China weighs up its role in Myanmar peace talks
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China weighs up its role in Myanmar peace talks

In what has traditionally been a boots-and-bayonets conflict fought a long way from media coverage, an unusual photo circulating on the internet last week revealed that Myanmar's military is now using armed drones in operations against ethnic insurgents. Probably taken on a serviceman's mobile phone and posted on a Facebook account, the image showed soldiers preparing a Chinese-built CH-3A unmanned combat aerial vehicle for take-off at an airfield in the north of the country.

A few months ago another image taken on a mobile phone in northern Myanmar went to confirm a report carried by IHS-Jane's in 2014 that the United Wa State Army, the largest ethnic armed group in the country, is now fielding advanced Chinese-manufactured FN-6 man-portable air defence systems or MANPADS. Taken in the Wa-run Special Region in Shan State, the picture showed UWSA troops training with the shoulder-launched missiles along with new wire-guided anti-tank rockets.

At one level, there's a simple take-away from the two photos: it may not be long before Wa soldiers or Wa allies are using a Chinese missile to bring down a Chinese drone in another good day for China's arms industry. But there are broader implications too. The fact China maintains good relations with the Myanmar military or Tatmadaw and key ethnic opposition groups and is equipping both sides with advanced military technology gives Beijing a potentially pivotal role to play in the peace process due to be resuscitated next month under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government.

Anthony Davis is a security consultant and analyst with IHS-Jane's.

Given the attention paid to Myanmar in recent months by China's Special Envoy for Asian affairs, Sun Guoxiang, and the busy schedule of its ambassador to Nay Pyi Taw, Hong Liang, it appears Beijing has every intention of exerting its influence in the wings of talks it cannot afford to ignore. Far more than other foreign states supporting the peace process -- notably Norway, Switzerland, the European Union and Japan -- China has vital strategic and economic interests at stake which will be fundamentally affected either by the shape of a future settlement or by continued war.

During the 1990s and 2000s Chinese investment in, and trade with Myanmar grew exponentially at the same time as Beijing underwrote at friendship prices the modernisation and expansion of the Tatmadaw. More recently it has built oil and natural gas pipelines across the country intended to fuel the economic development of south-western China. Further large-scale investment in rail, road and port infrastructure will be central to China's geo-strategic ambitions for One Belt-One Road connectivity with the Indian Ocean region and Europe beyond.

There is also an important defensive element to China's stake in Myanmar. The protracted campaign of cross-border destabilisation conducted in the 1950s by Kuomintang (KMT) nationalist forces based in northeastern Myanmar and backed by America's Central Intelligence Agency will not have been forgotten in Beijing. Amid growing fears of a new Cold War aimed at the containment of China, the perceived ambitions of the US and Japan in Myanmar have lent a powerful impetus to increased Chinese support to friendly ethnic minority buffer forces ranged along the border.

In the shadow of a 27-year-long cease-fire with the Tatmadaw, the Wa have been quietly built up as the most important of these. Trained manpower, modern equipment and territorial cohesion today combine to provide the the UWSA with real deterrence: as both sides are entirely aware, any Tatmadaw attempt to subdue the Wa militarily implies a war that would set the country back a decade or more and is not a realistic option. The UWSA's position is further reinforced by alliances with other ethnic forces -- Kokang, Palaung, Shan and Arakanese -- currently in hostilities with the Tatmadaw.

The peace process has a revealed a political minefield littered with unpleasant surprises. Talks under the military-backed Thein Sein government, supported by Western and Japanese funding and advice, attempted with a conspicuous lack of success to ram through a Nationwide Ceasefire Accord (NCA). Aimed at paving the way for political dialogue and eventual disarmament of the ethnic opposition, the NCA was finally signed last October by only eight mostly minor factions: almost all the major players stayed away. New conflicts erupted.

Under the new government, next month's return to the table has been billed by NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi as a "21st Century Panglong conference" in a hopeful nod to her father's historic 1947 agreement with leaders of three large ethnic groups on autonomy for the minority-dominated "frontier regions". But that accord was later torn up by a military coup and overshadowing the upcoming talks is a very different vision of a centralised state enshrined in the Tatmadaw's 2008 constitution. As a result, the stage appears set for a three-way tug-of-war with no guarantees of any eventual settlement. It will involve the ethnic Burman NLD government committed to reform of the constitution; the ethnic Burman Tatmadaw committed to defending the constitution; and -- depending on who comes to the party -- non-Burman minority groups divided along various lines but loosely committed to federal autonomy. If it is ever to be realised, any autonomy worth the name will certainly require reform of the current constitution and maybe even an entirely new one.

The potential to jump-start Myanmar's economy with investment in infrastructure projects on the one hand and close ties with the Wa-led ethnic alliance on the other affords Beijing unique leverage in brokering and even underwriting compromises that will have to be made if Myanmar is ever to move beyond today's armed stasis. The challenge for China will be using that leverage without overplaying a strong hand. In Myanmar distrust of the giant neighbour to the north runs deep. It has been fuelled in recent years by China's apparently insatiable thirst for the country's natural resources.

Already deeply embroiled in Myanmar, China cannot afford to watch the peace process from the back row. But greater involvement in what promise to be fractious negotiations will involve as many risks as opportunities. The coming months will test the dexterity of Beijing's diplomats to the full.

Anthony Davis

Security consultant

Anthony Davis is a security consultant and analyst with IHS-Jane’s.

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