China using proxies to accelerate CMEC and tame Myanmar like Pakistan

Despite all this, Myanmar should expect China to keep tightening its vice-like grip using terrorists, writes Lt Gen Prakash Katoch (retd) for South Asia Monitor

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General Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services of Myanmar Armed Forces, recently stated that terrorist groups active in the country were backed by ‘strong forces,’ without naming any state – the obvious reference was to China. Myanmar is agonized over China arming terrorist groups like Arakan Army (AA) and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and has sought international help to suppress them.  

AA is a declared terrorist organization in Myanmar. It used modern technology mines for attacking the military in Rakhine State during December 2019.  Most of the weapons including RPGs and FN6 anti-aircraft launchers costing about US$70,000– 90,000 seized by the military from Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) in November 2019 are Chinese.

Myanmar raised the issue of China arming insurgents with Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit in January 2020. Xi naturally denied it. China always hides behind the excuse that such weapons are available in the world market. But then China has armed the United Wa State Army (USWA) in Shan State of Myanmar with five Mi-17 ‘Hip’ helicopters fitted with TY-90 air-to-air missiles since 2013, in addition to giving them armoured personnel carriers, shoulder-fired AD missiles, MMGs, LMGs and assault rifles etc.

China and Myanmar signed 33 memorandums of understanding, agreements, exchange letters and protocols during Xi’s visit. Both agreed to push forward plans to develop the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) including the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone along the coast of Bay of Bengal, which will include a deep water port and an industrial park. No details were made public but Xi described the CMEC China’s “priority among priorities”. 

Kyaukphyu Port will be China’s prize (like Gwadar in Pakistan); culminating new trade and energy routes to the Indian Ocean avoiding the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea, and bypassing the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy.

A joint Myanmar-China statement during Xi’s visit said that China supports Myanmar’s approach to the Rohingya crisis and would help relocate refugees, while Myanmar reiterated it would accept vetted refugees under an agreement with Bangladesh. Last year a Chinese government delegation visited a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh accompanied by a Bangladeshi official and promised them US$6,000 each if they reverted to the Rakhine State of Myanmar they had fled from. 

Why would China offer US$6,000 per Rohingya returning to Myanmar is not difficult to guess, as it is in the interest of Rakhine State?

There are multiple reasons why China is arming terrorists in Myanmar. First, narcotics-drugs are part of the Chinese strategy of ‘Unrestricted Warfare’. The UWSA in Shan State straddles the ‘Golden Triangle’ and controls the drug production and trade. That is why China has lethally armed UWSA. For the same reason, China supports and arms the Taliban who predominantly straddles the ‘Golden Crescent’ of drugs in Afghanistan. Second, China nurtures terrorists as a ‘Sword of Damocles” over Myanmar to inhibit it from getting cosy with the US and the West. Third, China wants to ensure the CMEC comes up quickly – Xi’s “priority among priorities”. Myanmar has been chary about China debt-trapping Pakistan with the CPEC as well as Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port experience.

A day before Xi’s visit to Myanmar, a coalition of 18 civil society organizations issued a statement calling for the Kyaukphyu Port project to be suspended and expressed concern over unresolved land disputes since 2010 when work began on the pipeline. The Democratic Party of Arakan said only China would benefit and warned that Myanmar officials and businessmen exploiting the scheme leaving locals behind would create more conflicts in Rakhine.

But there is a fourth reason why China wants to subsume Myanmar like Pakistan. With the sub-conventional hold over Myanmar, People's Liberation Army (PLA) deployments are sure to follow like the way it happened in Pakistan; be it under the pretext of the security of the CMEC or ‘stabilizing’ the situation or protecting Kyaukphyu SEZ – benefitting China strategically and providing another direction to attack India.

Ataullah abu Ammar Jununi, a Pakistani national, heading ARSA, is supported, funded and armed by China, Pakistan and Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba. In 2015, Chinese intelligence established the United Liberation Front of West and Southeast Asia (ULFWSEA) bringing together nine insurgent organizations of northeast India. 

China and Myanmar enjoys excellent relations. In July 2019, China's cumulative investment in Myanmar accounted for over 25 percent of Myanmar's total foreign investment. Bilateral imports and exports that were US$11 billion in 2004 reached US$ 168 billion in the first 11 months of 2019. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report of 2019, China’s top arms export countries by total units since 2007 were   Pakistan (6.57 billion units), Bangladesh (1.99 billion units) and Myanmar (1.28 billion units). 

In July 2019, UN ambassadors from 50 countries, including Myanmar, signed a joint letter addressed to the UNHCR ‘defending’ China's treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang region.

Despite all this, Myanmar should expect China to keep tightening its vice-like grip using terrorists. Not all the insurgent groups in Myanmar attended and signed the Union Accord III at the recently concluded Panglong Peace Conference in Myanmar. China has a ready-made asymmetric battlefield that it will exploit to the hilt. In what measure it will debt-trap Myanmar remains to be seen. 

(The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed are personal.)