Myanmar’s new leader, Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi, has made the country’s peace process one of her top policy priorities—and China is taking steps to support her efforts. The Chinese government has positioned itself to become a prominent player in the peace talks in Myanmar, and this week’s session provides a particularly good opportunity to examine the kind of role that China might play and the extent to which Beijing is willing—and able—to use its leverage over ethnic armed groups to help advance the peace process. 

20160902-UN-Photo-Myanmar-689759-Eskinder-Debebe-tob.jpg
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) meets with President Htin Kyaw of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. Photo Courtesy of U.N. Photo/Eskinder Debebe

In the past, China has been accused of undermining Myanmar’s peace process. More recently, however, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged that his nation would play a “constructive role,” and his government has taken several steps to enhance its own profile in the talks. 

This week’s opening session of the 21st Century Panglong Conference (Union Peace Conference) is intended to evoke the spirit of the first Panglong Conference, chaired by Suu Kyi’s father in 1947 to promote unity within Burma before the country formally gained independence. These new talks, which began Aug. 31 and continue for five days, also come nearly one year after the partially-signed October 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.  By including select non-signatory armed groups in this year’s conference, Suu Kyi is seeking to make greater strides towards ending the decades-long conflicts between the Myanmar army and ethnic rebels. The conference will run for five days and participants will reconvene every six months.

“A successful peace process would allow China to boost trade with Myanmar and make the country safer for Chinese investments.”

In a concrete sign of support last month, the Chinese government presented Suu Kyi with a letter signed by three of the armed groups that did not sign the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement—the National Democratic Alliance Army, Arakan Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army—noting their intention to attend this week’s conference. Soon thereafter, a Chinese envoy met with the United Wa State Army and the National Democratic Alliance Army in Myanmar, encouraging both to participate in the peace talks.  

But while China helped to bring these groups closer to the negotiating table, the absence of four of them, even though they are key players, illustrates the limitations of China’s influence. For example, the Myanmar government said it would invite the Arakan Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the National Democracy Alliance Army if they commit to laying down arms. The groups issued a statement saying they wish to see an end to armed conflict, but did not commit to disarming and thus are not attending this round of the conference. In addition, the United Wa State Army delegates attended the first day of talks, but walked out over apparent confusion of their status as participants or observers in the conference.

China’s Interests in Myanmar

Given the risks and challenges, why is China investing political and financial capital in supporting Myanmar’s peace process? Chinese officials are keenly aware that Myanmar is a strategically important country that offers access to the Indian Ocean, rich mineral resources and the potential to serve as a key economic conduit between South and Southeast Asia. In addition, China has made Myanmar a key component of its “Belt and Road” initiative, which aims to increase regional connectivity and forge closer ties through construction projects and bilateral cooperation in energy and finance.  Chinese leaders point to China’s industrial upgrades and infrastructure improvement projects as tools to help promote economic growth in Myanmar. 

A successful peace process would allow China to boost trade with Myanmar and make the country safer for Chinese investments. Furthermore, at a time when the United States, Japan and India are all vying for stronger ties with Myanmar’s new democratically elected government, Beijing is taking steps that appear to be aimed at shifting Myanmar’s foreign economic and political orientation towards China. As Beijing seeks to improve relations with Suu Kyi’s government, Chinese cooperation in Myanmar’s peace process could be forthcoming due to its importance to Suu Kyi, who has made ending the decades-long conflict in her country a top priority for her government.   

Despite China’s recent overtures, questions remain about China’s long-term commitment to the peace process, particularly its ability to balance its support for Myanmar’s government with its continued economic and political ties to the ethnic armed groups. The Myanmar government may be open to expanding China’s economic presence in the country in the future, but Beijing also wants to retain the support of these ethnic groups, which have been a major source of China’s influence in Myanmar. If Beijing is seen as siding too closely with Suu Kyi’s government or if it pushes too hard against the ethnic rebels, it may diminish its influence over them. 

Chinese policies on the peace process also are complicated by the variety of actors and interests involved. On China’s border with Myanmar, the Yunnan provincial and local authorities have been sympathetic to the ethnic Chinese that are marginalized in Myanmar, and have provided arms, money and shelter to refugees who flee across the border. Even if national leaders in Beijing want to limit the flow of weapons, money and goods across the border, it is unclear whether the Yunnan authorities would dutifully enforce those restrictions, such as putting limits on the flourishing jade and timber trade, which has been seen as exacerbating conflict in Myanmar.

Clues to China’s Support

Whether China’s latest support for the peace process is more than symbolic remains to be seen, but the peace conference should offer some helpful indicators. Here are a few things to watch for this week and in the coming months:

  • Will the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, Arakan Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army fully participate when the conference reconvenes in six months?  Beijing helped bring these groups closer to the negotiating table, but Myanmar’s government requires them to issue a statement that they will disarm before they can fully participate in the conference. Will the United Wa State Army participate in future rounds?  Can China help facilitate a compromise to enable the armed groups to ultimately join these negotiations?
  • Will the Chinese government, in coordination with Yunnan provincial and local authorities, impose and rigorously implement border security measures that limit cross-border flow of weapons and financial resources to these armed groups across the border?
  • What steps will China take to retain its influence over the ethnic armed groups, and will these actions be counterproductive to the peace process? How will Beijing respond to modest compromises by the armed groups or pressure from the Myanmar government on these groups?
  • Will China link its support of the peace process to concessions from Myanmar on other issues?  Several Chinese economic development projects, such as the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam, are currently under review in Myanmar. Will China tie its leverage with the armed groups to approval of economic projects in the future?

Ultimately, all sides to the conflict can agree that the peace process should be led by Myanmar. China has a clear incentive to see the peace process in Myanmar succeed and can play a positive role by encouraging the ethnic armed groups that have close ties with the country to participate in the peace process.

Going forward, leaders in Myanmar should consider ways to carefully leverage China’s support for the peace process in a deliberate, consultative manner that does not further stoke ethnic tensions. 

Both Beijing and Suu Kyi’s government have difficult balancing acts on the domestic and foreign policy fronts. But if they remain focused on promoting an inclusive peace process that incorporates all ethnic armed groups and exercise strategic flexibility, they could help bring lasting peace and stability to Myanmar.

I-wei Jennifer Chang is a program specialist, Kay Spencer is a program officer and Jennifer Staats is director for China programs, all in USIP’s Asia Center.

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