Supporting Myanmar’s military junta while backing certain ethnic armed groups in Shan State is proving to be a riskier move for Beijing. The stakes will get higher if the spill-over from local conflicts paves the way for increased resistance to Naypyitaw.
China’s support for several of Myanmar’s warring ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) and the Burmese military (sit-tat) has long been an open secret. However, China’s unequivocal support for the sit-tat’s State Administration Council (SAC) junta and its simultaneous backing for the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in northern Shan State has put Beijing in a precarious position. If it fails to restrain its partners in northern Shan State from pushing their war against the rival Restoration Council of the Shan State (RCSS) further south, Beijing will have to choose between its national-level and state-level priorities in Myanmar. As for the SAC, if it fails to de-escalate the conflict between the SSPP and the RCSS, it may find itself fighting China’s partners in Shan State.
To guarantee its interests in Shan State, China has partnered with the sit-tat, UWSA and SSPP for the past decade while regarding the RCSS with suspicion. The Burmese military is China’s most important partner for securing its infrastructure projects in Shan State and other parts of Myanmar. However, for leverage and to discourage destabilising offensives near the border, China counterbalances the military by also aiding certain EAOs. As Beijing’s paramount partner among the EAOs, the UWSA receives everything from assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) to towed anti-aircraft guns from China which, along with UWSA’s holdings on the Chinese and Thai borders and an estimated force of 20,000 fighters, make it the most powerful EAO. While smaller, the SSPP is another important Chinese partner because it contests the RCSS as the standard-bearer for Shan nationalism and has served as a buffer for the UWSA and China against the RCSS. Beijing has donated Covid vaccines to the SSPP and the group receives Chinese weapons from the UWSA. According to local media, China regards the RCSS as a threat because of its perceived nature as a Thai and by extension American proxy.
While ostracised by China, the RCSS has received indirect support from the sit-tat for its campaigns against its northern rivals. The RCSS seeks to absorb the SSPP and become the sole champion of Shan nationalism and control lucrative trade routes to the Chinese border. In 2015, the RCSS signed onto the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the Burmese government. Secure against threats from the latter’s armed forces, the RCSS was thus able to push into northern Shan State at the SSPP’s expense. The sit-tat encouraged this conflict by allowing the RCSS to traverse military-controlled roads into the north. The ceasefire and freedom of movement the military granted to the RCSS is characteristic of the sit-tat’s age-old strategy of divide and rule that ensures EAOs fight each other more than the central government. While the UWSA was not directly involved in the fighting, every SSPP retreat thinned the buffer zone between the UWSA’s positions on the Chinese border and the area under RCSS control.
The coup has destabilised both Beijing and Naypyitaw’s divide and rule strategies in Shan State.
The SSPP and the UWSA are, however, taking advantage of the military’s over-extension in other theatres to expel the RCSS from northern Shan State and push south. The spring 2021 coup has weakened the sit-tat to the extent it is finding it difficult to balance the rival groups, responding only with entreaties and airstrikes to the SSPP’s advance. The absence of additional airstrikes suggests that the sit-tat prioritises other theatres at present, over providing the RCSS with more air support. Simultaneously, the UWSA has heavily reinforced its enclave on the Thai border, adjacent to RCSS headquarters. The beleaguered RCSS supremo Yawd Serk recently attended peace talks with the sit-tat, reaffirming the RCSS-junta alignment in Shan State. On May 13, the UWSA delegation to the same talks issued a statement declaring its neutrality in the struggle between the junta and resistance forces but omitted any mention of its conflict with the RCSS.
Should the SSPP triumph over the RCSS, it could alter broader conflict dynamics in two ways to the detriment of the sit-tat. First, the RCSS would be a less effective buffer or distraction between the junta and other Shan EAOs. The non-contiguous halves of UWSA-controlled territory and its partner EAOs would potentially encircle the sit-tat’s Triangle Regional Military Command, which might encourage the UWSA to expel the sit-tat and pave the way for an expanded Wa State. Second, a corridor largely free from sit-tat interference could open through Shan State to anti-junta forces in Kayah and Kayin States, allowing for an unimpeded north-south flow of arms and material. It would resemble the Rakhine State-Kachin State corridor in western Myanmar that has become so crucial in the ongoing civil conflict.
China has not dropped its support of the SSPP or UWSA despite these mounting risks to the sit-tat. This may mean that Chinese policymakers prioritise their interests in Shan State more than their determination to ensure the SAC’s viability or more likely, that Chinese influence over its local partners is limited. The coup has destabilised both Beijing and Naypyitaw’s divide and rule strategies in Shan State. Whether China’s unaltered support of the SSPP-UWSA axis is by design or circumstance, the damage to the sit-tat will only erode Beijing’s interests elsewhere in Myanmar.