The rapid changes in Myanmar since President Thein Sein began democratic reforms in 2011 present China with a problem. For decades, China had a cozy relationship with its authoritarian neighbor, enjoying a near-monopoly on its natural resources and foreign policy. But now, Myanmar is a messy quasi-democracy, whose people resent Beijing for its past support of the junta and its economic exploitation of their country. And Myanmar’s still a threat to regional stability: Chinasent troops to the two countries’ border in early January because of fighting between the Myanmar government and rebel groups — if things get worse it could spill into Chinese territory.
China can no longer count on Myanmar as its strategic corridor into the Indian Ocean, or as a loyal supporter at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Naypyidaw (Myanmar’s new capital) has vastly improved its relations with Washington, increasing Beijing’s anxiety about the U.S. rebalancing to Asia. And things are getting worse for Beijing. Monks and villagers in central Myanmar have protested for months against the expansion of the Mongywa copper mine, the country’s largest, which isoperated by a Chinese weapons company and a holding company controlled by the Burmese military. In 2011, Sein suspended construction by a Chinese company of the $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam, saying it went against “the will of the people.” The protests against Mongywa have raised worries that all Chinese investments in Myanmar are in danger.
Beijing finds itself with little ability to prevent Naypyidaw from hurting its interests. An increasingly loud section of China’s foreign policy community, including government analysts and Southeast Asia specialists, are now arguing that China should return to its old friends — the border ethnic groups that are waging small-scale rebellions against Naypyidaw — to enhance its leverage there. Liang Jinyun, a professor of political science at Yunnan Police College in southwest China, argued in an influential 2011 paper that these ethnic groups, if “used” well, “will become China’s most loyal friend in the frontline of confrontation between the United States and China in Myanmar.”
China has long maintained close ties with the Wa and Kachin, ethnic minorities who live in the north and have struggled for autonomy against the government since Myanmar became a country in 1948. The relationship peaked during the 1960s, when China supported the Burmese Communist Party (which consisted primarily of Wa and Kachin, as well as Chinese nationals) in their (partially successful) struggle against the central government. The material and human assistance from Beijing ceased in the early 1990s, though local governments in China’s Yunnan province have maintained cross-border ties on issues ranging from business cooperation to drug-related crop substitution programs. Naypyidaw reached a peace agreement with the Wa in September 2011, but the Kachin and the Myanmar military remain at war. On Jan. 2, Myanmar admitted that it had been using aircraft to attack the Kachin, which still boasts an army of about 15,000.
Publically, Beijing has said very little. The Foreign Ministry has statedthat China and Myanmar are important neighbors, and that China welcomes the improvement of relations between Washington and Naypyidaw. But treating Myanmar nicely, as Beijing feels it has done over the past few decades, has not brought the desired outcome. Therefore, China should “diversify” its approach, said a Chinese government analyst at a private gathering in November. “The border ethnic groups are our card and China needs to play it well,” said another influential Chinese analyst in Beijing. His view is shared by many analysts I’ve spoken with over the past few years, though none has spoken about it publically.
These analysts believe China should mediate between the Kachin and Naypyidaw, to remind Myanmar of Beijing’s influence and to facilitate the stabilization of the border area. Meanwhile, they argue that China should also support the border ethnic groups in their struggle against Naypyidaw by pressuring the Burmese military to relax its attacks and keeping the border open to allow the movement of timber, jade, and other natural resources. (The smuggling of drugs is an unwanted, but unavoidable byproduct of the porous border.) According to these analysts, assisting the minority groups will restore China’s leverage over Naypyidaw and push Myanmar to respect China’s national interests. After all, in their view, since Myanmar is throwing itself into the arms of the West, China has nothing to lose and everything to gain.
In private conversations and events, analysts affiliated with the Foreign Ministry have opposed this view. They cite China’s long-standing policy of non-interference in other country’s internal affairs, and its well-established bilateral friendships with countries like Myanmar, to argue that inciting ethnic struggle will further alienate Naypyidaw. Many of these analysts believe that the “democracy frenzy,” as one of the most prominent Myanmar experts called it in an off-the-record discussion, that is currently hurting China’s interests will eventually fade. Naypyidaw will have to return to Bejing for support, otherwise the country will descend into chaos. After all, they argue, the two countries had decades of friendship — and China today remains Myanmar’s largest trading partner and investor.
For their part, the ethnic groups welcome China’s participation. According to a source in the Kachin Independence Army, the untrustworthy, “chauvinistic” Burmese will repudiate any agreement unless it is backed by a global power. With the United States more focused on helping Naypyidaw than siding with the restive ethnic groups, the Kachin and the Wa have hoped China would be their strongest ally. After dispatching several delegations to Washington over the past few years, the Kachin groups have said that they are disappointed with the lack of interest from the United States. And according to several local Chinese officials, the Wa have given up any hope of altering Washington’s perception of them as “drug lords” and “arms dealers.” Understanding Beijing’s fear about a Myanmar distancing itself from China, the Kachin and the Wa argue that China should support their struggle for a political settlement and autonomy. This will make China look bad, especially given the similar requests from Tibetans and Uyghurs for autonomy, which China suppresses. But politics makes strange bedfellows, and China supporting a restive ethnic group in its struggles against an uncaring central government is hardly the most ironic.
This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy, on January 15, 2013.