Beijing is trying to end the long-running conflicts along its border with Myanmar — but only because it can't exploit the region's resources at will anymore.
KACHIN STATE, Myanmar — In early March, Myanmar’s government sat down with a coalition of ethnic rebel groups, including the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), trying to jump-start peace negotiations that had sputtered out after months of escalating fighting. The meeting had been brokered by China, keen to quell the conflict along its southwestern border.
The Kachin are an ethnic group of about a million people with their own eponymous province, Kachin State, in northern Myanmar. Ever since a coup brought a junta led by the nation’s ethnic majority Burmese to power in 1962, the Kachin have been fighting for independence as part of a constellation of conflicts that observers have called “the world’s longest-running civil war.” The KIA is no paltry guerrilla band — it has about 10,000 men and controls much of the Myanmar-China border — and the fighting has been intense. During the past six years, the conflict has displaced more than 100,000 people, and the military has committed widespread human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, rape, and torture. With refugees spilling across the border, Beijing has repeatedly emphasized the need for peace.
But China has not always been so conciliatory. As recently as 2011, China was used to getting its way with its much smaller neighbor through force. For five decades, as the junta ruled Myanmar, China had treated its neighbor, which it officially termed a “little brother,” like a client nation, knowing that the regime was isolated by sanctions and had few other places to turn. During the past few decades, China has extracted massive quantities of timber, gold, jade, and other resources from Kachin State — much of it illegally.
But Myanmar’s recent democratization and the changing goals of its rebel groups, from fighting off the government to winning the right to run their own states within Myanmar, have forced China to pivot. The clearest example of China’s changing strategy is the transformation of its efforts to build the Myitsone Dam across the Irrawaddy River. Before 2011, China planned to sink $3.5 billion into constructing one of the largest hydroelectric dams in the world to produce electricity primarily for its cities over the border in Yunnan Province, though about 10 percent of the energy would have gone to Myanmar. The project was jointly pushed by both countries’ governments and epitomized Naypyidaw’s prioritization of Chinese demands and the money that came with them over local needs.
Yet today, a boulder with the graffiti “No Dam, No War” painted in red stands at the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River. A few miles downstream, four huge concrete towers thrust out of the water: the unfinished Myitsone Dam. In September 2011, Myanmar’s new government shocked everyone — especially China — by announcing that work on the dam would be suspended. The reversal was so unexpected that scaffolding still crowns the uncompleted dam, streaking the concrete brown as it rusts. The suspension seems permanent enough that many Kachin have moved back to their villages. While driving through them we saw women hoeing potatoes and men hammering together new houses on wooden stilts.
This is a sharp reversal of the previous government’s position. Because the dam would flood about 65,000 acres of the surrounding valleys, the junta, with the encouragement of the Chinese, forcibly evicted nearby Kachin villagers through 2011, leading to widespread reports of abuse. “They bulldozed five or six villages without warning,” Htu Hkwang, who lived in one of the villages, told Foreign Policy. “Once people began to protest, they tried to bribe the rest of the villages. When people still wouldn’t move, they threatened them with false legal orders and warned, ‘This place will be covered with water anyway, so you don’t really have a choice.’”
Protests against the dam spread nationwide, on behalf of both the villagers and the river’s fragile ecosystem. Soon, celebrities like Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Burmese democracy activist, took up the cause.
The size of the crowds surprised everyone. But shortly after the suspension of the dam, China received an even bigger shock. Myanmar was intent on democratizing. In 2015, elections raised up the Nationwide League for Democracy, an opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, though the military retained control of important ministries and substantial influence in the parliament through a new constitution. Instead of a client state on its southwestern border, China had to deal with a government that was keen to find great powers to balance Beijing’s influence.
China’s hopes to restart the dam were complicated by a resumption of fighting between the KIA and Myanmar’s military after a cease-fire had broken down after two decades in 2011, shortly before the dam was put on hold. The instability has often closed the border and threatened China’s huge business interests in timber, gold, and jade. In 2014, Global Witness found that the black market jade trade could be worth up to $31 billion, which is equal to nearly half of Myanmar’s legitimate gross domestic product, most of which flowed from the richest jade mines in the world in east Kachin State. Thousands of Kachin refugees periodically flood Chinese townships.
Given these new realities, it was clear that China would have to change its strong-arm strategies. The country has shifted its approach in an attempt to restart the Myitsone Dam project, from raising the issue during Aung San Suu Kyi’s first diplomatic visit to hearts-and-minds campaigns. A public outreach campaign was funded to convince the Kachin that the dam was in their best interest. Kachin leaders were taken on educational trips to see the benefits of hydropower projects in China. Donations were made to schools and civic organizations. And peace suddenly became a priority.
“In the old days, the Chinese talked directly to the military, and they didn’t have to care about the people because the military was in control,” said Steve Naw Aung, the general secretary for the Kachin Development Networking Group, which organized protests of the Myitsone Dam. “But when the people started to protest and then the new government responded to the democratic pressure, they learned they had to engage with the people.” Still, many Kachin doubted China’s sincerity. “They just want peace so they can happily run their businesses,” Steve Naw Aung said.
China’s interest in a peacekeeping role is new, but its objectives haven’t changed. “China doesn’t want an escalation in fighting, but it also doesn’t want a Western-funded peace process bringing international monitors and NGOs right up to its southwestern border,” Thant Myint-U, the celebrated Burmese historian and special advisor to the Myanmar Peace Center, told Foreign Policy by email. “Ideally for Beijing, China would be the dominant outside partner in any new ceasefire arrangement, one that would be coupled new economic schemes, further tying Myanmar’s economy to China’s hinterland.”
Dau Hka, a spokesman for the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the civilian twin of the KIA, remembered the Chinese strategy at the opening 2013 peace talks: “The Chinese were very aggressive in pushing for us to sit down. They kept insisting on a cease-fire before any conditions. It was a little bit confusing to us. But they really wanted to see the conflict finished — especially under their watch. They warned us not to invite America, England, or the United Nations. They wanted to make sure it was all arranged under Chinese eyes.”
However, the Kachin, seeking to balance China’s influence, insisted that Western powers be included in the talks. This led to years of unsuccessful talks, which were subsumed into negotiations for the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, a framework for the government and over 20 ethnic rebel armies hoping to work out a lasting peace at the second round of the 21st Century Panglong peace conference later this year.
China, however, argues that it is playing the role of a “responsible great power” that the West has often asked it to assume. Recently, China has been pushing even harder for peace, with the Foreign Ministry playing a strong role and the government arranging multiple negotiations in its southern provinces. In November 2016, China held high-level discussions between the two countries’ defense ministries about border security.
In December, it hosted talks between four rebel groups and Myanmar officials, though the negotiations quickly failed. It has even offered $3 million to fund the peace talks with the KIA. And it has called on Myanmar’s rebel groups, including the Kachin, to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with the government, leaning especially hard on the armed forces who control territory abutting China. But for now, the KIA have resisted calls for a cease-fire.
There are signs China wields substantial influence on some of the most powerful groups along its borders. At the sit-down in early March between Myanmar’s government and the KIA and its rebel allies, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) — the rebel group leading the conference — announced that it wanted to scrap the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. Instead, it proposed a new peace process led by China. The UWSA is a force of about 30,000-strong that controls a Belgium-sized chunk of Myanmar’s border alongside China and is widely seen as being heavily influenced by its northern neighbor, even using arms supplied illicitly by the People’s Liberation Army.
As Thant Myint-U wrote, “The keystone for peace in Myanmar is the desires of the UWSA, head of the self-styled Northern Alliance,” the rebel coalition of which the KIA are part. “There is very little chance of a meeting of minds between the UWSA and [Naypyidaw] on a way forward, yet without this, it’s hard to see how any peace process can get very far.”
However, Yun Sun, a senior researcher at the Stimson Center in Washington, cautioned that rather than manipulating the peace process, “China is actually afraid of being drawn too deeply into this conflict. It wants peace on its border, open trade, and continued influence with Myanmar at the expense of Western governments, but it does not want to become a signatory to a peace deal it cannot guarantee and that could damage its commercial relationships with Myanmar, if Myanmar felt it was taking the rebels’ side.”
Ultimately, China’s primary goal is to keep border trade flowing. Throughout the conflict, it has maintained commerce through backdoor ties with the KIA and the Myanmar military. But the constant uncertainty has impeded trade. Fighting in Myanmar’s Kokang region in early 2015 led to the declaration of martial law and the subsequent closure of many vital border crossings. According to the World Bank, trade decreased through Muse, Myanmar’s most important land border crossing to China. Myanmar’s third-largest crossing at Chin Shwe Haw was temporarily closed.
China has grander ambitions than trade with its small neighbor. The most direct route to southern China from India runs across Kachin State, along the old Ledo Road constructed by the Allies during World War II to supply their fight against the Japanese. China’s plan to create the “One Belt, One Road” project, a new set of Eurasian infrastructure connections both on land (the belt) and at sea (the road), has singled out the Ledo Road as a comparatively easy and low-altitude way to cross the Himalayas compared with the steep routes of the far north. One Belt, One Road is the signature policy of the increasingly powerful Chinese President Xi Jinping, making it both politically and economically vital. Peace could usher in a chance for China not only to have better access to Myanmar’s markets, but even more significantly a better land route between two of the world’s most important economies.
As much as the KIA has resisted China’s prodding for a cease-fire, the time may come when they too find it in their best interest. Over the years, Myanmar’s military has ground them down with its superior numbers and hardware, including helicopters and fighter jets that the rebels have few answers for. In the past few months, the military has captured a string of important KIA outposts, driving closer to its headquarters along the Chinese border. The fighting has taken a hard toll on the population, with fresh waves of refugees spilling into China.
“The jade and timber are almost gone,” Dau Hka, the KIO spokesman, told Foreign Policy. “The natural resources have nearly been exhausted.” After decades of exploitation by the Kachin, Chinese, and Burmese, the area’s old-growth forests have been mostly cut down and there have been fears that the Hpakant jade mine is running dry.
When asked how the Kachin would survive without these resources, Dau Hka said: “If the political system is stable in Myanmar, then we could open the border gates and tax the trade coming through. It is possible to cross Myanmar from India to China in just one day with a truck if our border posts are open. If the political conditions are met, then we could open the highway in just one year,” suggesting that the Kachin could tax the trade, probably after the state was granted greater autonomy as part of a peace deal. But he cautioned that Myanmar’s government had proved resistant to many of the conditions, including the KIA’s demands to semi-autonomously run Kachin State, and that decades of mistrust would have to be overcome.
China might achieve stability on the border it covets if it can persuade the KIA that Beijing’s grand ambitions serve the economic needs of the Kachin. But it has to convince the Kachin that it has learned from past mistakes, despite fresh conflicts that echo old flashpoints. In mid-March, several thousand Kachin protested China’s new plans for the May Kha and Ngaw Chan Kha rivers in Kachin State — eight more dams.
This article was written with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Photo Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images