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  • Writer's pictureGabriel Lane

The One Friend Myanmar Can't Afford to Lose

Written by Gabriel Lane

Edited by Cameron Gale

 

In the wake of the 2021 military coup in Myanmar and the resulting diplomatic backlash it drew, Soe Win, a senior Burmese general and current Deputy Prime Minister in the Junta’s government, cautioned that they would “have to learn to walk with only a few friends”. As the regime confronts this deepening crisis, triggered in part by the Three Brotherhood Alliance's Operation 1027, as well as continued assaults by various Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs), one wonders:


Is the Junta's hold on power tenable if even one of their remaining few allies decides to turn away?



Source: China's President Xi Jinpin, right, shakes hands with Burma's Commander-in-Chief

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing in Beijing on 16 October 2013.


China's role as the crucial strategic ally to Myanmar, evidenced through its military support for Myanmar's military (The Tatmadaw), wide-ranging economic linkages, and robust diplomatic backing, has been the cornerstone of their bilateral relationship. This connection, often framed within the traditional Burmese concept of "Pauk-Phaw", Burmese for brotherhood or fraternal, belies a far more intricate dynamic than the regional standard for intergovernmental cooperation. Beijing has forged extensive connections with not only Naypyidaw, but also a wide variety of Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) operating all along the border shared by China's Yunnan province and Myanmar's Shan and Kachin states. It is also well reported, that Beijing's influence extends out to numerous People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) currently battling the Tatmadaw within Myanmar, highlighting the complex and multi-layered nature of China's engagement in the region. So the question is, how vital is Beijing’s support for the SAC’s (State Administrative Council) rule and if, frustrated by Naypyidaw’s seeming inability or reluctance to crackdown on criminal syndicates and cyber scam hubs on their border, they withdrew their support for the regime, what would the fallout be Min Aung Hlaing’s government?



Source: Map of South East Asia, MapBox


Military Aid


Since the 2021 coup, Chinese state and private entities have provided the Junta with over US$267 million worth of weaponry and supplies, manufacturing a reality where halting that funding would severely impact the Tatmadaw’s ability to wage war against the countless various armed insurgent groups. As part of this assistance package the Chinese government has supplied Myanmar with six FTC-2000G multirole attack jets as well as spare parts for numerous other helicopters and fighter aircraft. These aviation assets have been used to devastating effect on both rebel and civilian targets and combined with other arms shipments, that include upgrades to Type-59 and Type-63 tanks, communications equipment, infrastructure support, raw materials and even a submarine, the Tatmadaw's military capabilties have been significantly strengthened by this partnership with Beijing. But whether a halt to Chinese arms imports would fatally weaken the Tatmadaw is far from certain, as China isn't the only major arms seller here in Myanmar.


Of the $1 billion USD worth of weaponry and material sold to the Junta post-coup, it is not China, but Russia who have contributed the most.


Dwarfing China’s provision of military aid, Moscow’s $406 million USD worth of arms exports has arguably been the main propellant for the Tatmadaw’s war machine. To date Moscow has provided everything from Yak-130 aircraft to Mi-35 helicopters, with this hardware having been sighted frequently all across the country by observers on the ground, with strikes from these platforms including an attack on a village in the northern Sagaing Region on the 11th April 2023 that left at least 160 people dead. However, whilst these Russian arms transfers and joint military exercises have greatly benefited the Tatmadaw, Moscow’s ability to be a stable long-term procurement partner for the regime is uncertain, with much of Russia’s military equipment increasingly tied up in Ukraine.


Unlike Moscow's much more direct, transactional approach, China has typically employed a ‘hedging’ strategy in Myanmar, where it plays both sides in order to secure its extensive economic and infrastructure investments in the country whilst also stifling criminal scam networks. Here in Myanmar, Beijing directly finances and provides arms to various EAOs who openly question the legitimacy of the government in Naypyidaw. The United Wa State Army (UWSA) which operates within an autonomous area in northern Shan State and fields around 30,000 troops, receives funding as well as tactical weaponry from China including armoured vehicles, FN-6 MANPADS and even runs its own factory for the assembly of Chinese Type-81 assault rifles within its territory. Whilst the UWSA has so far remained neutral amidst the wave of current offensives by rebel groups and EAOs in Myanmar, they have funnelled some of their less sophisticated weapons to those that have; providing rifles and ammunition to the Three Brotherhood Alliance which has been utilised against the regime in recent weeks.




Source: Chinese Weapon Supplies Produced in Myanmar, Indian Military Review



Infrastructure Projects


In addition to these much needed military aspects of China’s relationship with the Junta, the economic opportunities offered by Beijing are invaluable to the regime. With the implementation of sanctions by Western countries following the coup in 2021, China has provided a vital financial lifeline for Naypyidaw with over 40% of Myanmar’s international trade occurring across the border with Yunnan province in the PRC. The launch of the Three Brotherhood Alliance’s offensive in late October has further highlighted the importance of these financial ties with the Junta losing control of numerous significant trading hubs on the China-Myanmar border. One such town, Chinshwehaw in Shan State, facilitated over US$450 million of trade between the two countries in the period from April to September this year alone whilst the SAC’s control of the strategic town of Muse further north has also been threatened.


Source: Map of Chinshwehaw


The PRC has additionally invested heavily in infrastructure in the country as part of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, under the umbrella of the Belt and Road Initiative, with a 770 km oil pipeline running from Yunnan province on the Chinese side to Rakhine State’s port of Kyauk Phyu on the Bay of Bengal. Other Chinese funded strategic development projects in Myanmar include sites such as the Mee Lin Gyaing LNG power plant in the Ayeyarwady region that is 81% Chinese owned and will cost an estimated US$2.5 billion to construct. With the total value of China-Myanmar trade estimated at nearly US$9.2 billion in 2022-23, if this lucrative relationship was derailed by Beijing withdrawing all support for the Junta, it would deal a massive economic blow to the regime.


Source: Map of China-Myanmar Pipeline


In addition to China, Russia has also recently got in on the act, signing a number of MoUs with the Junta including plans to construct a small modular reactor as well as wind and hydroelectric power plants in Myanmar, although no concrete plans for the financing or building of these projects have been announced. Despite these agreements and an increase in Russian-Burmese trade from an estimated US$15.7 million in 2021 to US$400 million


in 2023, Moscow’s economic influence in Myanmar still pales in comparison to Beijing’s trading relationship with Naypyidaw.


Diplomatic Support


From a diplomatic standpoint, the support that Beijing provides for Min Aung Hlaing’s regime does seemingly impart a level of international legitimacy for the Junta, legitimacy that is in desperately short supply at the moment. China however, has been hesitant to fully throw their lot in with Naypyidaw, as both Min Aung Hlaing’s lack of an invitation to the ten year anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative in October this year and Beijing's refusal to welcome him to Beijing on a state visit illustrates. Yet, through bilateral talks, like the May 2023 meeting between Beijing’s foreign minister Qin Gang and Min Aung Hlaing in May 2023, China has been able to partly shield the SAC from western sanctions and universal international rebuke.


Beijing's most significant intervention on behalf of Naypyidaw has instead been the constraints they have been able to put upon many EAOs in the country.


Through their patronage of many of these militias, especially those who form part of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), Beijing has been able to pressure them not to align with the National Unity Government (NUG) and limit coordinated attacks against the regime.


Whilst this consensus may have broken down in recent weeks with some FPNCC EAOs such as the Three Brotherhood Alliance launching offensives against the regime, the sway that China holds over these powerful actors continues to highlight how imperative it is for the Junta to keep Beijing on side. So whilst the SAC has undoubtedly sought to deepen ties between itself and Moscow, with Min Aung Hlaing even meeting with Putin at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September 2022, Putin lacks the extensive influence China has upon the battlefields in Myanmar.


To those who have been watching this conflict closely for some time now, it seems more clear than ever, that if China were to withdraw all support for the Junta the implications would be disasterous for the regime. Beijing's strategy here means that for now, Min Aung Hlaing’s isolated government has little choice other than to continue struggling along with “a few friends”, with China almost certainly the one they cannot afford to lose.


 

Gabriel Lane is a member of the research staff here at The Red Line. Gabriel is also a history graduate from Durham University, specialising in Southeast Asian geopolitics, and is currently completing a Master's degree in International Relations at LSE. Gabriel's undergraduate thesis investigated Shan efforts to gain greater sovereignty in British Imperial Burma during the first half of the 20th century



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