China’s sway over Myanmar limited, says crisis group

China’s sway over Myanmar limited, says crisis group


A Kokang ethnic soldier smokes a traditional bamboo pipe in Laukkai, capital of Myanmar’s Kokang region in this file photo- Reuters pic

BEIJING, Sept 14  — Beijing’s sway over Myanmar may be too weak to deter the junta from launching fresh offensives against armed ethnic groups on its volatile frontier with China, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a new report.

In a survey of the opaque relationship between China and its neighbour, the group found Beijing’s influence over the generals who rule Myanmar is more brittle than many human rights campaigners and Western diplomats assume.

Myanmar launched an army attack last month that overran Kokang, a territory on its border with China run by an ethnic Chinese militia that long paid little heed to the central government.

The fighting pushed tens of thousands of refugees into neighbouring China, which has sought to send them back and prevent new fighting on the mountainous frontier.

The ICG found Beijing “was not even forewarned” about the Myanmar offensive against Kokang, and may not wield enough influence to ward off similar campaigns against other, bigger ethnic enclaves in far northern Myanmar.

“Tensions continue to rise, and the possibility of conflict between the Myanmar army and the remaining ethnic groups is the highest it has been in 20 years,” says the group’s report.

If Myanmar attacks the bigger Wa or Kachin groups on the frontier with China, that could unleash bloodshed, refugee surges and political aftershocks that overshadow the Kokang conflict.

“Yet it is unclear whether Beijing will be able to dissuade the generals from undertaking further offensives,” says the report.

“While conceding that its influence with the (Myanmar) military likely eclipses that of many countries, Chinese officials unanimously assert that it is far less than believed by many in the West,” it says.

The ICG is a non-profit organisation with headquarters in Brussels that seeks to defuse conflicts. The report will be available on its website (


The study “China’s Myanmar Dilemma” was mostly researched before the outbreak of the Kokang fighting, and by drawing on interviews with Chinese diplomats and officials it sheds rare light on the two neighbours’ ambivalent relationship.

“The relationship between China and Myanmar is best characterised as a marriage of convenience, rather than a love match,” it says.

China’s growing investments and trade in Myanmar give it a special stake in the country that Western governments have shunned and other Asian neighbours often kept at arm’s length. That stake will be deepened by planned gas and oil pipelines through Myanmar into.

Yet Chinese mines, products, traders and other economic footprints spreading across Myanmar also breed resentment and wariness, a problem Beijing often encounters with many of its smaller neighbours.

Beijing long supported Burmese Communists and maintains its own low-key links with the rebel ethnic groups in far-northern Myanmar, where China is worried about the spread of drugs and of HIV/AIDS across the two nations’ 2,200 kilometre (about 1,400 mile) border.

These factors mean Myanmar’s generals look to Beijing for support, but also that the generals are suspicious of China, especially when it appears to be echoing Western pressure.

Often in its relations with states condemned by Western powers — Iran, North Korea and Myanmar — China has tacked between occasionally using its influence to pressure those states into concessions and resisting calls for sanctions that could badly damage bilateral relations.

The ICG report sees little chance of that pattern changing in ties between China and Myanmar, and it says other countries should take a more realistic and nuanced view of Beijing’s sway.

“A workable international approach will remain elusive as Myanmar continues to play China and the West against each other,” it says. — Reuters, Malaysian Insider

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