January 24, 2024
NEW DELHI – Ashaky agreement to end fighting in northern Myanmar has served to highlight concerns in Beijing over the ongoing unrest – and the limits of China’s power to influence the ongoing civil war. On 12 January 2024, China announced that it had brokered a cease-fire between the Myanmar military and a trio of ethnic armies, known as the Three Brotherhood Alliance.
There is, however, one caveat: The agreement only applies to the northern Shan state. The state has seen conflict since Myanmar’s independence in 1948, and especially after the once-Beijing-backed Burma Communist Party established its headquarters there in 1968 and engaged the country’s army in a prolonged war. It is also a region where opposition to Myanmar’s military government has had the most success in the current civil war.
Since launching a fresh push against the Myanmar military on 27 October 2023, the alliance has captured one town in Shan state every three days, according to media reports. And despite the China-brokered agreement, sporadic fighting has continued in Shan state. Meanwhile, the truce has done nothing to end the civil war outside the state. But that might not be the point:
The agreement brokered by Beijing is, I believe, more about trying to safeguard the interests of China than about ushering in elusive peace to Myanmar. Beijing has increasingly been concerned over the threat of Myanmar’s turmoil spilling over into China. Indeed, a statement by the Chinese foreign ministry announcing the truce noted that both sides in the conflict had “committed to not harming the safety of Chinese border residents and personnel involved in projects in Myanmar.”
There are clear reasons why China would like to see peace in Myanmar. The destabilized northern region has become a haven for Chinese criminal gangs that traffic humans and drugs, and run online scams from across the border. Meanwhile, the war has blocked trade routes and seen Chinese citizens in border towns increasingly put at risk. Regardless of China’s desire to see the truce hold, there appears little chance of that happening.
Myanmar’s army has faced major losses since fighting began in 2021, sparked by a coup in which the country’s generals overthrew the democratically elected government. Since then, a fierce resistance movement has emerged across Myanmar – one the generals have failed to subdue. The recent truce has done little to end the violence, opposition successes or the threat to China.
A day after the cease-fire was announced, one member of the Three Brotherhood Alliance, the Arakan Army, captured Paletwa, a border town with India in the west of Myanmar. Meanwhile, the Kachin Independence Army shot down a China-made fighter jet – the third one in just a few weeks – and the Myanmar army lost control of one of its division headquarters in the cease-fire area. In southeast regions of Myanmar bordering Thailand, the Karenni Nationalities Defense Forces and allied fighters launched “Operation 1111,” expanding their territorial and administrative control in the region. And in the central plains, the People’s Defense Forces, an umbrella resistance group, continues to engage in guerrilla warfare against the military.
In the context of the sprawling civil war, China has found itself in uncharted territory. In the past, China has been able to exert its influence over Myanmar’s politics. But the civil war has seen the emergence of new resistance groups, such as the People’s Defense Forces, most of whose members are younger than the soldiers in established armies. And they have no intention of entering any agreement with the Myanmar military – despite the entreaties of Beijing. Moreover, these new groups have made strategic and logistic links beyond Myanmar’s borders, giving them access to smuggled arms and supplies.As such, China’s influence over Myanmar is constrained.
This is even more so given the ethno-nationalism underpinning much of the fighting in Myanmar. Chinese efforts to end the fighting do little to provide solutions to tie the disparate ethnic groups in Myanmar together. In fact, the one thing binding the ethnic groups that form the Three Brotherhood Alliance is the common goal of defeating the Myanmar army. In addition, the safety of Chinese citizens in regions across the Myanmar border cannot be guaranteed by the cease-fire agreement with the military.
The army’s inability to tackle criminal gangs in Shan state prior to civil war suggests that even without warfare, the region will continue to pose a threat to China. Meanwhile, China’s relationship with, and influence over, groups in northern Myanmar has changed as a result of the civil war. Take the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), a resistance group in the Kokang region that borders China’s Yunnan province and shares linguistic and cultural ties with China. Since being formed in 1989, its support has switched back and forth from the Myanmar government to the resistance groups – as has China’s. But the MNDAA cannot be viewed as a vassal state of China. In 2019, the MNDAA joined the Three Brotherhood Alliance with the Arakan Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army, groups with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. China’s diplomacy and influence over the Three Brotherhood Alliance is limited: A truce threatens the unity that the group has developed in opposition to the military.
And there is little incentive among the Three Brotherhood Alliance to stop fighting at a time when it appears to be on the front foot, and morale among Myanmar’s soldiers is low. Entering the truce is in itself risky for the alliance, as it may threaten the group’s standing with other armed groups – many of whom China never dealt with until 2021. As such, Beijing’s power to influence Myanmar’s ethnic resistance groups is limited. But there is another reason why the truce Beijing brokered may not hold: Beijing’s desire to give any support to the military government has its limits, too. China is losing patience with the Myanmar military, which has failed to crack down on criminal gangs that have targeted Chinese citizens.
As many as 120,000 people, many of them Chinese citizens, have been trafficked into Myanmar by these organizations to help operate online scams. China’s default position on Myanmar has traditionally been to support whoever is in power. And Beijing had a good relationship with the democratic government under Aung San Suu Kyi prior to the 2021 coup.
The corruption and non-governability of Myanmar’s border towns since then threaten the safety of Chinese citizens and undermines any faith China has in the military’s ability to deliver stability. If Myanmar’s military cannot stabilize northern Myanmar, China is in a difficult situation. The status quo – with the Myanmar military in power, but unable to subdue resistance movements – will continue to present a threat to China