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Internal Conflict in Myanmar Proves to Be a Challenge for China

Regional experts believe China's recent efforts to mediate between the Myanmar junta and ethnic rebels on its northern border are motivated mainly by self-interest but unlikely to have a significant impact on the conflict.

China's goals in convening the peace talk between the military and the Three Brotherhood Alliance, conducted most recently in Kunming on December 20, is two-fold, according to the experts: to eliminate cyberfraud operations victimizing Chinese citizens and to stabilize trade across the China-Myanmar border.

"So, the economic interest or the border trade is being affected, that is for sure," Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, said in an interview.

"But that is a minor consideration compared to the cyber campaign. … The sooner it can be completed, the sooner the cease-fire is, and the sooner the stability can be restored."

The armed conflict has caused a daily loss in bilateral trade between China and Myanmar of about $10 million, according to Than Soe Naing, a veteran Myanmar domestic political analyst. But he said this loss is more damaging for Myanmar than China.

"The flow of goods from the border region is not much compared to China's international economic relations. Our country suffers more," he said.

Beijing has taken care to be evenhanded in its statements about the talks, in line with its public policy of solving problems and pursuing stability in the region through negotiations and dialogue.

In a formal statement on December 28, China's Foreign Ministry said the country "hopes that relevant parties in Myanmar will exercise maximum restraint, actively ease the situation on the ground, together realize the soft landing of the situation in northern Myanmar and take concrete actions to protect the safety and security of Chinese projects and personnel in Myanmar."

Yun Sun said China's main concern is not to resolve the issue of territorial control between the military council and ethnic forces in Myanmar but to crack down on cyber scams located on the China-Myanmar border.

This has been challenging for China. The anti-junta People's Defense Forces movement has gained momentum since a major offensive in late October known as 1027, taking over significant amounts of territory in the north.

Both analysts believe that the military regime is now on the defensive and more likely to favor a cease-fire. But Than Soe Naing predicted the rebels will continue their offensive and that fighting is likely to intensify throughout northern Shan State.

"China will sit and watch over the issue of who will win between the Military Council versus Spring Revolution forces in Myanmar," he said. Beijng "will come to whoever takes power in Burma. He will cooperate with the ruling entity and continue his plan," including the Belt and Road Initiative.

"Let me give you an example: China is like a tiger sitting on a mountain watching two buffaloes fight. They will cooperate with the forces of whoever wins. However, according to their current practicing international diplomacy position, they will not take sides in this conflict. China will cooperate with whoever is in power. Even if there is a change in power, China will continue to cooperate with the new one in power."

Than Soe Naing also pointed out that China does not want external interference in the Myanmar issue.

"I believe China will continue to prevent the involvement of Western democratic forces in these issues in various ways," he said.