Looking at China’s foreign policy, it is not surprising that China is pushing for stability and restoring democracy through dialogue in the current Myanmar crisis. Since the uprising began – people went out to the streets and mass struck – China has been ever since firmly holding the idea that “to co-ordinate all Myanmar’s military, Democratic forces, and the people, not to divide them, and, if divided the country will be suffered”. There are views that China’s policy was vastly different contrasting with a former military leader, Than Shwe.
Examined closely, the change of China’s narrative on policy toward Myanmar is no longer opaque.
In 2013, when Xi Jinping became president, a professor at Xinhua University suggested that China should improve its relations (which means the policy of relations with neighbouring countries, including Myanmar) with peripheral countries as follows:
- To accommodate and improve relations with neighbouring countries to mitigate the growing qualms over China,
- China should have a policy of rebalancing the United States in regional affairs with the rise of U.S power influence in Asia, instead of emphasizing institutional relations with the United States.
- To solve peacefully following its historical rights for territorial disputes such as the issues of South China Sea,
- To incorporate crisis management into foreign policy to solve conflicts and instabilities alongside the border with neighbouring countries,
- To reorganize China’s institutions in order to have better institutional relations with those countries, depending on the democratic changes taking place in the neighbouring countries,
(For instance, China, which considered NGOs, civil society, and activists as rebels, organized their own-style NGOs under the Communist Party to deal with other countries’ civil society, pro-democracy activists and NGOs.)
To raise and implement China’s self-proposed policies of own interests such as the United States, Japan and Australia at the affairs such as multilateral & multinational institutions, and participate the neighbouring peripheral countries under that program,
This policy echoed the establishment of AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) banks like ADB (Asia Development Bank) and IMF (International Monetary Fund) and established the community of BRI-related nations.
With the increasing concern over the Myanmar crisis – many fear that the country is into an all-war, yet China might have viewed that they might have more benefit if the country is not stable and people not seeking democracy. Also, conflicts would be growing if the other countries are entering these clashes. So, their current stance is to proceed carefully in Myanmar’s issues in line with its policy.
ASEAN intervention policy is quite like that of the United States and China.
Currently, there will be rivalries for the ambassador position at the U.N.
Now, it is important to regard that China can continue to shape Myanmar on its agenda while facing multiple conflicts, epidemics, and financial crises.
China holds the policy that they agree to return to democracy with dialogues, but other countries, especially the United States and the West, shouldn’t engage in Myanmar. And, they already realize that Myanmar’s stability will not be recovered without the popular NLD (National League for Democracy party).
In general, Russia, which the SAC (State Administration Council of Myanmar) crucially relied on, is more than an ally of China in terms of Russia-China relations. SAC seems to expect to reduce dependence on China completely. However, such a country like Laos, which has solidly relations with Russia, faces a lack of financial, economic infrastructure, and COVID-19 vaccines, except military weapons. Therefore, China continues dominating and helping with the much-needed issues in Laos.
At present, the most popular news about China is their attempts not to dissolve the NLD party, to discuss accordantly with ASEAN intervention policy and the resumption of trade between the two countries’ borders, which have been closed for months.
I recently had a conversation with a Shan trader on the Chinese side of the border, and it was rumoured that trade would resume on 15 Sept However, when Chinese Special Envoy Sun Guoxiang returned, the reopening of the gate did not happen as expected. It is believed that the alleged reasons might link with the successful rate of COVID-19 vaccination, for which the main border trade gate Muse could reopen.
A 1,000-bed hospital under construction at a 105-miles trade zone can hold up to 500 people, but a trader in Muse told the author on 16 Sept that it could take a while to finish. A friend from Muse remarked, “Actually if they want to start the trade with some limitations, it’s ok!”
When the trade will resume is uncertain, even at the end of October or November. The reason for COVID-19 may be true, but there might be other underlining reasons to consider it. While the border is tightened due to COVID-19, China can negatively impact Sino-border areas, as ethnic armed groups such as the Kokang MNDAA could cross the Than Lwin River. These groups have tried to establish their governing territories in Mong Ko in Muse Township and have been attacking the military units lately.
An official from a northern ethnic armed group remarked, “China has the concept that elections without the NLD party are unacceptable for the people, and if the country is not stable, it will be difficult for them to invest their interests in Myanmar.”
Small or large, China is also affected by the shutdown of Myanmar border trade. Although the closure of the Muse trade, which was important for poverty eradication in Yunnan, affected them, Myanmar will be highly the one suffering more than China.
On the other hand, while the value of the Myanmar currency depreciates sharply due to inflation and trade cessation, the availability of foreign currency depends largely on the resumption of border trade. Currently, SAC is seriously seeking foreign currency.
The IMF and the World Bank, to which SAC might approach for assistance, do not support emergency loans as before. Their most reliant Russia, however, has also sharply declined its average per capita income in recent years.
Communist China can feed its people enough in most circumstances but cannot always support its neighbouring countries in need.
It is important to carefully look at the announcement by the SAC authorities that Mong La – Keng Tung road has been reopened – the reopening of the Wan Ta Ping Gate on the Mong La – Keng Tung road in the eastern Shan State, which is an area for exchanging Chinese and Thai goods.
In fact, the military checkpoint was on one side of that creek bridge gate in the valley of Mong La – Keng Tung Road. On the mountains on the other side of the bridge, UWSA and Mong La forces jointly control, and that gate has been closed for almost five years.
The military has closed that gate and controlled the area due to the Wa and Mong La tension in 2016. The fact is that the Chinese border authorities are resolving the Wa and Mong La tensions.
So, China’s behaviour is quite important toward the Mong La trading route whether or not it is reopened.
China has also blocked the entry and exit of goods between the two countries over the COVID-19 issue in Xishuangbanna, which borders the Shan Autonomous Region Mong La.
Mong La authorities will not reopen without a signal from China; on the other hand, whether the COVID-19 epidemic can be effectively controlled is a question that remains a mystery. In areas like Mong La and Wa, the COVID-19 control campaigns were launched sometime earlier with Chinese help and have also vaccinated almost 100 per cent of the population in these areas.
In the Wa and Mong La areas, there has also been a surprise check for the infections of COVID-19 with the test kits used as China’ method.
The remaining areas are under the control of the military in Shan State, which is related to Wa and Mong La areas. Even if starting vaccinations in those areas, the question remains about how widespread the vaccination is and whether the disease can be controlled.
China has closed the gates that stretch thousands of miles along the China-Myanmar border, from the Kan Paik Ti border in Kachin State to Lai Zar, Lweje, Muse, Chinshwehaw border gates. These gates are under the joint control of the military and the ethnic armed groups, to areas such as Pang Sang and Mong La.
A recent report quoted the SAC Ministry of Commerce as saying that cross-border trade had declined more than the U.S $ 1,300 million from the previous year. In comparison, it had dropped more than the U.S $ 1,100 million on the China-Myanmar border alone. This calculation does not include figures on the sources of illegal exports to China. The report also said SAC wanted to reopen the Muse border gates as soon as possible and appealed to China.
China-Myanmar border observers said that the earliest possible date for the resumption of Chinese border trade in November.
Worthwhile, the battle for the United Nations’ seat between National Unity Government or SAC is yet to be known soon. Whether the ASEAN’s response to the Myanmar crisis will work or not will be a game-changer in the region.
Until then, if the border trades could not be resumed because of the alleged COVID-19 reasons, it would have strengthened the views that this move is politically motivated.
This article is written in Burmese by Sai Tun Aung Lwin and translated into English by our regular contributing correspondent. The views in this article is of the author and not representing The Chindwin.