Three Years After Myanmar’s Coup, China Emerges the Winner

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By Aung Zaw

When a country is strong and united, no one can manipulate and control it. But if, like Myanmar, it is weak and fragmented, this weakness will be exploited. China’s actions in Myanmar since the coup offer a textbook example of how superpowers take advantage of political crises in smaller countries to advance their own interests.

In recent months, China has intervened in northern Myanmar to consolidate and strengthen its geostrategic position in the region, where the two countries share a more than 2,000-km-long border.

Beijing gave its tacit approval to ethnic armed organizations based in northern Shan State to launch Operation 1027 to target “pig butchering”, as the online scam and other crime operations along the border are known.

The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Arakan Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army—who together form the Brotherhood Alliance—launched coordinated attacks against the military regime in northern Shan State in late October.

To the surprise of seasoned observers the operation was highly successful. The alliance’s forces seized Laukkai, the capital of Kokang, after about two months of fighting the regime’s troops and its allied militias.

TNLA fighters are seen after the group seized a regime base in Namkham in northern Shan State in December 2023. / The Irrawaddy

As a result, China, in collaboration with the ethnic armies in the north, was able to crack down on the online scammers and criminal activities on the Myanmar side.

After losing a large swath of territory in northern Shan to the alliance, the regime in December asked Beijing to intervene on its behalf. Junta-appointed acting President Myint Swe commented that the offensive could “break the country into pieces” if left unchecked.

China then forcefully intervened to halt the successful offensive after the MNDAA regained Laukkai City.

In December, after the fighting spread to Rakhine State, China and the regime signed an addendum to their concession agreement for the massive China-backed deep seaport project in the state’s Kyaukphyu Township. And in late January, economic attaché Quyang Daobing of the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar met with junta investment and commerce officials to discuss cooperation on China-Myanmar megaprojects, the safety of Chinese citizens employed by those projects, and matters related to improving the quality of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor—a component of Beijing’s vast Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure development scheme—among other things.

Criminal suspect Bai Suo Cheng is handed over to Chinese police officers at the Naypyitaw International Airport on Jan. 30, 2024. / Xinhua

There’s only one word for it: Ingenious. China has minimized its costs and maximized its profits. Today, its protectorates are expanding in northern Myanmar along with its control and influence over ethnic armed forces in the region.

And even as this relationship deepens, the regime continues to depend on China for investment and military supplies, not to mention political backing at the UN.

Recently, the military regime handed over to Chinese authorities six alleged bosses of online scam empires in the Kokang region of Shan State along the Chinese border. It was widely suspected that the crime syndicates had been protected by the regime.

The suspects were named in an arrest warrant issued by Chinese authorities in December for alleged involvement in online scams in Laukkai.

A map of China’s Trans-Myanmar Oil and Gas Pipelines / United States Institute of Peace

When Operation 1027 started, China’s official position was that easing the situation in northern Myanmar would be in the interests of all parties and conducive to peace and stability in the China-Myanmar border area. Its Foreign Ministry said continually that China and Myanmar are friendly neighbors and that China has always respected Myanmar’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. To Myanmar people this all just sounded like a joke—and not a particularly funny one at that.

China maintains a number of geostrategic and economic interests in Myanmar, including infrastructure projects and a gas pipeline that connects with Yunnan Province, not to mention access to the critically important Indian Ocean, with its trade and transit routes.

Beijing will invest more in northern Shan State as the “provinces” under China’s influence become more autonomous.

The Wa and Kokang, as well as the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA)—better known as the Mongla Group—are effectively dependent on China for internet services, currency, and supplies and logistics. They issue their political statements and conduct their administrations in the Chinese language. Since Operation 1027, the MNDAA has forged a stronger alliance with the Wa and its new generation of leadership, who bring strengthened military and administration capacities.

UWSA troops man a checkpoint in a restricted area in Wa Region. / The Irrawaddy

For its part, the Wa region is, in effect, a wholly autonomous buffer state between Myanmar and China with its own administration, schools, hospitals, courts and trading companies. It is like a small Chinese province, even if the Wa continue to fly the Myanmar national flag over it.

This is only the beginning. China’s influence has become so strong that, as far as its neighbors are concerned—and whether they like it or not—having a poor relationship with Beijing is simply not an option.

The Myanmar regime and the country’s ethnic forces know that China will always act in accordance with her own interests.

So, of course, do Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, but Myanmar, with all its complexity and now devastated by civil war, is in a far weaker position than its Southeast Asian neighbors.

Since the coup, only one “winner” has emerged so far—Myanmar’s powerful neighbor to the north.