It is now known that Chinese authorities constructed fences during November, 2020 near the China-Myanmar border in Laukkai Township in the Kokang Self Administered Zone in northern Shan State of Myanmar. The construction was carried out by China near border post BP-125 and between posts BP-121 and BP-122. While the Myanmar military objected to this development, the Chinese went ahead with the works on the pretext of a crackdown on illegal border crossings from Myanmar in the wake of the rapid rise in Covid-19 cases. In fact, Major General Zaw Min Tun sent a protest letter to his Chinese counterpart quoting the 1961 treaty on the China-Myanmar boundary. The treaty, as such prohibits building any structure within ten meters of the demarcation line on either side. On sensing the objection from Myanmar, China suspended the construction work. What had actually angered Myanmar was that China never even bothered to inform before starting the construction. Given the record of China manipulating the border areas in countries including Bhutan, Nepal, India, Taiwan & other South East Asian countries etc., Myanmar raised the alarm over fencing by China.
In this regard, Sai Tun Aye, a Lower House lawmaker for Monghsu Township in Shan said that China’s unilateral move to construct the fence reflected the power imbalance between Myanmar and China. He also said that China was behaving like a bad neighbour especially when Myanmar was weak on multiple fronts and has been experiencing this kind of bullying over the years. While China and Myanmar overall share a border of approximately 2,227 Km, the border issue between the northern Shan State and China has been simmering since 2018. The boundary protocol signed in 1961 between the countries provides for joint inspection of demarcated boundary once in five years. However, in practice joint inspection was held only in 1984-86 and 1992-95. In 2019, U Kyaw Tin, Union Minister for International Cooperation, Myanmar and his Chinese counterpart agreed to conduct the third joint inspection of border in 2021 after a gap of 25 years. Both the countries also agreed to conduct aerial photography, erect new boundary pillars, repair and reconstruct missing pillars, draw up new boundary maps and draft a new protocol. Myanmarese fear that probably China wants to erect the fencing before conducting the joint inspection and then draft a new protocol incorporating the overtures made by it.
China’s pattern of increasing its influence in the world, particularly in the South Asia often translates into supporting authoritarian governments and Myanmar is a classic example. Despite Myanmar having gone through democratic transition a couple of years ago, the entire world has seen how an elected government could not do anything significant to control the Rohingya crisis. The reason is the second largest south eastern Asian country is still under military sway thanks to the active support from Beijing. China also looks at Myanmar as its crucial partner in the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. It has already started investing in several projects in Myanmar through the China Myanmar Economic Corridor. Myanmar has an international debt of some US$ 10 Bn of which 40 per cent is held by China. In 2018, policy makers in Myanmar rightly held discussions on the burgeoning debt & urged the government to clear Chinese loans as soon as possible saying that they had the highest interest rates amongst all foreign countries that have lent to Myanmar. The dawn in wisdom though late, helped Myanmar to trim Chinese loans to avoid debt trap. In fact, Swedish journalist and strategic consultant Bertil Lintner watching South East Asia for decades said that Chinese investments in the name of economic development have the shadow of grey zone operations in the Indian Ocean. Lintner has asserted after a detailed study that China seeks hegemony and the Indian Ocean is an increasingly crucial area of operations for it to achieve this.
All is not well amongst the Chinese and the Myanmar local population as the latter have begun to realise the nefarious designs of the former. Last year, in Sept 2019, in Myanmar’s Myawady township, Karen state, clashes erupted between the Chinese nationals and local Myanmarese, leading to formation of a committee to register Chinese citizens staying illegally in the city and allegedly involved in criminal activities like operating casinos and supporting ethnic armed groups. Incidentally, further expansion of the Shwe Kokko urban development project being undertaken in Karen state by a Chinese conglomerate, the Jilin Tati group has reportedly been stopped over growing concerns that the project would increase Chinese influence in the area. Separately, local opposition to Chinese projects like Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone and Chinese backed Myitsone dam continues. Following local protests over anticipated re-location of villages, monasteries and schools, Sagaing region government cancelled (Sept 30) permission granted to Myanmar Yang Tse Copper Ltd, a subsidiary of China’s Wanbao Mining Copper Ltd to jointly operate a copper mine in the area. Chinese owned Sky Man Steel Factory in Yangon region was also permanently closed (Sept) apparently due to financial problems caused by high electricity tariffs.
In August this year, an alliance of China backed ethnic armed groups in north eastern Myanmar named `Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee’ (FPNCC) rejected an invitation from the Myanmar government to attend the Union Peace Conference. FPNCC rejected the conference citing the Covid-19 pandemic, inadequate medical facilities and insufficient travel arrangements. However, the real reason for rejection was that China did not permit the FPNCC to participate in the event as the Arakan Army (AA) was not involved. Currently, AA is engaged in a military conflict with Myanmar government troops in their Rakhine state of Myanmar bordering China. The AA troops are known to have been trained and supported by the Kachin Independence Army which is heavily dependent on China. From a modest strength of 26 soldiers in 2009, today the AA has more than 10,000 well equipped fighters. The group has formed a new base in Panghsang town where the United Wa State Army (UWSA) already has its headquarters. The Wa Self-Administrated Division, the region with its borders with China’s Yunnan Province is already considered the mini-China town wherein the Chinese operate everything from hotels to banks. AA also receives China made military equipment from the black markets operating in the region. Meanwhile, UWSA also supplies weapons to AA and is now known to be venturing into drug trade for income generation.
On June 23, 2020 the Thai military seized a consignment of Chinese made weapons including AK-47 assault rifles, in Mae Sot district bordering Myanmar’s Karen state. The weapons worth $1 Mn were meant to be supplied to the AA and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Another large consignment of Chinese made weapons was smuggled into Rakhine state via Monakhali beach near the junction of Myanmar and Bangladesh in the third week of February this year. It is thus apparent that this illegal flow of Chinese weaponry into Myanmar poses a serious threat to regional security. Largely illegal Chinese entities are known to be trafficking Myanmar’s natural resources in consonance with corrupt officials of the Myanmar government. In fact, there is a growing suspicion amongst the locals that China is orchestrating the actions of ethnic armed groups in Myanmar to leverage it for bargaining. Of late, Myanmar is acting to curb China’s influence and has even cancelled / curtailed projects under the Belt and Road Initiative. The $3.6 Bn Myitsone dam project remains suspended while the Kyaukpyu port project has been scaled down as mentioned earlier.
Under the current circumstances, China deliberately wants to prolong the peace process like done in some other countries. The country deliberately scuttled the effort of the US and European countries to impose sanctions on Myanmar over the Rohingya issue through veto which is another weapon it uses in its negotiations with Myanmar. This scenario only harms the civilians due to both high intensity and low intensity conflicts that impact everyday lives. China also has an interest in creating opportunities for its businessmen who in the name of conflict can grab land as well as generate economic opportunities.
Myanmar is already in the clutches of China using the leverage of ethnic groups, economy control, rohingya issue, illegal supply of weapons and now the pressure in the border. The current border overtures by China and the impending joint inspection, erection of new boundary pillars, reconstruction of missing pillars, new boundary maps and new protocol in 2021 sound a warning bell to Myanmar in the back drop of continuing Chinese boundary issues around the world.