China and Burma, which share a 1,500-mile border, have a complicated relationship. In Xi Jinping's Belt and Road initiative, Burma is strategically important as an important shipping route connecting the Indian Ocean and China's Yunnan province, thus avoiding the Strait of Malacca.
Beijing not only supports Burma's current military regime, which came to power in a coup in early 2021, but also maintains close ties with various anti-government factions and military organizations in Burma. This detachment allows China to maintain the greatest degree of influence and control over Burma's political and military organizations, making all warring factions look to China.
Recently, relations between China and Burma have been strained. On November 24, 2023, a convoy of trucks carrying goods into Burma from China caught fire. Burma's state media blamed insurgents for the attack. Coincidentally, the Southern Theater Command of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) issued a statement on WeChat, a Chinese social media platform, at about the same time, saying that starting on November 25, Chinese troops would hold combat exercises on the Chinese side of the border with Burma in order to test the rapid mobility, border blockade, and fire strike capabilities of the troops in the area.
On November 26, the Chinese military published an article, titled "Resolutely safeguarding the security and stability of the China-Burma border," stating that the PLA has held actual combat exercises along the China-Burma border since November 25, and expressed great concern over the armed conflicts in northern Burma, stressing that it is the common aspiration of the two countries to maintain the security and stability of the China-Burma border.
A few days later, the Burmese military and the Chinese navy announced a joint military exercise in Burma. On November 29, media reported that three Chinese warships docked at a port near Yangon, Burma's largest city, to participate in a "Burma-China naval security exercise."
Chinese Military's Exercises On The Border With Burma
The main purposes of the Chinese military exercises in the border areas of the two countries and its naval vessels visiting Burma were: to prevent the increasingly fierce civil war in Burma from spreading to China and impacting and causing losses in the border areas of Yunnan, China; to exert military pressure to keep the Burmese civil war under control; to demonstrate Chinese military power to the Burmese military junta, which is currently passive in the country's civil war, sending both a warning and an appeal to it, and forcing it to better cooperate with China to ensure the smooth implementation of China's strategic projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative.
In early November, a rare demonstration was held in Yangon, Burma, denouncing China's support for armed groups in the Burma-China border region. Analysts believe the demonstration had the approval of Burma's military junta.
Beijing has expressed "deep dissatisfaction" over clashes in Burma's northern Shan State, near the border with China, through which oil and gas pipelines supplying China pass and where Beijing is planning to build a railway for an estimated $1 billion.
The Chinese government said that fighting in the area had caused "casualties" on the Chinese side of the border. On November 24, China called on its citizens to leave northern Burma "as soon as possible" in light of the deteriorating security situation.
Beijing has also been frustrated by the junta's failure to crack down on rampant Internet and telecommunications scam syndicates in northern Burma that have coerced detained Chinese citizens into targeting their own compatriots and extorting money from them.
Burma's military junta has acknowledged that the country could be torn apart if it fails to contain armed groups in various parts of the country. At present, it seems increasingly difficult for Burma's military government to effectively control the situation. In Naypyidaw, the capital, Burma's military junta is scrambling to mobilize a large number of troops to defend the country's seat of power, as it appears increasingly unable to manage the situation effectively. Some Burma observers believe this is the most serious challenge to the military since the 2021 coup and may mark the beginning of the junta's downfall.
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In the event of a collapse of Burma's military junta, Beijing could use a series of military displays to influence and attract various armed factions, including those supporting Aung San Suu Kyi, so that Beijing will likely become a co-master of all parties and further strengthen its control over Burma.
Burma's Ethnic Groups
There are historical, economic, ethnic and ideological dimensions to understand in analyzing the relationship between China and Burma. These factors are often intertwined, and their respective importance can change dynamically. Therefore, the relationship between the two countries is very complicated, which often leads to misinterpretation and deviation in the deconstruction of China-Burma relations.
China and Burma have a history of more than 2,000 years and are inextricably linked with love and hate. Burma has been a vassal state of China several times in history, and achieved relative independence by defeating the Qing army multiple times during the rule of that dynasty.
Now, Chinese businesspeople in Burma and those from China control almost the entire economic lifeline of the nation and have a huge real-world influence on Burma.
Burma has many ethnic groups, many of which are shared by both China and Burma. Some of these ethnic groups are of the same origin as ethnic minorities in China, for example, the Burman, the main ethnic group in Burma, is a branch of China's ancient Qiang ethnic group, originating from Gansu province in northern China. The Kachin in Burma and the Jingpo in Yunnan, China, are the same; some are Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group of China, who immigrated to Burma at different times in history. Among these, the Han Chinese immigrants in Upper Burma are mainly from Yunnan province. One such example is the Kokang ethnic group in Burma's Shan State, which is actually Han. Han Chinese immigrants to Lower Burma came mainly by sea from the Chinese provinces of Fujian and Guangdong.
The historical period of Chinese immigration to Burma spans the Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties of China, as well as the period of British colonial rule in Burma, the civil war between the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Cultural Revolution.
Today, China's enormous influence is particularly evident in northern Burma, where the Chinese language, script, currency, goods, telecommunication services, and Chinese culture and customs are widely used. It is a "little China," a "state within a state" in Burma. This is because:
1. The north of Burma is composed of many ethnic groups, languages and ways of life, and is infested with warlords. Despite the demarcation of the border between China and Burma, there are still various close ties between the ethnic groups of the two countries.
2. The Burmese government, military and the Burman, the main ethnic group in the south of Myanmar, have long practiced discriminatory policies against ethnic minorities in the north. Therefore, many ethnic groups in the north of Burma have long retained their cultures and traditions very similar to those in China, and there is a great centripetal force for China.
3. Another important reason why this kind of ethnic sentiment and correlation can be realized is that Yunnan itself is a multi-ethnic province, and there is coexistence and frequent movement of ethnic minorities shared by the two countries along the border of China and Burma. The Han nationality, the main ethnic group of China, and the culture and customs of the Han Chinese people occupy a dominant position in Yunnan.
China, which is far more powerful than Burma and shares a long border with its southern neighbor, has taken a multi-faceted approach to maintaining close ties with all sides in Burma. A situation in which all parties in Burma fight and contain each other is in China's best interest.
For example, Aung San Suu Kyi, the world-renowned leader of Burmese democracy movement, had closer and better relations with Beijing during her time in power than the current Burmese military regime. Her first foreign trip as Burma's de facto top leader was not to the United States, once her biggest supporter, but to China. Her warm and friendly approach to Beijing, both before and after taking office, had confused and frustrated the U.S. and Western political circles.
The CCP has long maintained ties with Aung San Suu Kyi. Aung San Suu Kyi's parents visited China long ago; her father was general secretary of the Communist Party of Burma, and she herself was a guest at the Chinese Embassy in Burma as a child. In a press interview in March 2016, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, "Daw Aung SAN Suu Kyi and the NLD led by her have always had friendly exchanges with China, with increasing mutual understanding and trust."
The starting point of Beijing's current policy toward Burma is to maximize its economic interests in the country. Burma is an important part of Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative, with Beijing investing billions of dollars in the China-Burma Economic Corridor.
By doing so, Beijing hopes to achieve its economic and strategic goals of overland access to the Indian Ocean. Beijing is naturally uneasy about instability in Burma, and will not sit idly by.
However, at the same time, due to China's huge influence on Burma, even if the relationship between the two governments fluctuates, it will not get out of control or be substantively reversed
*Chris King is Senior Research Fellow for the MEMRI Chinese Media Studies Project.
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