Myanmar War: China’s Support for Ethnic Armed Groups

United Wa State Army soldiers in Myanmar
United Wa State Army soldiers in Myanmar (Credits: Steve Sandford, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 44 Issue 2
Author: Antonio Graceffo

China’s involvement in Myanmar (Burma), particularly in supporting ethnic military alliances, is a complex and evolving issue. China has strategic interests in Myanmar, including economic investments, infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and a desire to maintain stability in its neighboring country and trade partner.

While officially supporting the Myanmar government’s efforts to maintain national unity and stability, China has also provided support to certain ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), many of whom are currently fighting against the State Administration Council (SAC), the military-led government established after the February 2021 coup.

Myanmar has long been plagued by ethnic conflicts, with numerous ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) fighting for autonomy or independence from the central government. Notably, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Arakan Army (AA) have significant influence in Shan and Rakhine states, respectively. China, with significant economic interests and investments in these regions, views Shan and Rakhine states as crucial to its strategic and economic plans, particularly through the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Shan State, located along Myanmar’s eastern border with China, plays a vital role in cross-border trade and economic cooperation. This region hosts key infrastructure projects such as roads, railways, and economic zones aimed at enhancing connectivity between China’s Yunnan province and Myanmar. For instance, the planned rail link from Kunming in Yunnan to Mandalay in Myanmar passes through Shan State, facilitating the transportation of goods and raw materials. Additionally, Shan State is rich in resources like rare earth minerals, gold, raw uranium, hydroelectric potential, and precious gemstones, which China desires.

Rakhine State, on Myanmar’s western coast, is another focal point for Chinese investments, particularly with the development of the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port. This port is integral to the CMEC, providing China with a strategic maritime outlet to the Indian Ocean and including infrastructure for oil and gas pipelines to Yunnan province. This route bypasses the Strait of Malacca, which the U.S. might blockade in a war with China. However, recent conflicts have challenged Chinese investments and infrastructure, with insurgents controlling border crossings and significant land areas previously held by SAC government forces.

To safeguard its investments, China has maintained relationships with various ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in Myanmar. For example, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in Shan State and the Arakan Army (AA) in Rakhine State have received Chinese support. This support ensures these groups can maintain control over territories critical to the security and success of Chinese investments. By backing these groups, China aims to maintain stability in border regions, essential for the smooth operation and security of its infrastructure projects.

The UWSA is the largest and most powerful ethnic armed group in Myanmar, controlling a significant portion of Shan State. It has historical ties to the Chinese Communist Party, with many Wa soldiers and officers having Chinese names and using Mandarin as a lingua franca to facilitate communication between Wa speakers of different dialects.

Due to historically low levels of education and literacy among the Wa, Mandarin loanwords are used for advanced vocabulary in science, politics, and modern concepts. China provides financial support, weapons, and resources to maintain influence in the region and secure its border. These ties date back to when the UWSA’s predecessors, the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), aligned with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to expel the Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalist Army (Republic of China), from Myanmar.

Beijing continues to support the Wa with financial opportunities, trade, arms, and military training, ensuring the UWSA remains the most powerful army in the region. With at least 30,000 troops equipped with modern weapons, even the Burmese army hesitates to encroach on Wa-controlled areas. The UWSA also controls proxies in the current conflict, supporting EAOs that further Wa or Chinese interests. This complex web of dependencies and patronage maintains stability in Wa-controlled areas on the Chinese border, keeping resources flowing to Beijing.

Apart from the UWSA, China provides funding and trade, to varying degrees, to several other EAOs in Myanmar, including the National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), and Arakan Army (AA). While some of these groups, such as the AA and TNLA, are actively fighting the SAC government, others, like the UWSA and SSPP, are currently in a ceasefire with the SAC.

In October 2023, several EAOs, including the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Arakan Army (AA), and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), formed the Three Brotherhood Alliance (3BHA) and launched Operation 1027, a coordinated campaign of attacks against the SAC. This marked a significant turning point in the war, initiating a steady trend of government forces losing ground. Evidence suggests that Beijing not only knew about this offensive but also supported it.

The State Administration Council (SAC) is losing military bases and governance control in Shan State and Arakan State. Along the China-Myanmar border in Shan State, various ethnic armed organizations such as the TNLA, Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and others have intensified their attacks on SAC forces, capturing multiple military outposts and strategic locations. Intense fighting has forced the SAC to relocate from towns like Kongyan in northern Shan State due to pressure from these ethnic armed groups.

In Arakan (Rakhine) State, the Arakan Army (AA) has been particularly successful in its operations against the SAC. The AA has seized numerous military bases and townships, significantly weakening the SAC’s control in the region. They have managed to take control of key locations such as Military Operation Command 15 in Buthidaung Township and several other strategic points, threatening to take over important hubs like Sittwe and Kyaukpyu.

Conclusion: China’s Interests in EAOs in Myanmar

China’s support for the EAOs in Myanmar, particularly the UWSA and AA, underscores its strategic interests in maintaining influence and stability in the region. This backing helps China safeguard its investments. However, this involvement raises questions about sovereignty, regional stability, and the future of Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts.

Over the past several months, China has brokered several ceasefire agreements to resume trade and restart its investment projects in Myanmar. However, these ceasefires have not held, and Myanmar’s economy continues to collapse. China is eager to advance its Belt and Road Initiative to demonstrate to the world that it is a better economic partner than the US, but ongoing fighting prevents this progress.

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