(The author is a senior journalist and commentator.
He can be reached at email@example.com)
Conduct of a national foreign policy has its charms. It has its own dynamics too, pointing out that sovereign nations do not have permanent friends or enemies while securing respective national securities or interests. In recent times we have the example of America and China striking up a working relationship in the 1970s, pushing aside decades-old enmity. History has more examples. The most famous of them is the Soviet Union’s round about turn from its attempted friendship with Britain and France during the time of the Second World War, then her non-aggression pact with Hitler’s Germany, and then again tying her own knots with the western powers, led by the US.
So interests of national security always determine the course of a country’s foreign policy. Though vastly different in genre and outreach, happenings in and around the Sino-Myanmar border opens up the possibility of China, India and the US coming closer and then leaving their impact on South Asia’s geostrategic scenario.
First let us take a stock of the situation along the Sino-Myanmar border. For a long time – since the independence of the country – Myanmar is riven with insurgencies carried on by various ethnic armed organizations. Long years of army rules – first under General Ne Win and then under the recent military dispensations – have failed to address the problem. Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) government have taken some hesitant steps for solving the problem. But before Suu Kyi could make any substantial move, she was deposed by the Tatmadaw or the Myanmar Army.
Now a scenario has arisen in Myanmar, which can either herald a positive ambience in South Asia or make the situation worse. China has suddenly become active against the Myanmar Junta or the State Administrative Council (SAC). The nuance in Chinese policy is interesting. It is to be noted that, after the Tatmadaw again seized power by a coup in February 2021, Beijing did not support it the way it supported earlier seizures of power by the same. This time China insisted immediate election in Burma and installation of a civilian rule.
Why is this so? Certainly China did not do it out of any regard for Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD. The reason lies elsewhere. Burmese Economy is now crippled to a great extent by Sanctions imposed by the US and her Western Allies. Official trade with China and sundry other countries is not enough for Naypidaw to sustain the economy. So the Junta resorted to encouraging illegal economic activities through its Border Guards Forces (BGF). Large numbers of enclaves have sprung up in Myanmar along its border with China. Chinese nationals have been forcefully whisked away by the BGF from across the border to Myanmar to work in forced labourcamps. Many of them have been deported to various countries. In addition, the BGF is reported to have fostered a drug economy all along the Sino-Myanmar border regions in northern Myanmar. These enclaves have become dens of cybercrimes too, a phenomenon which is described in China as online-scams.
Initially Beijing had turned blind eyes to such organized crimes. Many Chinese people were parts of these crime syndicates on their side of the border. Even there are reports that on the Burmese side of the border Chinese nationals can be seen controlling the trade.
However, as increasing numbers of Chinese men and women were being shipped to Myanmar for working in these slave economies and as public protests against this practice were voiced in China, Beijing decided not to remain quiet anymore and urged the Burmese Junta to take steps against miscreants. However, Chinese preorders were disregarded by Myanmar’s State Administrative Council.
This gave an interesting turn to China’s Myanmar policy, which observers of South Asian geopolitical scenarios are now keenly watching. Beijing is now worried that the Burmese Junta may be playing a different ballgame. So, it started increasing contacts with different ethnic armed organizations (EAO), which are fighting decades-long wars against the Bamar-community-dominated junta-led administration. But simultaneously another development took place in the USA, which increased Chinese apprehension.
In December 2022, President Joe Biden of the USA signed into law the National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA), which entails the authorization of finance for the US armed forces. This time the NDAA incorporated in it the Burma Act also. The Burma Act is already in existence for quite some, but its incorporation into the NDAA was sufficient to cause discomfort to Beijing, which foresees a possibility of the US political influence in Myanmar at the cost of that of Beijing.
But it has to be kept in mind that almost all the ethnic armed organizations in Burma enjoy Chinese support, the most prominent of them being the Mandarin-speaking United WA State Army. So, when these EAOs started attacking the junta-sponsored criminal enclaves doting along the China-border, it was inconceivable that they did it without permission from Beijing. Three of them, namely the Arakan Army, the Tang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), have joined hands and have formed a combined force called Three Brotherhood. They have overrun more than 100 Burmese military posts in the northern Shan state and have captured key border towns and check posts along the preferred trade routes from Myanmar to China, thus depriving the junta of about 40 percent of trans-border trade revenue. The same thing is being replicated in the southeast of Burma along the country’s border with Thailand.
A completely new situation has arisen, as significant portions of Myanmar are now under controls of ethnic armies. A top junta spokesman has expressed apprehension that, if things are allowed to lapse in ‘chaos’ then it may lead to vivisection of the country. Whether it will come about or not, happenings in Myanmar have suddenly opened the possibility of a new geopolitical scenario in South and South East Asia.
China is interested to see a stable Myanmar, as it has made substantial infrastructural investments in the country. The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) has passed through large areas controlled by various ethnic armies. So Beijing cannot alienate them. At the same time, Beijing is uncomfortable with the suspension of work at the Myitsone Dam Project. Here the Tatmadaw Junta has failed to deliver what China wants. So Beijing is likely to feel no compunction if Myanmar is bundled out in several centres of power.
How would the US react to such a situation? It is difficult to predict. Washington has no love lost for the junta. It is actively supporting the National Unity Government (NUG), a platform for the conglomeration of forces opposed to military rule. The NUG has recently opened an office in Washington D.C. The US will welcome a return of democracy under a federal structure. Now would the ethnic armed organizations be prepared to abjure the culture of gun and imbibe a spirit of federalism? The road ahead will be difficult because many EAOs have lived through the atmosphere of armed insurrection since 1948, when Burma became independent. Here the country’s two big neighbours – China and India – can play constructive roles.
India has a tradition of sharing history with Burma, the present day Myanmar. It does not have much hold on the rebellious ethnic armies, but enjoys a history of exchange of civilizational ideas and traditions with the majority Bamar community. Most important, Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s icon of democracy, has spent long years in India and has a major part of her education in New Delhi. For any wide reconciliation India can certainly play a vital role.
So there is a chance, albeit a bit distant from the present, for a confluence of interests of the US, China and India, so far as their Myanmar policies are concerned. The thing urgently needed is replacement of army rule and dismantling of deep rooted junta interests in different sectors of Myanmar’s society and economy.