Myanmar: Crossroads at a Crossroads

Myanmar lies at the intersection of energy security, intrastate violence, and Southeast Asian proxy interests.  Two months into its military coup, what lies next for this geopolitically critical nation? In this post, I take a look at the Sino-Burmese relationship and the coup’s implications for this complex relationship going forward.

The Kachin Independence Army, a rebel group that opposes the recently-installed Tatmadaw (Wikimedia Commons). The KIA is one of several armed Burmese ethnic groups that must navigate a complex relationship not only with Myanmar’s government, but also with neighboring China.

Most of my writings thus far have focused on issues of geopolitical or maritime security, especially those involving China and its Belt and Road partner countries.  Myanmar, as the site of several critical (and contentious) PRC-financed infrastructure projects as well as ongoing insurgencies that implicate other regional powers, checks both of these proverbial boxes.  Like many Western observers, I found my attention unexpectedly drawn to Myanmar two months ago when news of a military coup that ousted democratically-elected Aung San Suu Kyi made the rounds of American media outlets.  The coup, which has precipitated US sanctions amidst mounting violence against Burmese civilians, has continued to prompt protests and unrest from Suu Kyi’s supporters. The ruling military junta (also known as the Tatmadaw) has shown no signs of relinquishing its power, clashing with civilian opposition movements and armed ethnic groups alike over the past two months.

As I began to research Myanmar and its history further, I discovered a richness of cultures and histories of which I had been previously unaware.  While Myanmar is not a geographically large or populous country, its location on the border of China’s Yunnan Province (which many regard as China’s rail and commercial link with Southeast Asia) renders it worthy of study not only by Southeast Asia watchers, but also by observers of Asian and global security more broadly.  This article serves as an exercise in organizing my own research and thoughts on the implications of the coup, as well as Myanmar’s role in Southeast Asian security issues writ large.  I hope to continue learning more about this fascinating country, as well as its relationship with both China and the United States, in coming months as more news develops.

In the Crosshairs of Hegemons

A map of Burma Road, as well as the wider Southeast Asian theatre, during WWII (Wikimedia Commons). The Burma Road played a critical role in the transport of supplies into Nationalist China during the war.

Myanmar’s coup drew the world’s attention in February 2021, but the small Southeast Asian nation has been in the crosshairs of both Western and Asian hegemons since its days as a colony. Formerly known as Burma (rechristened Myanmar in 1989), Myanmar gained its independence from the British in 1948 after a brief tenure as a province of British India and an even briefer tenure as its own separate colony.  Like many other resource-rich Southeast Asian countries, Burma endured a brief occupation by the Japanese during WWII, when the Burma Road served as its most significant contribution to the Allied war effort.  The Japanese recognized Burma’s unique location at the crossroads of China and India and sought to block off the strategically critical road, which the Allies were using to route supplies into Nationalist-held China.  The Japanese also hoped to turn captured Burma into a staging ground from which they could launch a proxy war against the British in India by encouraging Indian nationalists to rise up against the Raj.  In Burma itself, British-backed Rohingya Muslims fought the Japanese-backed Burma Independence Army, fueling tensions between Myanmar’s Muslim and Buddhist populations that persists to this day.

The Burma Independence Army, which would later “rebrand” as the Anti-Fascist People’s Liberation League against Japan
(Wikimedia Commons)

The Burmese National Army would later turn on Japan, reforming as the Anti-Fascist People’s Liberation League led by Aung San (Aung San Suu Kyi’s father). Aung San and the British ousted the Japanese, but the former was ultimately assassinated in 1947, leaving a new prime minister (U Nu) to carry forward the mantle of independence.

Since the end of World War II, Myanmar has struggled with internal instability and long bouts of ethnic and political insurgency. CSIS analyst Murray Hiebert summarizes Burma’s struggles in his book, Under Beijing’s Shadow: Southeast Asia’s China Challenge: “Myanmar … was one of the richest nations in Asia at the end of World War II, serving as a major rice exporter and having some of the best medical facilities and universities in Asia. But the economy slipped badly during the years of Ne Win’s ‘Burmese Road to Socialism,’ the military government’s misrule, the rise of a crony business culture, and years of economic sanctions imposed by Western countries.'” Burma weathered the Cold War as a nonaligned state, balancing between the West and China while still reaping some of the benefits of alliance with other recently-decolonized Third World nations. Like Vietnam and Malaya, Burma experienced a communist insurgency that only concluded in 1989, the same year the country changed its name to Myanmar. Into the 21st century, Myanmar’s existence remains a balancing act: batteries of sanctions (relaxed after the country’s pivot to democracy in 2011 but reinstated in the wake of the 2021 coup) have increased its reliance on China for military and economic support. China and Myanmar’s relationship is a complex one, shaped by strategic pragmatism as well as mutual military and commercial interests.

Coup in China’s Backyard: Myanmar, the PRC, and Strategic Infrastructure

One question I have sought to research ever since the Tatmadaw seized power is the following: How might Myanmar’s coup impact the progress of Belt and Road Initiative projects within China? I have written about BRI before, but mostly with regard to its progress in Pakistan. BRI in Southeast Asia encompasses, perhaps most famously, a number of rail lines connecting often-isolated Southeast Asian countries (such as mountainous and landlocked Laos) to China. China’s planned and completed BRI projects in Southeast Asia also include oil and natural gas pipelines, power plants, and grid networks, some of which the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) has tracked here.

The Yunnan-Myanmar border (Wikimedia Commons)

The quest for energy security has motivated many of China’s foreign policy decisions, especially with regard to BRI. A central aim of China’s energy policy is to reduce the country’s dependence on what analysts call the “Malacca dilemma,” or China’s reliance on oil shipped through the chokepoint of the Strait of Malacca. Analysts estimate that between 50-80% of China’s oil must pass through this chokepoint, which strategists calculate could be blockaded in the event of a great-power war. (Even without a war, Evergreen’s Suez Canal debacle illustrates the vulnerability of global shipping chokepoints.)

As a rising power with a rapidly expanding middle class, as well as a growing navy, the PRC has sought to diversify its energy sources in order to circumvent the “Malacca dilemma.” In addition to filing a leading number of patents in the field of solar and other forms of renewable energy, China has invested heavily in energy initiatives throughout South and Southeast Asia. Laos has been called the “battery of Asia,” but Myanmar’s oil and gas reserves and potential for hydroelectric development render it worthy of a similar designation. To this end, China has sought to develop Myanmar’s many energy resources through a variety of Belt and Road-aligned projects. Two of Myanmar’s BRI projects that I find especially interesting are the Sino-Burmese gas pipeline and the controversial Myitsone Dam, which was tabled in 2011 amidst massive protests in Myanmar. The Myitsone Dam could become a key piece in the Myanmar-China chess game (more on this momentarily).

Myanmar’s energy pipeline presents a different story than CPEC’s—mainly because Myanmar’s natural gas pipeline has already been completed, whereas Pakistan’s has yet to get off the ground due to a series of financial and technical hurdles. According to ChinaCenter, China was able to import 2.6% of its liquefied natural gas (LNG) through the Sino-Burmese LNG pipeline in 2018 (but, were the pipeline fully operational, could eventually import almost 10% of its LNG this way). The port at Kyaukphyu is not yet fully operational; CSIS’s Reconnecting Asia database, for example, categorizes the port’s status as within a phase of “preparatory works.” CSIS does not list a completion date, likely because, as with many Belt and Road projects, construction initiatives frequently surpass anticipated deadlines. In January 2021, Burmese news site (named for a river that runs through Myanmar) further categorized the project as under development, citing an “environmental and social impact” study that is to take place. In summation, Chinese infrastructure projects in Myanmar remain very much in the preliminary stages.

Cold War Parallels? Banana Republics and a “New Afghanistan”

On the heels of the United States’ announced departure from Afghanistan, The Economist has run an article proclaiming Myanmar as a failed state-in-the-making, a potential “new Afghanistan” in China’s backyard. While this comparison may run a bit hyperbolic, especially in the early stages of the coup, there remain striking parallels between Myanmar and Afghanistan— especially Cold War-era Afghanistan. Myanmar, a mountainous and ethnically divided country, has historically served as a staging ground for proxy wars between rival powers. Like Afghanistan, Myanmar remains caught in the grip of an opium trade centered in Asia’s “Golden Triangle” (and, of late, a growing methamphetamine epidemic). Reminiscent of 1990s Afghanistan, Myanmar even has its own “Northern Alliance” of armed ethnic groups fighting the Tatmadaw in the country’s northern provinces. Obviously, Myanmar’s Northern Alliance diverges from Afghanistan’s in a number of ways—for one, Myanmar’s Northern Alliance possesses more hallmarks of an ethnic or political insurgency than an Islamist one. Even so, Myanmar and Afghanistan do share a number of commonalities, from their geopolitical significance to their history of insurgencies.

Interestingly enough, both Myanmar and Afghanistan also share a history of Chinese intervention. Both states border China (Afghanistan, to China’s west, barely skims its border; Myanmar’s borders, on the other hand, intertwine with China’s impoverished but strategically significant Yunnan Province). China, along with Pakistan and the United States, supported the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet-backed Afghan government towards the end of the Cold War. In Myanmar, China backed the Communist Party of Burma against the Burmese government during the Cold War (to this day a point of contention between Myanmar and China) and, interestingly enough, continues to arm several of Myanmar’s ethnic insurgent groups while still courting Myanmar’s government.

China and Myanmar’s relationship stands out as both complex and contradictory. How does it behoove China to arm Myanmar’s guerrilla armies while simultaneously selling military hardware to Myanmar’s government and “official” military? As Hiebert writes, China is engaged in its own balancing act in Myanmar—a balancing act that requires it to take security, economic, and political concerns into account all at once. China obviously has a vested interest in building up a military and economic relationship with a country directly to its south, especially a country with such vital resources and strategic ocean access via the proposed Kyaukphyu deep-sea port. However, China remains concerned about instability along the Myanmar border—instability that threatens to spill over into Yunnan Province. Moreover, Myanmar presents its own challenges vis-a-vis Islamism, which China is already seeking to suppress in Xinjiang. Many Burmese Rohingya Muslims, who faced brutal repression at the hands of Myanmar’s government in 2017, migrated across the border to China. As Hiebert puts it, “China’s sympathy for Myanmar on the Rohingya may have been prompted at least in part by the fact that Beijing has also faced challenges from its own Muslim Uyghur minority … Beijing may want to ensure that any possibility of links between the Rohingya and Uyghur militants are minimized.” After all, should the Uighurs and Rohingyas gain strength in their respective regions (independent of one another or by working together) China would find itself surrounded to both its west and south by Islamist insurgencies potentially hostile to Chinese interests.

Burmese Rohingya refugees in Rakhine State, Myanmar (Wikimedia Commons)

China has an incentive to maintain a delicate balance between Myanmar’s government and its armed ethnic groups. On the one hand, Myanmar’s government is one of China’s top arms recipients, along with Pakistan and Bangladesh. It behooves China to help its southern neighbor maintain a degree of internal stability, as any infighting within Myanmar could spill over the border (a phenomenon that has already occurred amongst the Rohingya). On the other hand, China relies upon irregular armed groups in Myanmar’s Kachin and Shan States to maintain its own “irregular” cross-border economic activity—namely, the establishment of banana plantations backed by Chinese investment. Hiebert writes that in Kachin State, “some 36 companies had established illegal banana plantations on over 140,000 acres without local state permission and with investment from China.” According to Hiebert, China must cooperate with armed ethnic groups in order to maintain these plantations, many of which occupy land “confiscated earlier from farmers or … formerly occupied by people displaced by the fighting between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army.”

As both Hiebert and other sources have pointed out, China doesn’t fully trust the Kachin and the KIA. Beijing views the Kachin as more susceptible to Western influences than other insurgent groups in Myanmar, likely in part because many Kachin are Christian. Even so, Beijing has taken the KIA under its wing since it joined the Federal Political Negotiating and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), an overarching alliance of ethnic insurgent groups such as the influential United Wa State Army (UWSA). The UWSA facilitates arms transfers from Beijing to other FPNCC member groups. (It is unclear whether or not the KIA have actually received Chinese weapons yet, as such arms transfers must be approved by Chinese security. Some sources I’ve seen argue that such transfers haven’t taken place, but other sources indicate that they have. Even so, the KIA’s membership in the FPNCC affords it other benefits from Beijing, such as the ability to cross the Chinese border more easily.)

China’s influence over Myanmar’s ethnic insurgents serves, as Hiebert puts it, as a form of “leverage” over Myanmar’s government. The Burmese state is well aware of China’s support for ethnic insurgent groups like the United Wa State Army (a group which collaborates with and facilitates the transfer of Chinese weapons to other armed ethnic groups), but is in no position to protest as China is one of its major arms suppliers. The Tatmadaw has courted Russia, which supplied 17% of its weapons between 2014 and 2019, in an effort to reduce its dependence on the PRC (the supplier of 50% of Myanmar’s weapons during the same period). Hiebert writes that Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the Tatmadaw and Myanmar’s post-coup military ruler, has also sought military support from a range of EU countries as well as Japan, India, and Israel (although Europe halted arms sales to Myanmar after the 2017 Rohingya genocide).

Looking Forward: Sino-Burmese Relations After the Coup

Now that the Tatmadaw has seized power, could it leverage its new control to force Beijing to stop arming ethnic insurgents in Myanmar’s northern states? At this early stage, it seems as though the coup has inadvertently increased Myanmar’s dependence on China by alienating it from the West. The United States and its allies’ sanctions on Myanmar have isolated Myanmar from international support, and Beijing and Moscow’s refusal to condemn the coup has made China’s status as a staunch ally all the more clear to Naypyidaw. The US has even explicitly requested that China help resolve the violence within Myanmar, indicating that American officials have a realistic view of the United States’ diplomatic influence in Myanmar compared with that of the PRC.

Going forward, what news could the coup spell for Myanmar’s China-financed infrastructure projects? No initiative highlights the complexities of the Sino-Burmese relationship more than the Myitsone Dam, a China-backed hydroelectricity project tabled amidst protests from the Burmese in 2011 but which may resume construction under the new Tatmadaw regime. Resumption of the dam presents China with a complex strategic calculus. While the dam’s pause in construction became a source of embarrassment for China back in 2011 (especially since the United States provided funding to groups that opposed the dam), restarting the dam might place Beijing in a difficult spot with regard to the Burmese. As former State Department official Kelly Currie has written in Foreign Policy, “Resumption of the project would be especially destabilizing in Kachin state … It is an open secret that insurgent groups attacking India’s northeast are based in Yunnan province, and Myitsone resumption could create incentives for greater cooperation between India and the Kachin and other ethnic armies.” In other words, China risks provoking India and turning Myanmar’s insurgent groups against Beijing by pushing too hard for resumption. China does not depend on hydroelectricity from the Myitsone Dam in any real sense; the dam matters to Beijing more as a symbol of influence than as a usable infrastructure project. Still, as Belt and Road’s global progress shows, states can seldom resist the allure of infrastructure projects, even when those projects’ value is more symbolic than pragmatic.

Myanmar lies at a strategic crossroads between Chinese and Western interests, and the February coup has made this dynamic all the more clear. The United States and its allies (namely Japan and even Taiwan) are considering developing BRI alternatives with the potential to sway Southeast Asian states. Japan has already made a number of infrastructural inroads in Southeast Asia, especially with regard to railroad development. With that being said, China is eager to isolate Myanmar (especially Kachin State) from Japan as well as the West. Moreover, Western sanctions and arms embargoes imposed on Myanmar since the coup could drive Naypyidaw closer to Beijing. Min Aung Hliang’s arms solicitations from a variety of countries make it clear that Myanmar wants to “keep its options open” regarding China, but the coup and the West’s response to it may leave the Tatmadaw with little flexibility in this regard.

Min Aung Hliang’s presence at the ASEAN summit this week further indicates a willingness to build bridges with surrounding states, or at least to build international legitimacy. Post-coup Myanmar will not be a pariah state or even an isolationist one, in spite of Western sanctions. The Tatmadaw will still rely upon outside security partners to fill its arsenals. A great deal likely depends on Min Aung Hliang’s willingness to cooperate with orders to restore measures of democratic rule in coming months. If the Tatmadaw really wants to keep its security and economic options open, it must manage its domestic affairs in a manner that balances Chinese and Western influence.

Further Reading: Myanmar’s Resource Curse

As a side note, as it turns out, bananas aren’t the only illicit product linking Myanmar’s ethnic insurgencies to China. Myanmar happens to be afflicted by its own “resource curse”: not involving oil or blood diamonds, but rather jade. I’ve written about the resource curse here and here, namely with regard to resource-rich African countries and Middle Eastern “petrostates.” Myanmar’s resource curse, much like Sierra Leone’s, implicates a rebel group (the Kachin Independence Army) but also wreaks havoc on its civilian population, especially in Kachin State’s violent and isolated mining town of Hpakant. The Tatmadaw controls most of Kachin’s jade mines, and both the Tatmadaw and KIA have sold jade, as Time puts it, to “fill their war chests.” Myanmar’s democratic government itself reaped little benefit from the country’s jade reserves when it was in power, primarily because much of the jade mined within Myanmar is smuggled across the border to China through informal channels and as a result is never taxed. The Tatmadaw is the primary beneficiary of Myanmar’s jade resource, and the KIA takes what remains. I would highly recommend this Al Jazeera documentary on Myanmar’s “blood jade” for a deeper look at the effects of the jade trade on Kachin State’s population.

Kachin State’s “jade pickers” sift through detritus in the hope of finding a valuable jade stone (Wikimedia Commons)

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