conflict, a large number of refugees are flocking to Yunnan’s border. This situation has resulted in increased living costs and poses high risks to the social stability of local regions of Yunnan. Additionally, it should not be forgotten that four Chinese citizens were killed in air strikes during the Myanmar military’s fighting with the MNDAA in 2015. Therefore, China must closely monitor the ongoing fight in northern Myanmar and take preventive actions to avoid air strikes and minimize the risk of Chinese casualties.
On November 25, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army announced that it would commence actual combat training on the border with Myanmar. The training areas include the cities of Mangshi and Ruili, and Gengma County, and other locations in southern Yunnan, focusing on testing the combat capabilities of the troops in the war zone, such as rapid mobility, border sealing and control, and fire strikes. The exercises aim to prepare for emergencies and safeguard national sovereignty, border stability, and the safety of people’s lives and property.
China’s military exercise has drawn significant attention from the West, with claims that China is supporting the Three Brotherhood Alliance in its attacks on Myanmar’s junta. The purpose of such propaganda is to fuel anti-China sentiment in Myanmar and sabotage China-Myanmar relations.
There is no truth in such speculations. China has consistently pursued a policy of non-interference in Myanmar’s internal affairs and has never intervened militarily in the ethnic conflicts in Myanmar. Instead, it has committed to promoting peace talks between the junta and the ethnic armed groups and providing humanitarian assistance to Myanmar refugees.
The purpose of the recent military drill, which concluded on November 28, was to deter both the junta and ethnic armed groups from escalating tensions. It serves as a practical exercise aimed at securing the border in the event of escalated conflict, particularly cross-border air strikes or artillery attacks that could pose a threat to China’s national security.
The Chinese government has collaborated with the junta instead of the ethnic armed groups to jointly combat telecom scams. Therefore, the assertion that China is assisting ethnic armed groups in cracking down on telecom fraud is incorrect, although China does not oppose their efforts in this regard. It is clear to Beijing that the genuine intention of the ethnic armed groups is to regain lost territories, extending beyond the goal of combating telecom fraud.
Finally, China deems it unworthy to interfere in the civil war in Myanmar, as doing so could result in the loss of trade and investment and undermine cordial relations with Myanmar. In fact, traffic and logistics on the two main roads, from Lashio to Muse and Lashio to the Qingshui River, have been completely cut off since the outbreak of the conflict in October. Moreover, approximately 120 cargo trucks, which carried a substantial amount of daily necessities, clothing, and building materials across the China-Myanmar border, were destroyed by drone strikes in Muse on November 23. Given that the trade volume from Yunnan to northern Myanmar constitutes half of the trade share between China and Myanmar, both sides would incur significant economic losses if border trade were to be suspended due to the civil war in Myanmar.
More importantly, amid claims that Beijing has been supporting anti-junta forces, pro-military groups in Myanmar last month staged protests against China in Yangon. China is concerned that its substantial strategic and economic assets could be undermined due to escalating anti-China sentiment in Myanmar. Therefore, China aims to avoid interfering in the civil war in Myanmar to quell the growing wave of anti-Chinese sentiments in the country.
To conclude, China is more a victim than a beneficiary of the current ethnic conflicts in northern Myanmar. China desires a ceasefire agreement between the junta and the ethnic armed groups, as well as peace and stability in the border region.