Growing Chinese influence in Myanmar politics
Arecent political talk-show in Radio Free Asia (RFA) on the issue topic of China's political influence in Myanmar mentioned the Arakan Army (AA) endorsement of China initiated One Belt One Road (OBOR) or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was taken as a remarkable testimony of bowing to regional power, which is aiming to become another superpower in the near future.
In fact, it is not only the AA that is backing up but the seven-member Federal Political and Negotiation Consultative Committee (FPNCC) has also been staunchly behind it, when a few years back it came up with an unreserved backing of China's mega project, which is an ambitious programme to connect Asia with Africa and Europe via land and maritime networks along six corridors with the aim of improving regional integration, increasing trade and stimulating economic growth.
The FPNCC is made up of United Wa State Army (UWSA), National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and AA.
Different level of engagement
Generally, China employs government-to-government and party-toparty two-pronged relationship with Myanmar as it usually does with the other countries. But lately with the ambitious BRI mega project, it seems to have added up another channel which is military to military.
Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs)
China's influence on FPNCC or northern alliance group goes back to the time when China started in 1967 to overtly support the Communist Party Burma (CPB) to overthrow the government. But in 1989 China withdrew the support and the CPB disintegrated because of mutiny by its ethnic troops, which become the present day MNDAA, UWSA and NDAA, the three organizations that are now part of the FPNCC.
This alliance relies heavily on China from arms, munitions, uniforms to food supplies and also two way trading, which involved exporting natural resources and mineral extraction, among others, from the EAOs' side and import needy consumer goods from China.
The outstanding examples of the Chinese influence were the pressuring the Tatmadaw, which is bitterly against to invite some of the FPNCC members to the second (May 2017) and third (July 2018) 21st Century Panglong – Union Peace Conference (21PC-UPC). The FPNCC was also not too keen to attend the conference, as it had declared another different approach of peace initiative outside the 21PC-UPC, which has a precondition to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in order to participate.
But nevertheless, the FPNCC attended the opening ceremony of the second and third 21PC-UPC, although it was only there at the opening ceremony and returned a day or two later without being able to present its political position in the conference in an official manner.
The Union Solidarity and Development Party-led Thein Sein government in 2011, having established a hybrid civil-military regime, tried to reduce its dependence on China by opening up its door to the West.
Thein Sein's truce with the National league for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi paved way for its party registration, entered by-elections in 2012 and won 43 out of the 45 contested seats; and Thein Sein's suspension of China's Myitsone dam project; subsequently led to lifting of the various sanctions by international players on Myanmar.
This, however, was short-lived as the West condemned and abandoned Myanmar on Rohingya crisis that occurred in 2017, which sent some 700,000 refugees to Bangladesh due to atrocities and human rights violations, which is not resolved until today. This, in effect, has pushed back Myanmar into the ambit of China again.
Since then, China has been shielding the NLD government and the military in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on whittling down a Security Council statement drafted by the UK; attempted to stop a Security Council briefing on the Rohingya issue and reduce the budget allocated for investigating the incidents in Arakan state; and has positioned itself as a mediator between Myanmar and Bangladesh, on three-steps solution to the Rohingya problem of stop violence, start repatriation and promote development, according to The Diplomat report in May.
Economically, Myanmar government recently agreed to begin work on key projects under the ChinaMyanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) agreement which is part of Chinese ambitious BRI, wrote The Irrawaddy in January 2019.
An estimated $2 billion will be spent in the initial stages of the project which is expected to be made up of 24 projects in total.
Among the 24 proposed CMEC projects, Myanmar has agreed to speed up the process of nine major projects, which include the Kyaukphyu SEZ in the west, the New Yangon City Development in Yangon and the border economic cooperation zones in Kachin and Shan states.
Myanmar’s foreign exchange reserves totalled $6.35 billion in 2018, while the total national debt was estimated at around $10 billion. Of that, $4 billion is reportedly owed to China, wrote Bertil Lintner in recent Asia Week report.
Chinese diplomats visiting Myanmar make it a sort of tradition seeing the commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing and his top brass, including regular visit invitation to China, where military facilities, arms factories and peace-keeping training centre for international mission under UN flag were shown, according to Ms Hla Kyaw Zaw, a China-Myanmar relationship experts in a recent RFA talk-show. In short, the relationship of military-to-military has been firmly established.
Besides, China is the biggest supplier of military hardware to Myanmar, accounting for 61 percent of weapons imported by Myanmar between 2014 and 2018.
As all could see, China is important for all stakeholders one way or the other.
The FPNCC which is not part of the NCA-based peace process have 80% from the estimated total EAOs 80,000 troopers countrywide. While it may be inclined to have its own political agenda, it is in no way in a position to go against the pressure of China, as proven by the attendance of second and third 21CP-UPC. The alliance dependence on China for armament and economy are crucial for its survival, which means China's influence is tremendous.
The government, met with the West abandonment has no way out but to depend on China for protection against the onslaught in the UNSC and also economic survival, as in the days of the successive military governments.
Likewise, the military has to tread the same path like the government to realize its “standard army” ambition, as the West has boycotted it. The United States even recently doled out visa sanctions on the commanderin-chief and its three top generals. It might shop around in Russia and India for arms, but China will remain the main source for sometimes to come.
Thus, there is no denial of the growing political influence in Myanmar and it needs to live with it, while trying to navigate the political waters as best as it possibly can and avoid the so-called debt trap, which is closely link to the BRI.
Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. Photo: EPA