Editorial – China’s Growing Influence in Myanmar Ethnic States Raises Alarm
By The Irrawaddy Tue, December 8, 2020
The Chinese border town of Mong La in Myanmar’s eastern Shan State. / Zaw Zaw / The Irrawaddy
China doesn’t mind bullying or sparking confrontations with its neighbors. Myanmar has had a long experience with the giant next door. Recently, Myanmar authorities are said to be concerned with China’s aggression in territorial disputes with India, Bhutan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
In the past, China has moved aggressively against many of its neighbors, with little apparent regard for diplomatic or geopolitical fallout. That aggression reflects the ambition of China’s leader, Xi Jinping, to assert the country’s territorial claims, economic interests and strategic goals around the world. It is prudent that Myanmar should be careful.
Recently, China built a village in territory also claimed by the Kingdom of Bhutan, echoing its aggressive tactics at the border with India and in places much farther away.
Just in time for its National Day in October, China completed construction of a new village high in the mountains where the Chinese region of Tibet meets the Kingdom of Bhutan. A hundred people moved into two dozen new homes beside the Torsa River and celebrated the holiday by raising China’s flag and singing its national anthem.
This blatant act also served as a provocation, putting pressure on India.
China and India have engaged in deadly confrontations along the Sino-Indian border, including near the disputed Pangong Lake in Ladakh and the Tibet Autonomous Region, and near the border between Sikkim and the Tibet Autonomous Region. More clashes took place at locations in eastern Ladakh along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
India cooperates with the Royal Bhutan Army in matters of anti-insurgency, counter-terrorism and protecting the territorial integrity of Bhutan.
Despite that, China is known to further its territorial contentions by establishing residential plots in disputed areas.
The same is true in the South China Sea. This is the Chinese strategy of “salami slicing”—taking small unlawful actions that don’t provoke a war but which over time—combined with other small actions—turn out to China’s advantage.
China and Myanmar share a 2,227-kilometer-long border. The two countries signed a boundary protocol in 1961, under which they agreed to conduct joint inspections of the demarcated boundary every five years. But this has only occurred twice—in 1984-86 and 1992-95.
Some have speculated that China plans to build an airstrip atop Johnson South Reef in the South China Sea, pictured here under construction in images released on Feb. 18, 2015. / CSIS
A dispute over the border between northern Shan State and China has simmered on and off since 2008. Last year, a row erupted over the location of the boundary between the two countries on the Ruili River near northern Shan State’s Muse Township.
The dispute erupted near Pang Sai Kyukote sub-township in Muse when Chinese villagers put up a fence nearly 30 meters inside Myanmar in Hpai Kawng Village. The Chinese villagers eventually stopped their activity and took down the fencing materials after Myanmar villagers complained to district officers.
With the Chinese government pushing Myanmar to implement the long-delayed, ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), one can anticipate more unrest and more border disputes in the near future.
Shan and Kachin states are especially susceptible to China’s actions because both are important to BRI projects and the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which will eventually reach from China’s Yunnan Province to Mandalay in central Myanmar. From there, it will stretch south to Yangon and west to the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone in Rakhine State bordering Bangladesh.
Myanmar’s government last year approved three locations to establish cross-border economic cooperation zones on the Chinese border in Kachin and Shan states. The zones will comprise trading houses, industrial sites and other facilities.
However, there are still ongoing negotiations between Myanmar and China over land use. It is of the utmost importance to ensure that construction of road infrastructure in the area does not harm villages, wards and townships, or their cultural integrity.
With Chinese investment, ethnic armed groups based near the northern border built several new cities and casinos on Myanmar soil. These ethnic armed insurgents are in the pocket of China and the Chinese have poured in significant investment there.
Today, Panghsang, under the command of Wa insurgents, is almost like a Chinese city.
Panghsang is the capital of the Wa Region, a self-administered area approved by Myanmar’s Constitution. It is home to Myanmar’s largest and best-equipped ethnic armed group, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), with an estimated 30,000 troops and 10,000 auxiliary members.
In Panghsang, most people communicate in Mandarin and you can see Chinese characters, along with Myanmar and Wa translations, emblazoned on shop fronts. The yuan is the currency of choice, and Chinese mobile phones and internet connections are dominant. Stores are stocked with goods imported from China. Panghsang no doubt today is a Chinese enclave in the Wa region. With well-paved roads, the electricity supply is uninterrupted and high-rise constructions are mushrooming.
Now Chinese investors are reportedly building a new town near Panghsang, and it is in a restricted area with no visitors allowed. According to informed sources, the purpose of the new town is to allow Chinese businessmen to come and visit. Myanmar authorities can do little to prevent this project since Wa region is administered by Wa authorities. The fact is, this is a violation of the Constitution of Myanmar and the sovereignty of the country. Both the central government and the military should respond to these issues.
Today, Wa soldiers are equipped with modern Chinese weapons including armored vehicles and heavy artillery. More than 20,000 square kilometers of territory are under UWSA control. The Wa also sell weapons and ammunition to other ethnic insurgents in Myanmar, and this riles the Myanmar military.
Massage parlors in the Wa capital, Panghsang, in 2019. / Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy
China’s direct or indirect support to ethnic groups, including the UWSA, gives it leverage in all kinds of negotiations with Myanmar authorities in Naypyitaw.
The same goes for Mong La in the Golden Triangle region, where casinos, hotels, entertainment clubs and other buildings have mushroomed since former communist insurgents signed a ceasefire with the military regime in the 1990s.
The National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) established in 1989 was one of the first armed groups to sign a ceasefire with the Myanmar military.
The Wa capital, Panghsang, in 2019. / Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy
Located in eastern Shan State, Mong La covers 4,952 square miles (nearly 13,000 sq. km) and has a population of around 100,000. Tourism and business are booming due to Chinese investors. The expansion of Chinese influence is obvious.
News of China building a village in territory claimed by the Kingdom of Bhutan alarmed many in the region. But whether it is called “salami slicing” or the creation of Chinese enclaves, alarm bells are ringing in Naypyitaw.
SOURCE: By The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Tue, December 8, 2020