Myanmar Conflict Unveils Complex Dynamics of China's Interests  

FILE - Members of an ethnic armed forces group known as the Three Brotherhood Alliance check an armored vehicle the group allegedly seized from Myanmar's army outpost on a hill in Hsenwi township in Shan state, Nov. 24, 2023.

The rapid breakdown of a Beijing-mediated cease-fire in northern Myanmar has exposed the limits of Chinese influence in the region, even as it seeks to turn recent military gains by a rebel alliance to its advantage.

The "Haigeng agreement," announced January 12, was less than a day old when witnesses reported widespread gunfire in northern Shan state, bordering China.

The rebel Three Brotherhood Alliance — comprising the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army or MNDAA, the Arakan Army and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army — released a statement the day after the talks, accusing the military of launching attacks at multiple locations.

The largest took place near Kyaukme, a small but bustling town along the Mandalay-Lashio Road in a mountainous area near China's southwestern border. The area has long been a trade route between the two countries and has seen significant infrastructure investment by China in recent years.

A humanitarian assistance worker in Kyaukme, speaking anonymously for security reasons, told VOA this week that he could hear the hourslong gunbattle the morning after the cease-fire. "It was a shootout in Kyaukme," he said. "Civilians started fleeing for safety as the attacks were coming from both sides of town."

An updated statement from the alliance nearly a week later described continuing attacks by the Myanmar military, including 16 airstrikes on villages in northern Shan state. Witnesses on the ground have confirmed the use of airstrikes to VOA by phone.

The alliance statement blamed the military for the failure of the cease-fire, which grew out of the third attempt at dialogue since December, largely with China as mediator.

"From the day the 'Haigeng agreement' was reached until today, our side has been in compliance," the statement read. "We have been patient and showed restraint by not engaging in battle. Otherwise, we would have already implemented operational targets and city-occupation battles that had been planned before the cease-fire."

The reports of cease-fire violations belied remarks made earlier by junta spokesperson Major General Zaw Min Tun.

"We have plans to further discuss and strengthen the cease-fire agreement," he said immediately after last week's announcement. "We will engage in further discussions between Myanmar and China to reopen border trade zones."

VOA has been unable to reach the junta spokesperson's office for a response to the alliance statement. As of Friday, there had been no official statement from the junta regarding the latest developments.

FILE - In this May 25, 2012, photo, a truck transports logs with markings showing they came from across the border in Myanmar, in Ruili, Yunnan province, China.

China's interest in trade routes

According to Than Soe Naing, a China-Myanmar expert and former member of the Communist Party of Burma, Beijing's primary interest in peace talks lies in its desire to reopen trade routes between Myanmar and China's Yunnan state.

"The Chinese perspective suggests that dealing with cities on the trade route between China and inland cities like Mandalay, such as the town of Lashio, with a similar approach as the one taken with the Laukkai matter, could potentially open up the trade route," Naing said. However, he added, "whether the military junta will accept such intervention is doubtful. If Lashio is filled with military forces, there will certainly be fierce battles."

Laukkai, a border town that is infamous for gambling, prostitution and cybercrime, was captured by the Three Brotherhood Alliance on January 5 as part of a successful offensive begun in October and known as the "1027" operation. The alliance established a special regional self-government in the town this week.

"China would also encourage this kind of development in Lashio," Naing suggested. Lashio is the largest town in northern Shan state and lies at what was once the end of the "Burma road," a historically significant thoroughfare connecting Lashio to southeast China's Yunnan state. It is also the site of a large military base, which is thought to be one of the alliance's next targets.

"The main reason [the Three Brotherhood Alliance] agreed to the cease-fire was their hope to come to some sort of compromise on Lashio's capture," Naing said. "A forceful occupation of Lashio would lead to extensive fighting and turmoil in the region; a military withdrawal would avoid that."

Jason Tower, the country director for the Myanmar program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told VOA he believed China was looking for a compromise in which the junta would concede some territory in the north while the alliance would roll back some of its war aims.

"I think what [China] ultimately hopes for is that the military will pull back from some of these territories, and to make the case as to why the brotherhood should stop its movement to eradicate military dictatorship and instead focus on working with the military to stabilize the situation, especially for Chinese projects," Tower said this week.

"I think where things are interesting is that the military does not want to give up control and give up a strong presence in the north of Shan state and wants to try to retain some of the positions that it still has."

China has invested in several infrastructure projects in the area, such as the Upper Yeywa hydroelectric dam on the Shweli River, which has remained uncompleted since before an earlier military government ceded power to a civilian government in 2015. The current junta restarted the project.

China playing both sides

"The Chinese side is both helping the brotherhood to make some advances toward more narrow political objectives, but also helping the military by putting pressure on the brotherhood at the same time," Tower said.

"China presently is, at least in the northern part of the country, favoring the brotherhood to take over control of territories in the immediate border area," he continued.

"However, it's also putting a lot of pressure on the brotherhood to do business with the military … and to limit its involvement in broader revolutionary activity, pushing the brotherhood to limit its dealings" with a shadow government comprising members of Aung San Suu Kyi's ousted democratic administration and associated military forces.

The Chinese are still doing business with the military, Tower said, citing as an example a deep-water port project in Rakhine state known as the Kyaukphyu project. These are "things that a more responsible Myanmar government would not sign on to," he said. "The Myanmar military is useful to China for doing those sorts of things."

Hla Kyaw Zaw, a Burma-China scholar based in China, told VOA that Beijing's policy generally "is to be open to all sides."

"In the case of Sudan, for example, the Chinese government has good relations with both sides of the conflict. They were able to convince both sides to cease fighting so it could evacuate its embassy staff.

"They deal with various groups in every country. In the case of Myanmar, China is mainly dealing with the military junta that is currently in power, just as it is also dealing with the ethnic armed groups to serve its own purposes."

From cybercrime crackdown to energy security

China also hopes that by stabilizing the border region it can more effectively pursue its fight against cybercrime, which is prevalent in the Kokang region and mostly targets Chinese citizens. With the success of the "1027" operation in the region, Beijing sees an opportunity to work with the Three Brotherhood Alliance to go after the scam artists.

"I think the Chinese side is satisfied enough" with control of the region by the alliance, China-Myanmar expert Than Soe Naing said in an interview. "China aims to reopen trading posts and has expressed contentment with the North Shan region being in the hands of the MNDAA," one of the three alliance members.

Naing added that China "recognizes the fact that cybercriminal gangs have been protected by the Burmese military, making it harder for China to stop these gangs from targeting victims in China." The Myanmar military claims to have been working with the Chinese government "to eradicate online fraud," according to its spokesperson, Major General Zaw Min Tun.

Tower said that China's interest in the region "is certainly much bigger than just cracking down on criminal activity."

"The bigger interest here is China's energy security, because you have the single source of piped natural gas to China, in the form of the Chinese-Myanmar pipeline project, which is now supplying gas to four Chinese provinces in the southwest and contributes significantly to Yunnan's gross domestic product," he said.

"This is another reason why China is pushing the brotherhood alliance to disengage with broader revolutionary activity and to deal with the Myanmar military."