Countering China’s Influence in Myanmar

Countering China’s Influence in Myanmar

While civil war is nothing new in Myanmar, this particular conflict’s trajectory has deviated from the traditional pattern in a way that could benefit the United States’ interests in the region.

February 1 marked the third anniversary of the Myanmar Military Junta (Tatmadaw) ’s 2021 coup that overthrew the civilian-led government. Since then, according to Amnesty International, nearly 3,000 people have been killed, 1.5 million internally displaced, and more than 13,000 detained in inhumane conditions. In addition to domestic strife, this conflict has created headaches for Myanmar’s neighbors, including China. 

While civil war is nothing new in Myanmar, this particular conflict’s trajectory has deviated from the traditional pattern in a way that could benefit the United States’ interests in the region. A stable, friendly, and democratic Myanmar could be a geostrategically critical partner in an area where China has dramatically expanded its influence. To accomplish this goal, the United States should develop closer relations with the Ethnic Armed Organizations and the National Unity Government.

The international community first noticed a significant change when the Three Brotherhood Alliance, an ethnic armed organization (EAO), launched Operation 1027 in October 2023. The Alliance achieved substantial victories against Tatmadaw forces, capturing over 300 Tatmadaw bases and twenty towns across two states and three regions. This campaign started unprecedented victories for EAOs and the National Unity Government (NUG) forces.

Since then, there has been a surge in EAO military actions nationwide. In January alone, ethnic rebels took control of a critical regional command center in Laukkai, shot down multiple fighter jets, and captured a whole military battalion headquarters. Continued successes by the EAO and NUG forces and the lack of ability of the Tatmadaw to “divide and rule” the various ethnic forces may eventually lead the Junta to negotiate with the NUG and ethnic insurgent groups and even potentially to its demise.

Above all, China is concerned about its critical infrastructure projects in the country as part of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s meeting with Aang San Suu Kyi to advocate for prompt implementation of CMEC projects days before the coup underscores the significance of these projects to China. China aims for the CMEC to facilitate its Western provinces’ economic development and provide it access to the Indian Ocean.

In theory, CMEC would eventually provide China a way to circumvent the Malacca Strait—a strategic chokepoint that would be vulnerable in any conflict with the United States. Consequently, developing the Kyaukphyu deep sea water port is at the heart of the CMEC and a top priority for Beijing. One EAO, the Arakan Army (AA), claims it has taken control of townships surrounding Sittwe, the capital of the Rakhine state. This is particularly problematic for Beijing, as AA’s ability to seize Sittwe would grant them control over the port of Kyaukpyu.

In 2023, in a reversal of trends from the previous year, China redoubled its efforts to engage the Junta government. Moreover, senior Chinese officials—including Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weiding and Minister of Public Security Wang Xiaohong­—have been seeking reassurances from Myanmar over border concerns. China’s concerns relate to border scams and fighting spilling over to harm Chinese citizens in Yunnan province. These scams predominantly transpire in Chinese-built casinos in Myanmar’s special economic zones, and many Chinese citizens operate them. The operation is now one of the “largest coordinated trafficking operations in history.” The scams also affect U.S. citizens; in 2022, Americans lost more than $2.6 billion.

China’s continued support for the Tatmadaw has not given them the necessary edge over EAO forces and has largely alienated the Burmese people. Instead, the Tatmadaw is at its weakest point since the coup in 2021, with increasing questions about whether it can maintain its grip on power. Although the Tatmadaw will likely attempt to wait out the EAO threat, the remarkable victories by rebel forces have led to an unprecedented opportunity in Burmese history. With the U.S. support—even tacitly—the offensives are more likely to succeed, which could lead to the destruction of the Tatmadaw or, if EAOs decide to negotiate, giving the ethnic groups that comprise the forces extraordinary leverage.

The return of a civilian-led democratic government would boost the United States’ influence in the country and diminish China’s, which has failed to facilitate a lasting negotiated ceasefire. So far, the only significant action from the United States to support the EAOs is the BURMA Act. Other than offering a statement of support for the Burmese peoples’ struggles, it authorizes the appropriation of funds from 2023 to 2027 for various assistance and tasks the State Department and USAID  (United States Agency for International Development) with aiding Myanmar. Although this was a step in the right direction, the bill is outdated in light of recent rebel victories, necessitating further action.

To start, Congress should appropriate more funds for Myanmar under the BURMA Act. The NUG told VOA that it sent the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee a request for $525 million, including $200 million in nonlethal aid. This is nearly four times the $136 million approved by Congress in the BURMA Act. Congress should work to expand the funding available and broaden the definition of aid to include non-lethal assistance. In addition to aid, the United States should also engage more robustly with the NUG and EAOs. Those partnerships will prove pivotal if the Tatmadaw is defeated. It would not only carry strategic logic for the United States but would also resonate with the over 300,000 Burmese currently residing in the U.S.

Despite all this, Myanmar’s history shows that rebel forces are not guaranteed to succeed in their campaign against the Tatmadaw. The United States must act now to capitalize on the momentum of the EAOs, taking immediate action to help shore up their efforts against the Junta. At the same time, the United States should develop a long-term post-conflict strategy for bringing political stability to Myanmar and create avenues for increased engagement. This can take the form of engaging Myanmar’s previously substantial garment sector. Further, the United States can work with regional partners, such as ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and Japan, to ensure stability in the country and promote long-term democratic resiliency while also seeking to establish military ties with a more favorable government.

Nathaniel Schochet is the Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Intern for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). His writing has appeared in The Diplomat, South China Morning Post, Forbes, and China-U.S. Focus. He is also a member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.

Image: R. Bociaga /