What you need to know
China faces a challenge in determining whether it prioritizes stability or influence in the wake of a coordinated attack by three ethnic groups along the China-Myanmar border.
WASHINGTON — A sudden coordinated attack by three ethnic groups along the China-Myanmar border in northeastern Myanmar poses a challenge to China's stance on regional stability. A Burmese American analyst told VOA that it is now imperative for China to determine whether it prioritizes stability or influence in the region.
“China has to make the decision: Do we want stability, or do we want manipulation?” said Miemie Winn Byrd, who holds a doctorate in education, is a former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and has been associated with the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies since 2007. She has extensive expertise in U.S.-Myanmar relations and Southeast Asian security dynamics.
The recent offensive, referred to as "Operation 1027," was launched on October 27 by the Three Brotherhood Alliance — comprising the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Arakan Army — in northern Shan state near the China border. It has resulted in the takeover of numerous military posts, control of major roads and the surrender of over 100 soldiers.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VOA: Some analysts are saying China gave the green light to the 1027 operation launched by three ethnic brotherhood groups in northern Shan state bordering China in order to suppress cybercrime gangs from operating in the area. What is your view on this?
Miemie Winn Byrd, Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies: I think that rather than China giving them [a] green light, I think more that China really doesn't have that much control of these groups, because up until this point, China was trying to pressure them to sit down with the military for a cease-fire negotiation. But I think the Three Brotherhood, I think they were very clever. They were able to utilize China's latest interests — the security interests, of getting after the organized crime ring that is running in that area. So, they were able to utilize that, but I don't think that China gave them the green light. But I think China kind of stepped back from putting pressure on them.
VOA: On the other hand, the Chinese government has often sent its high-ranking representatives to Myanmar and is in close contact with the junta. What calculation do you think China is making with this move?
Byrd: I think that China lost confidence in [junta leader] Min Aung Hlaing and his group’s ability to control and manage the country. The data also shows that they no longer control the country — a very small fraction of the country is controlled by the State Administrative Council, SAC, Min Aung Hlaing’s military regime.
China has a decision to make: They need to decide whether they want stability on their borders and stability for all the investment that they have put into Myanmar. They want someone in charge that they can manipulate, because military regimes have always been ones that they can manipulate. Under the military regime, Myanmar has been sold out to China a lot more, and China has gained a lot more than it was ever able to do in the civilian government. But now China has to make the decision: Do we want stability, or do we want the manipulation? You can manipulate the bad governance, but then you don't have the stability, and all the investment that you put into the area is at risk.
VOA: Regarding Myanmar, China's concern is that the United States is close to the resistance groups and is trying to exert more influence. The United States officially supports the expenses for the civilian offices of the ethnic armed groups. Some analysts have said that this is seen as a way to counter China in the region. What do you think of the U.S. position?
Byrd: U.S. policy on Myanmar is always led by democracy. Democracy is the best defense against manipulation by the major powers for any country. If Myanmar is able to develop and to govern with good governance principles — an inclusive and federal democracy — it will be strong enough to withstand pressure from a major power. So, that ... has always been U.S. policy, to support democracy in Myanmar.
China pressures the ethnic armed groups it supports not to deal with the U.S., but they really don't offer anything. Everything that armed groups get, they have to buy it. [The Chinese] really don't give free support, because it's transactional. It's all about China taking whatever is best for them and then sucking [the other side] dry, so to speak. So, China doesn't want the groups to get closer to us, but it doesn't really offer much alternative.
The ethnic armed groups didn’t really get recognition from the West before because of some of their previous dealings with drugs and that type of thing. But now, since the February 1 coup, it's different, because the Burma Act really recognized the ethnic armed groups as a viable political group.
VOA: Now, if you look at the fact that the Myanmar junta and Russia's navy conducted joint military exercises for the first time in the beginning of November, does the closeness of the junta and Russia pose a threat to the United States and China?
Byrd: Russia is just a spoiler, really. They don't really have that much presence in Asia - it’s kind of far away for them. Even in Ukraine, which is in their backyard, they have a hard time projecting their power and dealing with logistics at the front line. Myanmar is just too far away.
What they're doing with these types of little actions is, one, they want to be able to sell some of their old weapons and equipment to Myanmar. Two, they need Myanmar on their side because they have very few friends left, and they want to be able to say Myanmar is one of their friends.
When Myanmar gets closer to Russia, China doesn't like it either. China thinks of Myanmar as its area of influence. So, Russia is encroaching, and that could become an area of contention between Russia and China. I think the Myanmar military does use it as a balancing function. They go to Russia because they want to balance China, and China knows that.
VOA: Junta leader Min Aung Hlaing said at a National Defense and Security Council meeting held on November 8 that operations of the Three Brotherhood ethnic armed groups are being funded with money from the drug trade. What is your view on this claim?
Byrd: That's their normal propaganda. If anybody is supporting these types of organized criminal activities … it’s his forces. We have a lot of evidence that shows that the military has been involved in enabling these types of organized criminal networks and allowing them to operate. So, it’s just his normal propaganda, and we shouldn't fall victim to it. They’re all about misinformation, and that's why the people of Myanmar don't believe what they say.
VOA: So, what is the significance of the Three Brotherhood-coordinated operation near the China border?
Byrd: The Three Brotherhood offensive was really like a kickoff - it launched other people to follow. So it had kind of a landslide effect. So they alone might not be that impactful, per se. Yes, the operation was very successful, but the operation’s success really instigated others to follow suit. It's almost like a signal that they gave to all the resistance coalition forces. That's why everybody is doing operations within their controlled area. The Myanmar military is not set up at the best of times to fight everything across the country. They can do it in the periphery, but now it's across the country. And like I said, the Myanmar military is at its weakest point after three years ... because of the corruption, defection, desertion and those killed an action. So if it was not set up to do it before, it is even less now. So that's why you can say the launch [of] the Northern Alliance operation was like a trigger for the landslide, because it gave momentum, and everybody is following along with that momentum.
The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Voice of America.
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