n recent months, China has given tacit support to a major rebel offensive in north-eastern Myanmar. March 2023 .
In recent months, China has given tacit support to a major rebel offensive in north-eastern Myanmar. March 2023. STR / AFP
Briefing 179 / Asia 20+ minutes

Scam Centres and Ceasefires: China-Myanmar Ties Since the Coup

Beijing has more pull with Myanmar’s military rulers than any other outsider. While its influence has limits, it can help quiet border areas, by fighting organised crime and encouraging licit economies. Other powers should probe for areas of potential cooperation in resolving the post-coup crisis.

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What’s new? Notwithstanding a recent flurry of diplomacy, China remains unhappy with Myanmar’s military regime and resistant to normalising relations. In late 2023, it gave tacit support to a major rebel offensive in north-eastern Myanmar that dealt the junta a resounding defeat in a strategic enclave on the Chinese border.

Why does it matter? China has more leverage in Myanmar than any other foreign power. While it cannot dictate outcomes, it can influence events. Beijing is cautious about outside involvement in its neighbourhood, but its ambivalence about the regime leaves room for greater international consensus on how to deal with Myanmar’s post-coup crisis.

What should be done? While Beijing has traditionally taken a border management approach that focuses on minimising active conflict, it should aim to foster long-term stability, including by promoting alternatives to illicit activity and cracking down on all forms of organised crime, not just those that have the biggest impact on China.

I. Overview

China was displeased with the February 2021 coup in Myanmar, which ended a period of warming relations under the Aung San Suu Kyi administration, and thwarted Beijing’s strategic and economic plans. It has since expanded high-level engagement with the military regime on issues of concern. But it has refrained from normalising relations or recognising regime leader Min Aung Hlaing as head of state. Strikingly, and due partly to its irritation at the proliferation of online scam centres targeting Chinese nationals, in late 2023 it tacitly supported a rebel offensive in the north-eastern Kokang area that routed the Myanmar military in the borderlands – a major setback for the junta. Now, Beijing should broaden its focus beyond immediate goals by promoting long-term stability along its frontier, encouraging legal economic pursuits and working to rein in organised crime – even when it does not harm Chinese citizens as much as the online scams. While it will likely continue to view multilateral engagement with suspicion, Beijing’s coolness toward the regime creates room for efforts to seek solutions to the Myanmar crisis.

The China-Myanmar relationship has been dogged by mutual mistrust, with Naypyitaw worried about its giant neighbour’s intentions and Beijing perceiving Myanmar as an unreliable partner. Beijing was alarmed when, in 2011, President Thein Sein decided to open up Myanmar after decades of military rule, leading Naypyitaw to pivot to the West. This move was clearly driven by a desire to reduce reliance on China. But Beijing was reassured once Aung San Suu Kyi, who became de facto head of state in Myanmar in 2016, sought to mend ties, displaying sensitivity to Chinese concerns. China was therefore well placed to capitalise when the military’s violent expulsion of the Rohingya to Bangladesh in 2017-2018 left Aung San Suu Kyi estranged from the West. Xi Jinping made a state visit in January 2020, the first by a Chinese leader in almost two decades, and Myanmar became the third country to enter a “community of common destiny” with China.

China has major strategic objectives in Myanmar.

The new closeness was more than just symbolic. China has major strategic objectives in Myanmar, which provides a route from its landlocked south west to the Bay of Bengal, allowing it to streamline trade and energy flows as part of its Belt and Road Initiative and to project power into the Indian Ocean basin. It planned ambitious infrastructure projects as part of a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. 

But the coup brought these plans to a sudden halt and the old mistrust back to the fore. China’s discontent is plain to see. It has not objected to the previous Myanmar government’s representative – who openly opposes the military regime – remaining in Myanmar’s seat at UN headquarters in New York, and in December 2022 it withheld its veto to allow the Security Council to adopt a first-ever resolution on Myanmar. It has declined not only to recognise Min Aung Hlaing as head of state, but also to invite him to China, despite the junta’s persistent lobbying. China became even more irked with the regime when it failed, despite sustained urging from Beijing, to act against scam centres – mainly targeting Chinese nationals – that have sprung up in Myanmar since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly along the border. It quietly backed the rebel offensive in Myanmar’s north east, which eventually led to the military’s most significant battlefield reversals since independence.

While Beijing has been gradually increasing its level of engagement with Naypyitaw, its approach reflects the importance of the bilateral issues it needs to address rather than any growing confidence in the regime. The upshot is the Chinese and Western approaches toward Myanmar overlap, even if they do not coincide, possibly leaving room for agreement on joint action, including at the UN Security Council. While China is reluctant to go farther than it already has in terms of multilateral action, other members should not shy away from probing areas of potential cooperation and working to raise awareness of the Myanmar crisis before a global audience. In doing so, Council members will be doing the important work of maintaining dialogue and preserving the possibility of a coordinated response if the situation keeps deteriorating. Even though it cannot determine the outcome of Myanmar’s crisis, Beijing is still the preeminent diplomatic force, having more pull with many of the country’s key protagonists than any other foreign power. 

As regards China’s bilateral strategy, it should move beyond establishing fragile truces on its border with Myanmar in favour of a broader approach. It should try to foster licit economies in the enclaves along its border controlled by ethnic armed groups, over which it wields significant influence, and push to end organised criminal activity across the board in these areas, not merely those that have the greatest impact on Chinese citizens. While such an approach would require a bigger investment on Beijing’s part, it also promises a greater return – a more durable peace – for China, Myanmar and the wider region.

II. Pre-coup Relations

Since independence in 1948, Myanmar has had an uneasy relationship with China. It was the first non-communist country to recognise the People’s Republic, establishing diplomatic relations in June 1950. Beijing made a major effort to strengthen bilateral ties, including sending Premier Zhou Enlai to Myanmar nine times in the 1950s and early 1960s.[1] Myanmar and Chinese officials began referring to their relationship as pauk phaw, meaning “fraternal” in Burmese, to emphasise its special nature.[2] But ties came under strain from the outset, because thousands of nationalist Kuomintang troops had taken refuge in northern Myanmar in 1949. These soldiers launched periodic raids into China, raising the spectre of an armed Chinese incursion given that Myanmar lacked the strength to expel the Kuomintang.[3]

Ties deteriorated under the autocratic rule of General Ne Win, who took power in 1962 and promoted xenophobic attitudes toward South Asian and Chinese immigrants, causing large numbers to flee the country, including around 100,000 Sino-Burmese. Relations hit a low point when deadly anti-Chinese riots erupted in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, in 1967. The two governments withdrew their respective ambassadors and Beijing, which blamed Ne Win for instigating the disturbances, soon began publicly supporting the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) revolt, which rapidly gained in strength. By 1973, the CPB had taken most areas of Shan State bordering China. Over the next fifteen years, it grew into the biggest insurgent threat to Myanmar, weighing heavily on bilateral links.[4]

The situation changed abruptly in 1988, after massive anti-government protests erupted across Myanmar. The uprising was brutally put down by the Myanmar military, which took over from Ne Win’s failing socialist regime in September that year, marking the start of more than two decades of direct military rule. In the following years, Myanmar was isolated from and sanctioned by the West for its suppression of dissent and persecution of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. China seized the opportunity, becoming a political and economic lifeline for the military regime, as well as a key arms supplier.[5] As relations grew closer, Beijing withdrew its support for the CPB insurgency, which eventually collapsed in 1989 amid internal mutinies.[6]

These mutinies were led by CPB fighters belonging to the Kokang, Wa and other ethnic minorities that live along the Chinese border. They soon formed armed groups along ethnic lines, including the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (Kokang), the United Wa State Army (Wa) and the National Democratic Alliance Army (Mongla group). Ever since, Beijing has maintained close personal, political and economic connections with these groups, cultivating ties as a useful buffer with a chaotic Myanmar. To keep conflict away from its territory, it pushed the groups to maintain ceasefires with the Myanmar military, while directly or indirectly arming them to deter the army from attacking them.[7]

[1]周恩来总理曾九次访问缅甸” [Premier Zhou Enlai visited Myanmar nine times], Xinhua, 12 December 2001. See also Crisis Group Asia Report N°305, Commerce and Conflict: Navigating Myanmar’s China Relationship, 30 March 2020.

[2] Bertil Lintner, “China and Burma: Not only pauk-phaw”, The Irrawaddy, 5 June 2017.

[3] The Kuomintang were the Chinese nationalist army under the command of General Chiang Kai-shek, who after being defeated by the communists, retreated with his main forces to Taiwan, while his troops in Yunnan province fled to Myanmar.

[4] See David Steinberg, “China’s Myanmar, Myanmar’s China: Myths, Illusions, Interactions”, in Donald K. Emmerson (ed.), The Deer and the Dragon: Southeast Asia and China in the 21st Century (Singapore, 2021); and Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity (London, 1999), p. 224.

[5] Crisis Group Asia Report N°177, China’s Myanmar Dilemma, 14 September 2009.

[6] Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, op. cit., chapter 18.

[7] See also Crisis Group Asia Report N°332, Transnational Crime and Geopolitical Contestation along the Mekong, 18 August 2023, Section V.C.

Notwithstanding its anger at China for arming its opponents, Myanmar’s military regime saw cordial relations with Beijing as a necessity.

Notwithstanding its anger at China for arming its opponents, Myanmar’s military regime saw cordial relations with Beijing as a necessity. But they were also a cause of angst. Acutely aware of its location between Asian titans China and India, Myanmar has historically embraced non-alignment to safeguard its sovereignty. It grew increasingly nervous that it was falling too deep into China’s sphere of influence.[1] Myanmar public sentiment also turned against China, due to Beijing’s support for the hugely unpopular post-1988 military regime, high levels of Chinese migration into northern Myanmar and perceptions of rapacious Chinese natural resource exploitation. By the late 2000s, resentment of China had taken root across the country.[2]

The semi-civilian government of President Thein Sein that took power in March 2011 sought to rebalance Myanmar’s external relations by re-engaging with the West, particularly the U.S., as a counterweight to Chinese influence.[3] To demonstrate internationally that it was willing to break with Beijing, and domestically that it would listen to public concerns in a way that the former military regime had not, his administration proclaimed in September 2011 that it was indefinitely suspending China’s largest project in Myanmar, the Myitsone hydroelectric dam.[4] China was given no advance notice of the announcement.[5] A period of prickly relations ensued, with Chinese influence in Myanmar receding.[6]

Aung San Suu Kyi’s ascent to power in 2016 heralded considerably warmer relations. In June 2015, a few months before her election victory, China took the unusual step of inviting her on an official visit. It billed her trip as a party-to-party consultation but granted her meetings with both President Xi Jinping – at the Great Hall of the People, normally reserved for visiting heads of state – and Premier Li Keqiang. Such top-level meetings for a foreign opposition leader were unprecedented.[7]

These interactions reassured Beijing that, if elected, Aung San Suu Kyi would be a constructive partner, solicitous of China’s concerns. Once she came to power, China moved its engagement with Myanmar into higher gear, providing critical support to the peace process between the government and various ethnic armed groups.[8] It also pushed forward major projects that the Thein Sein government had stalled, repackaging many of them as part of a much more ambitious China-Myanmar Economic Corridor that would further Beijing’s strategic objective of gaining access to the Indian Ocean and bind its economy more tightly with Myanmar’s.[9] Although frustrated at the often slow pace of the Naypyitaw bureaucracy, and the Aung San Suu Kyi administration’s reluctance to fast-track Chinese megaprojects, Beijing was satisfied with Myanmar’s overall diplomatic posture.

[1] Andrew Selth, Burma’s Armed Forces: Power Without Glory (Norwalk, Conn., 2001).

[2] Crisis Group Report, China’s Myanmar Dilemma, op. cit., Section IV.C. See also Thant Myint-U, The Hidden History of Burma (New York, 2020).

[3] Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°143, Myanmar’s Military: Back to the Barracks?, 22 April 2014, Section III.A.

[4] Crisis Group Report, Commerce and Conflict, op. cit.; and “China’s Engagement in Myanmar: From Malacca Dilemma to Transition Dilemma”, Transnational Institute, July 2016.

[5] Crisis Group interview, Chinese academic in an institution close to government, Kunming, October 2011.

[6] Crisis Group Report, Commerce and Conflict, op. cit.

[7] Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Yangon, June 2015. See also “Aung San Suu Kyi’s Beijing visit aims to strengthen Burma’s ties with China”, Associated Press, 10 June 2015; and “Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi wraps up visit to China”, Agence France-Presse, 14 June 2015.

[8] See Crisis Group Asia Report N°287, Building Critical Mass for Peace in Myanmar, 29 June 2017.

[9] See Crisis Group Report, Commerce and Conflict, op. cit., Section IV.A.

The geopolitical context of China-Myanmar relations shifted decisively after the Rohingya refugee crisis erupted in August 2017.

The geopolitical context of China-Myanmar relations shifted decisively after the Rohingya refugee crisis erupted in August 2017.[1] The Myanmar military’s brutal “clearance operations” against the Muslim minority in Rakhine State, and the civilian government’s apparent complicity, resulted in Myanmar’s diplomatic estrangement from the West and much of the rest of the world. The crackdown on the Rohingya, which pushed over 700,000 refugees across the border to Bangladesh, is the subject of international genocide and crimes against humanity investigations.[2] China moved into the role of Myanmar’s chief diplomatic protector, with its Security Council veto ensuring that the strongest actions the Council could take were a presidential statement and a visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar in May 2018.[3] In addition, China once again became the key source of foreign direct investment for Myanmar, as money from the West dried up.[4] As a result, the Aung San Suu Kyi administration found itself back in the state of dependency on China that its predecessor had tried so hard to get out of.

The deepening of the bilateral relationship culminated in a two-day state visit by President Xi to Myanmar in January 2020, the first by a Chinese leader in nineteen years.[5] In the joint communiqué issued at the end of the visit, bilateral relations were upgraded to a “community of common destiny”, a concept central to Xi’s foreign policy vision, which at the time had only been extended to two other countries.[6] This concept envisages friendship between China and countries in its neighbourhood based on mutually beneficial development initiatives, security architecture and cultural interaction.[7]

[1] For detailed analysis of the crisis, see “‘My World is Finished’: Rohingya Targeted in Crimes against Humanity in Myanmar”, Amnesty International, 18 October 2017; and Crisis Group Asia Report N°292, Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase, 7 December 2017.

[2] The International Court of Justice ordered provisional measures in January 2020 and the case brought against Myanmar by The Gambia under the Genocide Convention is now in its merits phase; the International Criminal Court authorised its prosecutor to begin a formal investigation of the Rohingya mass exodus in November 2019.

[3] Statement by the President of the Security Council on the Situation in Myanmar, S/PRST/2017/22, 6 November 2017. Such statements reflect consensus positions of the Council but are not legally binding. See also Security Council Press Statement SC/13331, 9 May 2018.

[4] See Foreign Investment by Country” statistics compiled by the Myanmar Directorate of Investment and Company Administration. 

[5] “Xi arrives in Nay Pyi Taw for state visit to Myanmar”, Xinhua, 17 January 2020.

[6] The other two were Laos and Cambodia (in 2017 and 2018, respectively). Vietnam agreed to the designation in December 2023. See Khang Vu, “Vietnam and China announce major upgrade in relations during Xi visit”, The Diplomat, 13 December 2023.

[7] Denghua Zhang, “The Concept of Community of Common Destiny in China’s Diplomacy: Meaning, Motives and Implications”, Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies, vol. 5, no. 2 (2018).

III. An Unwelcome Coup and Gradual Re-engagement

A. The Cost of the Coup

On 1 February 2021, the Myanmar military seized power in a coup, declaring a state of emergency and detaining State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, among others.[1] The coup was an unwelcome shock for Beijing. After investing significantly in its relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi and her administration, and anticipating an acceleration of its Belt and Road projects in the country, Beijing suddenly had to contend with the return to direct power of a military long suspicious of China, headed by a commander-in-chief whose scepticism was particularly pronounced.[2] These views came from his personal experience of commanding ground operations against the Chinese-backed Kokang ethnic armed group in 2009, as well as the Myanmar military’s history of battling the CPB.

China’s initial response was muted, with state media describing the coup as a “major cabinet reshuffle” while, behind the scenes, Chinese officials pushed the regime to open a dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and return to the constitutional order.[3] In September 2021, seven months after the coup, Chinese state media was still referring to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy as “the legitimate party in Myanmar”.[4] Over time, however, as China judged that the prospects of the regime negotiating an exit from the post-coup quagmire had receded, it pushed instead for new elections, which Min Aung Hlaing had announced as the last step of his post-coup political roadmap.[5]

Beijing was careful, however, to keep its engagement with the regime somewhat detached. It did not accord Min Aung Hlaing the status of head of state or government, at first referring to him only as military chief and later as chairman of the State Administration Council, as the junta calls itself.[6] It also limited high-level engagement. Thus, when Foreign Minister Wang Yi travelled to Myanmar for a meeting of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation grouping in July 2022, he met his counterpart, then Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, but not Min Aung Hlaing as protocol would have dictated.[7] It was not until May 2023, more than two years after the coup, that China’s foreign minister (this time Qin Gang) met with the regime leader (see Section III.B below).[8]

[1] See Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°167, The Cost of the Coup: Myanmar Edges Toward State Collapse, 1 April 2021. Aung San Suu Kyi is still being held incommunicado in Naypyitaw prison.

[2] Crisis Group interviews, Chinese academics in institutions close to government, April 2021, May 2022. On China’s Belt and Road plans, see Crisis Group Report, Commerce and Conflict, op. cit.

[3] Crisis Group interviews, Chinese academics in institutions close to government, April 2021, May 2022, May and November 2023. See also “Major cabinet reshuffle announced in Myanmar”, Xinhua, 2 February 2021; and “China calls on Myanmar junta to hold talks with opponents”, Agence France-Presse, 4 July 2023.

[4] “US, West should refrain from encouraging civil war in Myanmar”, Global Times (editorial), 7 September 2021.

[5] Crisis Group interview, Chinese analyst, May 2022. On the regime’s roadmap, see Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°175, A Road to Nowhere: The Myanmar Regime’s Stage-managed Elections, 28 March 2023.

[6] “China steps toward de facto recognition of Myanmar’s junta”, The Diplomat, 7 June 2021.

[7] “Did China deliver a snub to Myanmar’s military regime?”, Al Jazeera, 11 January 2023. For more discussion of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, see Crisis Group Report, Transnational Crime and Geopolitical Contestation along the Mekong, op. cit.

[8] “China’s foreign minister travels to Myanmar to meet military ruler”, Nikkei Asia, 3 May 2023.

B. Gradual Re-engagement

As the Myanmar regime repeatedly extended the state of emergency that it used to justify its rule and delay holding elections, China increased the tempo of its engagement with the generals, particularly from early 2023.[1] It had not decided to give overt support to the regime, but it was moved by other considerations. First, this period coincided with the end of China’s zero-COVID policy, leading to a step change in its diplomacy in Asia and globally as it sought to make up for lost time.[2] Secondly, with the prospect of elections dwindling due to extensions of the state of emergency beyond the constitutional limit, China likely felt that it could not afford to wait until a new government was in place to re-engage. It wished to discuss important issues – including the impact of armed conflict in Myanmar on China’s borders and the growing threat from transnational organised crime – and was loath to leave diplomatic space that its geopolitical rivals, such as India and Japan, might exploit.[3]

Around the same time, the regime appointed a new ambassador in Beijing, Tin Maung Swe.[4] He reportedly enjoys the confidence of Min Aung Hlaing and has direct contacts with regime members, improving communications.[5] Nonetheless, a regime official suggested, dealing with China was not without risks, noting that “if we know how to cook with fire, we’ll have a good meal; if not, we’ll get burned”.[6]

[1] While the Myanmar constitution does contain state of emergency provisions whereby executive and legislative authority can be transferred to the commander-in-chief for a limited period, the military violated the constitution by itself invoking those provisions and extending the emergency period beyond the maximum period allowed. See Crisis Group Briefing, A Road to Nowhere, op. cit., Section II.A.

[2] Crisis Group interviews, analyst and Chinese academics in institutions close to government, May 2023. See also “What does China hope to gain from its post-Covid diplomatic push?”, South China Morning Post, 20 April 2023. China’s zer0-COVID policy ended abruptly on 8 January 2023. China’s global diplomatic engagement had already accelerated following the G20 meeting in Bali in November 2022. It was boosted again by Beijing’s diplomatic victory in March 2023 in helping restore relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. See Dina Esfandiary and Anna Jacobs, “How Beijing Helped Riyadh and Tehran Reach a Détente”, Crisis Group Commentary, 17 March 2023; and “Chinese-brokered deal upends Mideast diplomacy and challenges U.S.”, The New York Times, 11 March 2023.

[3] Crisis Group interviews, analysts, May-June 2023.

[4] “Appointment and Duty-Assignment of Member of Union Election Commission”, State Administration Council Order No. 11/2022, 3 February 2022. Tin Maung Swe was assigned to the post in November 2022, after his predecessor died of a heart attack; the new ambassador presented his credentials on 24 April 2023.

[5] Crisis Group interview, well-placed individual, March 2023.

[6] Crisis Group interview, regime official, March 2023.

China’s diplomatic surge [in Myanmar] began in early April 2023.

China’s diplomatic surge began in early April 2023 with a visit by Yunnan provincial party chief Wang Ning, who met with Min Aung Hlaing and ministers and signed a series of economic agreements.[1] In May, then-Foreign Minister Qin Gang visited Naypyitaw, meeting with Min Aung Hlaing and, separately, with former military leader Than Shwe.[2] Qin was the highest-ranking Chinese official to see the junta leader following the coup. He reportedly urged the general to do more to tackle online scam centres, issuing a statement to this effect following the meeting.[3] Prior to the trip, Qin had travelled to the China-Myanmar border in Yunnan province, near enclaves controlled by ethnic armed groups in Shan State where scam centres proliferated during the pandemic.[4]

China’s special envoy to Myanmar, Deng Xijun, was also very active over this period.[5] After his appointment to the role in November 2022, he held several rounds of meetings with the leaders of ethnic armed groups in Shan State, as well as with the regime.[6] The result was Chinese-brokered peace talks in the Myanmar border enclave of Mongla from 1-2 June 2023, between regime officials and the Three Brotherhood Alliance, a pre-existing grouping that comprises three ethnic armed groups, namely the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army. The talks concluded without an agreement, however; the alliance was reportedly already planning its October blitzkrieg at that time (see Section IV below).[7]

In May 2023, Myanmar state media said Chinese military intelligence chief Major General Yang had met deputy commander-in-chief Soe Win in Naypyitaw, but then quickly deleted the articles, apparently because they violated confidentiality protocols to which both sides had agreed.[8] It was the first publicly reported visit to Myanmar of a Chinese military officer since the coup, confirming Beijing’s shift toward re-engagement.[9]

[1] “China’s provincial leaders take centre stage in Beijing’s diplomatic push to charm neighbours”, South China Morning Post, 16 April 2023.

[2] “Myanmar Leader Min Aung Hlaing Meets with Qin Gang”, Chinese Foreign Ministry, 3 May 2023; “China’s foreign minister travels to Myanmar to meet military ruler”, Nikkei Asia, 3 May 2023. Some observers have speculated about why Qin met with Than Shwe, but China had longstanding, reasonably good relations with the former strongman, so the meeting may have had no specific objective.

[3] Crisis Group interviews, Chinese academics in institutions close to government, May 2023. See also “Qin Gang: China Hopes Myanmar Will Crack Down on Internet Fraud”, Chinese Foreign Ministry, 3 May 2023.

[4] “China’s foreign minister travels to Myanmar to meet military ruler”, Nikkei Asia, 3 May 2023.

[5] Although the envoy is focused on Myanmar, the Chinese government’s official title for the role is special envoy for Asian affairs, in deference to Naypyitaw’s sensitivities when the position was created in 2013, ahead of China-brokered ceasefire talks between the Myanmar government and the Kachin Independence Organisation. See Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°140, A Tentative Peace in Myanmar’s Kachin Conflict, 12 June 2013, Section V.A.

[6] Crisis Group interviews, November 2022-November 2023. See also “China looks to Myanmar’s rebel armies to shore up business, border goals”, Voice of America, 24 March 2023.

[7] “Peace talks in Myanmar highlight China’s increasing influence”, Voice of America, 4 June 2023; “Rebel fire and China’s ire: Inside Myanmar’s anti-junta offensive”, Reuters, 15 December 2023.

[8] Crisis Group interview, Myanmar analyst, June 2023. The meeting was reported, for example, in “SAC Vice-Chair Dy C-in-C of Defence Services C-in-C (Army) Vice-Senior General Soe Win receives Acting Director-General of Intelligence Bureau of Joint Staff Department of PRC Central Military Commission”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 31 May 2023. The paper has now removed this report from the version posted online.

[9] “Top Chinese intelligence official visits Myanmar for ‘cooperation’ talks”, Agence France-Presse, 31 May 2023.

C. The Limits on Re-engagement

Despite the uptick in engagement with Naypyitaw, China has signalled that it does not intend to normalise relations with the regime.[1] This stated position is somewhat obscured by Beijing’s refusal to condemn the coup directly, and by its ambiguous diplomatic language, such as Qin Gang telling Min Aung Hlaing during his May 2023 trip that “China stands ready to work with Myanmar to follow through on the outcomes of President Xi Jinping’s historic visit” in 2020 and that “China will continue to provide assistance within its capability for Myanmar’s development”.[2] At the same time, Qin rather pointedly stated that China “supports [the efforts of] all parties in Myanmar to properly handle differences and achieve reconciliation under the constitutional and legal framework”, a reference to Beijing’s view that the coup departed from that framework. China continues to prefer that the regime enter dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi on a path back to constitutional rule, however unlikely that may be.[3]

There are also several clear indications that China remains unhappy with the regime and is unwilling at this stage to provide significant diplomatic support or recognition:

  • On 21 December 2022, by not deploying its veto, China allowed the UN Security Council to adopt a first-ever resolution on Myanmar, demanding an immediate end to violence and urging the military to release all “arbitrarily detained” prisoners.[4] Twelve countries voted in favour of the resolution, while China, Russia and India abstained. The development is significant given that the Council has been unable to agree on a resolution on Myanmar for seven decades, largely due to Beijing’s reticence. China is generally keen not to internationalise issues in its neighbourhood, preferring to deal with them bilaterally, so its abstention should be read as a signal of displeasure.[5]
  • Ahead of the UN General Assembly session in September 2023, China did not raise any questions or objections concerning the credentials of the Myanmar permanent representative in New York, Kyaw Moe Tun. Appointed by the Aung San Suu Kyi administration prior to the coup, he has sided publicly with the National Unity Government (NUG), the parallel administration set up by lawmakers ousted by the coup. China’s acquiescence allowed the General Assembly to maintain the status quo from 2021, which established that the Credentials Committee takes note of the competing credentials submitted by the regime but defers consideration of the matter, leaving the incumbent in place.[6] Kyaw Moe Tun remains in his seat despite the Myanmar regime’s request for China’s support in removing him and his outspokenness in public, which flouts the condition China set in 2021 for allowing him to stay, namely that he keep a low profile.[7]
  • Despite considerable lobbying from Naypyitaw, Beijing has refrained from inviting Min Aung Hlaing for an official visit to China. The regime had reportedly been pushing for its leader to attend the third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in October 2023. The pressure was in vain, though Beijing welcomed other controversial guests, including an Afghan Taliban representative and Russian President Vladimir Putin.[8] Instead, China invited Myanmar’s minister of transport.[9] A Chinese academic in an institution close to the government said it was “a clear message that China is not happy with Min Aung Hlaing’s approach”.[10]

At the end of October 2023, the extent of China’s displeasure with the Myanmar regime became even clearer via its muted response to a major offensive by the Three Brotherhood Alliance in northern Shan State, right on its border.

[1] Crisis Group interviews, Chinese academics in institutions close to government, May and November 2023. See also “China’s Qin Gang pledges economic help for Myanmar, stops short of recognising junta”, South China Morning Post, 3 May 2023.

[2] “Myanmar Leader Min Aung Hlaing Meets with Qin Gang”, op. cit.

[3] Ibid. Crisis Group interviews, Chinese academics in institutions close to government, May and November 2023. See also Section III.A above.

[4] UN Security Council Resolution 2669, S/RES/2669 (2022), 21 December 2022.

[5] Crisis Group interviews, analyst and Chinese academics in institutions close to government, May and November 2023.

[6] See UN General Assembly, “Report of the Credentials Committee”, A/78/605, 6 December 2023, adopted without a vote on 18 December 2023.

[7] Crisis Group interviews, analyst, diplomats in New York and Chinese academics in institutions close to the government, 2022-2023. See also Richard Horsey, “One Year On from the Myanmar Coup”, Crisis Group Commentary, 25 January 2022; and Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°173, Coming to Terms with Myanmar’s Russia Embrace, 4 August 2022, Sections IV.B and VI.

[8] “Which world leaders came to China’s 3rd Belt and Road Forum?”, The Diplomat, 18 October 2023; “Taliban to join China’s Belt and Road forum, elevating ties”, Reuters, 14 October 2023; “Snubbed Myanmar junta leader must watch China’s BRI Summit from home”, The Irrawaddy, 17 October 2023.

[9] “SAC Member DPM MoTC UM leaves for 3rd BRI Forum in China”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 17 October 2023.

[10] Crisis Group interview, Chinese academic, November 2023.

IV. Border Clashes and Fraying Ties

A. Operation 1027

On 27 October 2023, the Three Brotherhood Alliance launched a coordinated offensive against regime forces in northern Shan State, on China’s border.[1] Several post-coup resistance forces also participated in the operation.[2] The groups seized numerous towns, overran hundreds of Myanmar military outposts and bases, and severed overland trade routes to China. Dubbed Operation 1027 after the date, the assault rolled on into 2024, causing mounting losses for the regime, which proved incapable of staging an effective counteroffensive.[3] Sensing the military’s weakness, resistance forces in other parts of the country also went on the attack, although not always with the rapid success of the Three Brotherhood Alliance.[4]

Operation 1027 would not have been feasible without Beijing’s acquiescence. Much of the combat took place adjacent to the border, something China has long been keen to tamp down given its aversion to spillover into Chinese territory and to refugee flows.[5] When the MNDAA, which the military expelled from the Kokang self-administered zone in 2009, attempted to retake the area in 2015, fighting sent tens of thousands of refugees fleeing into China. The crisis became a domestic political issue within China, given that most of the refugees were Kokang, an ethnic Han Chinese group.[6] An errant strike by a Myanmar air force plane that killed five people in China only enraged Beijing further.[7]

[1] Richard Horsey, “A New Escalation of Armed Conflict in Myanmar”, Crisis Group Commentary, 14 November 2023.

[2] For more details on the armed resistance groups that were established following the 2021 coup, see Crisis Group Asia Briefings N°168, Taking Aim at the Tatmadaw: The New Armed Resistance to Myanmar’s Coup, 28 June 2021; and N°170, The Deadly Stalemate in Post-coup Myanmar, 20 October 2021; as well as Crisis Group Asia Report N°328, Crowdfunding a War: The Money behind Myanmar’s Resistance, 20 December 2022.

[3] Crisis Group interviews, analysts, local journalists and members of armed groups, November-December 2023. See also “Myanmar ethnic alliance continues gains, despite China-brokered ceasefire”, The Diplomat, 18 December 2023.

[4] For example, the Arakan Army quickly seized the town of Pauktaw in Rakhine State, but had to withdraw the same day in the face of a military counterattack; the Karenni National Defence Force took part of the Kayah State capital of Loikaw, but has been unable to complete the conquest; and Karen National Liberation Army and allied resistance forces announced on 4 December 2023 that they had control of Mone town in Bago Region, but had to retreat on 8 December in the face of counterattacks. See “Myanmar military, insurgents battle over port town”, Reuters, 17 November 2023; “Loikaw residents flee Myanmar junta bombardments”, The Irrawaddy, 14 December 2023; and post on X (formerly Twitter) by DVB English News, @DVB_English, 12:00am, 15 December 2023. See also Morgan Michaels, “Is Myanmar’s regime at risk of collapse?”, International Institute for Strategic Studies, December 2023.

[5] See Crisis Group Report, Commerce and Conflict, op. cit.

[6] “Military Confrontation or Political Dialogue: Consequences of the Kokang Crisis for Peace and Democracy in Myanmar”, Transnational Institute, July 2015.

[7] Ibid.

Tackling the criminal groups running [online] scams … has become a top political priority for Beijing in recent months.

The reason China allowed the 2023 offensive almost certainly relates to the proliferation of online scam centres in Myanmar in recent years, and the regime’s failure to crack down on them.[1] The UN has reported that as many as 120,000 people, most of them Chinese or other foreign nationals and many of them trafficked and held against their will, may be involved in these scams in Myanmar; the Kokang zone, on the Chinese border, had become a particular hotspot.[2] Tackling the criminal groups running these scams, which disproportionately target people in China, has become a top political priority for Beijing in recent months.[3] 

Beijing appears to have identified the regime-allied border guard force that ran the Kokang zone’s administration and security as particularly recalcitrant in not complying with China’s demands to shutter the scam centres.[4] In some cases, the force was involved in running these operations, while in others it took a share of the profits.[5] After pushing in vain for decisive action from Naypyitaw to rein in the group, Beijing took the extraordinary step of inviting prominent Kokang business figures to a trade fair in China on 1 October and then arresting them.[6] On 20 October, shortly before the Three Brotherhood Alliance offensive, four undercover Chinese police were allegedly among a number of Chinese citizens killed by scam centre security guards when they opened fire on a crowd of workers trying to escape.[7]

When the MNDAA launched attacks on 27 October aiming to take control of the Kokang zone, Beijing was ready to accept short-term instability on its border in return for the ouster of the Kokang border guard and the closure of the enclave’s many scam centres.[8] The Three Brotherhood Alliance explicitly pledged to do these things in its statement upon launching Operation 1027, almost certainly as a sweetener for Beijing.[9] Given its connections to the MNDAA – dating back to the 1970s when the group was part of the CPB insurgency – China appears to have been confident that the group would follow through on its promises.[10] Those close relations also suggest that China must have been aware that the MNDAA was planning its offensive several months in advance, yet did nothing to stop it.[11]

After the attacks, while China called for a ceasefire, its diplomatic focus appeared to be on warning the regime to exercise military restraint and hand over scam suspects, rather than pressuring the alliance of armed groups to end its operations.[12] Beijing dispatched high-level officials to Naypyitaw, including Minister for Public Security Wang Xiaohong, who is leading efforts to close the scam centres, on 31 October.[13] Wang was reportedly unhappy with the regime’s level of cooperation.[14] Earlier, on 5 September, his deputy had met regime Police Chief Ni Lin Aung on the sidelines of a gathering in Beijing to inform him that China was launching a major crackdown on scam centres and expected Myanmar’s assistance.[15]

Over 2023, various authorities in Myanmar – including the regime, its allied militias and ethnic armed groups – handed over a total of 41,000 suspects to China, mostly Chinese nationals, and it proceeded to deport several thousand more in 2024.[16] While the vast majority were low-level scammers, or trafficking victims forced to carry out such tasks, some were kingpins. Some were members of the Ming family, who owned the notorious Crouching Tiger Villa scam centre in Kokang where the undercover Chinese police were allegedly killed in October. The family patriarch, Ming Xuechang, died during his arrest – a suicide, according to Myanmar state media.[17]

[1] Scam centres are sophisticated criminal operations that target victims around the world online, often using sham romances or friendships to induce them to make fake investments or money transfers. The centres make use of young, skilled workers who are often recruited fraudulently and trafficked from many different parts of the world, where they may be held against their will and subjected to threats or physical violence to force them to carry out the scams. See Crisis Group Report, Transnational Crime and Geopolitical Contestation along the Mekong, op. cit.

[2] “Online Scam Operations and Trafficking into Forced Criminality in Southeast Asia: Recommendations for a Human Rights Response”, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2023, p. 7.

[4] Crisis Group interviews, Chinese academics in institutions close to the government, November 2023; regional organised crime expert, December 2023.

[5] In April 2009, the military regime then in power ordered ethnic armed groups that had agreed to ceasefires, as well as some regime-allied militias, to transform into new “border guard force” units under the Myanmar military’s partial command, although in practice they mostly operate with a high degree of autonomy. Many armed groups refused to comply with the order, triggering renewed conflict, while others agreed and still others split over the issue. See Crisis Group Asia Report N°214, Myanmar: A New Peace Initiative, 30 November 2011, Section II.B.

[6] “Myanmar company director and regional officials ‘arrested in China’”, Radio Free Asia, 4 October 2023.

[7] Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of the state-run Global Times,shared this claim on Weibo, a major Chinese social media platform. Weibo post, 6:32am, 11 November 2023. See also “How online scam warlords have made China start to lose patience with Myanmar’s junta”, CNN, 19 December 2023.

[8] Crisis Group interviews, analyst, February 2024; Chinese academics in institutions close to the government, November 2023.

[9] “Statement”, Three Brotherhood Alliance, 27 October 2023 [Burmese]. Included in the statement was a commitment to “combating the widespread online fraud that has plagued Myanmar, particularly along the China-Myanmar border”.

[10] Crisis Group interviews, Chinese academics in institutions close to the government, November 2023.

[11] Ibid. On the planning timeframe, see “Rebel fire and China’s ire: Inside Myanmar’s anti-junta offensive”, op. cit.

[12] During this time, Beijing’s public statements and private diplomatic messaging were almost exclusively focused on warnings to the regime about military restraint and cooperation on scam centres, rather than pushing the ethnic armed groups to cease their attacks. It was only once the armed groups had achieved their key territorial objectives that China stepped in to push both sides to accept a ceasefire.

[13] “Myanmar’s SAC chairman meets China’s police chief”, Xinhua, 1 November 2023.

[14] Crisis Group interviews, Chinese academics in institutions close to the government, November 2023.

[15] Crisis Group interview, December 2023. See also “Myanmar vows greater international cooperation against drug abuse”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 9 September 2023.

[16] “China says Myanmar handed over 41,000 scam suspects last year”, Bloomberg, 5 January 2024. A 31 January post on Facebook by the Chinese embassy in Myanmar gave an updated figure of 44,000. 

[17] “The Chinese mafia’s downfall in a lawless casino town”, BBC, 23 November 2023; and “Three Chinese suspects under warrants extradited to China”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 17 November 2023.

B. A Chinese-brokered Ceasefire and the Fall of Laukkaing

It was only when the MNDAA had seized control of most of the Kokang zone, and laid siege to the main town of Laukkaing, that China brought the parties together to discuss a ceasefire. Few details of these talks have been released, but according to a copy of the draft agreement seen by Crisis Group, the first meeting took place on 7-8 December in Kunming, China, convening regime peace team secretary Lieutenant General Min Naing and senior representatives of the MNDAA, TNLA and Arakan Army, with the mediation of China’s special envoy to Myanmar, Deng Xijun. While the negotiations did not conclude and further talks subsequently took place, the MNDAA agreed not to attack Laukkaing and to cooperate in providing safe conduct for Chinese citizens rescued from the city’s scam centres.[1]

A regime spokesperson revealed the hitherto secret negotiations in comments to state television on 11 December, confirming only that they had proceeded with China’s help and that further discussions were expected later in December.[2] The next day, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson stated that the talks had achieved “positive results” and that China was ready to “continue to provide support”.[3] The Chinese spokesperson went further on 14 December, stating that “with China’s mediation effort, Myanmar’s military recently held peace talks with the MNDAA, TNLA and AA in China and reached agreement on a number of arrangements, including the temporary ceasefire in Kokang and maintaining the momentum of dialogue”.[4] The Three Brotherhood Alliance made no official statement.

[1] Draft agreement seen by Crisis Group; and Crisis Group interview, well-placed source, December 2023. See also “What did the army and the three northern groups discuss?”, BBC Burmese, 12 December 2023 [Burmese].

[2] The recording of spokesperson Major General Zaw Min Tun’s comments is available on the Myanma Radio and Television website.

[3]AP Archive: Daily MOFA briefing”, video, YouTube, 12 December 2023. The questions and answers about Myanmar were omitted from the foreign ministry’s summary of this press conference. See “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning’s Regular Press Conference on December 12, 2023”, Chinese Foreign Ministry, 12 December 2023.

[4]Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning’s Regular Press Conference”, Chinese Foreign Ministry, 14 December 2023.

Chinese police issued arrest warrants for ten members of prominent Kokang families … for alleged involvement in scam centres, murder and human trafficking.

A few days after the first round of talks, on 10 December, China moved decisively to break up the criminal organisations operating along the border. Chinese police issued arrest warrants for ten members of prominent Kokang families – who own major businesses and run the zone’s armed militias and administration – for alleged involvement in scam centres, murder and human trafficking.[1] This move foreclosed any possibility of a return to the regional status quo from before the MNDAA’s advance by underlining China’s outright opposition to these leading families’ rule over the area. The prospect of the military regime in Myanmar taking direct control of the border region was equally remote. Kokang itself has never come under central government control, and appeasing China would have required confronting a local political and economic environment dominated by criminal syndicates running lucrative illicit enterprises. These signals from China and the dilemma it created for the military may have contributed to the eventual withdrawal from Kokang.

The fall of Laukkaing did not happen immediately. China hosted a second round of talks on 23 December, which reportedly broke down. One armed group participant quoted a regime representative as warning that towns seized by ethnic armed groups would never enjoy peace because regime forces would bomb them from the air.[2] The fragile Kokang ceasefire already seemed to be failing by this time: on the day of the talks, regime airstrikes near Laukkaing killed civilians, including Chinese citizens, prompting a “serious protest” from Beijing.

A week later, the MNDAA launched an attack on an infantry battalion base to the north of Laukkaing town, reportedly capturing it the following day, and on 4 January, China expressed “strong dissatisfaction” at a stray artillery shell fired by the military that had landed on its territory the previous day, injuring several people.[3] The same day, the Myanmar military left its last remaining base in Laukkaing, conducting a negotiated withdrawal of almost 2,400 troops and their family members, including six brigadier generals. Not only was all of the Kokang zone now under MNDAA control, but the regime had also suffered a major humiliation, the most significant surrender in the Myanmar military’s history.[4] Six senior officers were subsequently court-martialled for mutiny and insubordination, with three reportedly being sentenced to death on 20 January 2024 and the other three to life imprisonment.[5]

[1] “China issues arrest warrants, offers rewards for 10 leaders of telecom fraud gangs in Myanmar”, China Daily, 10 December 2023. Naypyitaw handed over the ten leaders to China on 30 January – including prominent businessmen known to be close to Min Aung Hlaing. Crisis Group interviews, businesspersons, Naypyitaw, February 2024. See also “China issues arrest warrants, offers rewards for 10 leaders of telecom fraud gangs in Myanmar”, China Daily, 10 December 2023; and Facebook post by the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar, 31 January 2024. For video of the transfer of these leaders to China by special forces police, see post on X (formerly Twitter) by China Perspective, @China_Fact, 5:45pm, 31 January 2024.

[2] “Myanmar junta threatens nonstop bombing of towns seized by ethnic groups”, The Irrawaddy, 2 January 2023. This report identifies the regime representative as Lieutenant General Min Naing. But another source present at the meeting indicated that it was in fact Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s principal staff officer who made the threat. Crisis Group interview, individual who spoke to the source, February 2024.

[3] “MNDAA seizes infantry battalion 322 base in Laukkaing”, Myanmar Now, 2 January 2024 [Burmese]; “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning’s Regular Press Conference”, Chinese Foreign Ministry, 29 December 2023; “China protests to Myanmar after stray artillery shells hurt five”, Reuters, 4 January 2024.

[4] “Myanmar rebels take control of key town near Chinese border”, Reuters, 6 January 2024.

[5] Crisis Group interviews, well-placed sources, January-February 2024. See also “Military tribunal imposes death sentence on three brigadiers-general who surrendered to the MNDAA in Laukkaing, Kokang SAZ, says military source in Naypyitaw”, Khit Thit Media, 23 January 2024 [Burmese].

V. Implications and Recommendations

Events in the Kokang zone highlight China’s broader strategic interests in its relations with Myanmar. Beijing’s approach has long included a strong focus on maintaining close ties to armed groups along its border, allowing them to integrate their enclaves into China’s economy and arming them to deter the Myanmar military from attacking these areas.[1] The Kokang zone was the only part of China’s border with trans-Salween Shan State (that is, the part of the state east of the Salween river) not controlled by a non-state armed group friendly to Beijing.[2] Chinese academics to whom Crisis Group spoke indicated that Beijing saw an interest in allowing the MNDAA to take control of the Kokang zone, followed by a ceasefire.[3]

While Beijing would not be averse to a durable peace along its border, it has mostly come to regard that as unlikely in the foreseeable future. Thus, it prefers to support the quasi-peaceful status quo that comes with powerful ethnic armed groups controlling areas along the border, while recognising that it will find itself managing periodic flareups when they occur.[4] In addition, this arrangement gives Beijing considerable influence over an important area linking China with South East Asia.[5]

[1] Horsey, “A New Escalation of Armed Conflict in Myanmar”, op. cit.

[2] The only other part of the Shan State-China border controlled by the regime is the stretch to the west of the Kokang zone – Namkhan and Muse townships – most of which the TNLA or MNDAA seized during Operation 1027. On the historical and contemporary significance of trans-Salween Shan State, see Crisis Group Report, Transnational Crime and Geopolitical Contestation along the Mekong, op. cit.

[3] Crisis Group interviews, Chinese academics in institutions close to the government, November 2023. Also, an X (formerly Twitter) account claiming to be run by a member of the Chinese People’s Armed Police Propaganda Bureau has posted regularly on developments in Kokang, stating that “the best-case scenario for China is for MNDAA to retake control” of the zone and negotiate a ceasefire with the regime from a position of strength. X post, Zhao DaShuai, @zhao_dashuai, 8:18am, 26 November 2023.

[4] Ibid.

The regime … has clearly signalled its unhappiness at China’s role in facilitating the MNDAA’s takeover of Kokang.

The regime, for its part, has clearly signalled its unhappiness at China’s role in facilitating the MNDAA’s takeover of Kokang. The ejection of Myanmar and allied forces from the zone marked one of the military’s most humiliating defeats. It has led to rare public criticism of Min Aung Hlaing among military supporters.[1] The regime was further embarrassed by having to accept a ceasefire mediated by China, which was the only way to stem its battlefield losses. The junta’s pique was clear from the fact that it allowed – and probably encouraged – anti-China demonstrations outside the embassy in Yangon in November.[2]

Chinese academics in institutions close to their government acknowledge that events in northern Shan State have put further strain on Beijing’s relations with the regime, exacerbating the longstanding “mutual trust deficit”.[3] They note, however, that the regime cannot afford to alienate China too much, as it needs its economic and diplomatic assistance, in order to increase trade and investment, facilitate discussions with the northern armed groups, and hold off more concerted international action against it, including at the UN Security Council.[4] Indeed, these considerations contribute to China’s leverage with Naypyitaw, enhancing its status as the foreign actor with the most influence in Myanmar after the coup, and therefore the one best able to shape the current conflict’s trajectory. Min Aung Hlaing’s attendance at Chinese New Year celebrations in Yangon on 18 February underlined the regime’s desire to maintain cordial relations, and its recent actions, including handing over Kokang leaders (see above), indicates a willingness to abide by at least some of Beijing’s demands.[5]

As Beijing and Naypyitaw navigate their ups and downs, the NUG hopes that Operation 1027 and its aftermath will cause the military regime to collapse. It wants to open its own channel to Beijing. On 2 January, it released its first statement on relations with China, consisting of ten points including adherence to the “one China” policy, namely the idea crucial to Beijing that Taiwan is part of a single China; measures to safeguard Chinese investments in Myanmar; and cooperation in combating transnational crime, including scam centres.[6] While these points do not depart from the policy of the Aung San Suu Kyi administration, they nevertheless demonstrate sensitivity to positions of key importance to Beijing, some of which (such as the “one China” policy) depart from Western views. The gesture takes on added significance given that Beijing views the parallel government as aligned with the West.[7]

The NUG announcement created controversy in some resistance circles, especially given widespread popular perceptions that (notwithstanding the chilliness described above) China has been overly accommodating to the regime following the coup.[8] But despite the symbolism, its actual impact is likely to be limited. The NUG would probably have to go much further – particularly in distancing itself from the West – to reassure Beijing of its support for China’s interests. Aung San Suu Kyi was careful to balance relations with China and the West, especially after she came to power in 2016, and Beijing did not view her, the administration or the party under her leadership as excessively Western-leaning. The NUG, on the other hand, has positioned itself far more closely to the West, with several leaders based there, an office in Washington and much of its diplomacy focused on Western capitals, which have been sources of political and material support and technical assistance. The NUG could well decide that some distancing from the West may be strategically necessary over the long term, given China’s regional prominence.

In the meantime, however, China’s overall relationship with Naypyitaw will probably depend on its estimation of the junta’s staying power and its mistrust of the viable alternatives. In taking the regime’s measure, Beijing is likely to ask itself: can it quell resistance across the country? Can it restore the stability required for major projects involving Chinese state-owned enterprises to get back on track?[9] At present, China’s answer to both questions seems to be no. But neither does Beijing appear to consider the regime likely to fall in the near term. Any shift in its policy would thus likely be triggered by movement one way or the other: stepped-up investment and diplomatic support if the regime showed success in consolidating its grip on power, and conversely, if the regime looked to be faltering, the possibility of funds and arms to prevent its collapse. Beijing would likely not act out of attachment to the regime or military, but more out of concern about the alternative – the NUG with its Western ties and a broader revolutionary movement rife with anti-Beijing sentiment.

At a more granular level, what China does next will depend on several factors. It likely will not seek to impose specific outcomes to Myanmar’s post-coup crisis, but its record to date suggests it will want to achieve certain key objectives. These include maintaining ceasefires along the border now that the MNDAA has taken control of the Kokang zone; ways to resume border trade with Myanmar; and continuing its crackdown on scam centres in collaboration with other countries in the region, to prevent these criminal operations from merely moving to other parts of Myanmar – although such shifts already seem to be happening.[10] It will also want to keep pushing all sides to accept the new status quo along its border following the 11 January ceasefire. 

What exactly that will look like is not yet certain. In particular, whether Myanmar’s military will continue to control Muse, the most important border trade gate, remains unclear. It is the only major location on the Shan State-China border to remain in regime hands, but it is surrounded by Three Brotherhood Alliance forces, making resuming trade after it was severed during Operation 1027 a fraught undertaking.[11] While its eagerness to ensure stability on its border is understandable, China should be cautious about back-room deals that freeze the conflict without addressing its underlying drivers. In fairness, it is not hard to see why China has settled into a pattern of short-term fixes: a grand bargain that brings peace to the borderlands is hard to envisage, while a holistic set of solutions to the post-coup situation across Myanmar is beyond the ability of any external actor to impose. Still, narrowly framed deals driven by expediency tend to have a short shelf life and risk setting the stage for new rounds of fighting in the future.

[1] For example, at a rally in the garrison town of Pyin Oo Lwin in Mandalay Region on 16 January 2024, a prominent nationalist monk, Pauk Sayadaw, called on Min Aung Hlaing to resign as head of the military and hand over the position to his deputy, Vice Senior General Soe Win. See “Three years after coup, Myanmar junta chief under unprecedented pressure”, Reuters, 31 January 2024; and “‘The military is in chaos’: Cracks in the support base”, Frontier Myanmar, 6 February 2024.

[2] “Under pressure in Shan State, Myanmar junta takes aim at China”, Myanmar Now, 20 November 2023.

[3] Crisis Group interviews, Chinese academics in institutions close to the government, November 2023.

[4] Ibid. On the fate of long-planned Chinese megaprojects in Myanmar, see “The dwindling prospects for Russian and Chinese-backed infrastructure projects in Myanmar”, The Diplomat, 9 November 2023.

[5] “Myanmar grateful to PRC and Chinese people for standing with it in int’l landscape”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 19 February 2024. Another indication of acquiescence to China is the military’s February raid on scam centres in the town of Tachileik on the border with Thailand. See “Nearly 150 Thais held in Myanmar call centre raids”, Bangkok Post, 24 February 2024.

[6] “The National Unity Government’s Position on China”, Statement 1/2024, 2 January 2024. See also “Myanmar’s shadow government issues 10-point China policy”, The Diplomat, 3 January 2024.

[7] Ibid. On the previous government’s China policy, see Crisis Group Report, Commerce and Conflict, op. cit., Section III. Myanmar’s support for China’s stance on Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang is noted in “Joint Press Release between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of the Union of Myanmar”, 20 August 2016.

[8] See, for example, “Analysts offer different opinions about NUG’s policy on China”, Democratic Voice of Burma, 3 January 2024 [Burmese].

[9] For related discussion, see “Misfortune for Kokang’s Bai family: ‘Operation 1027’ affords China growing influence”, Institute for Strategy and Policy (Myanmar), 27 December 2023.

[10] Crisis Group interviews, regional experts, Bangkok, December 2023. See also, “Myanmar’s cyber-scam industry limps on amid regional crackdown”, Frontier Myanmar, 5 October 2023; “How a scam ring opened shop in downtown Yangon”, Radio Free Asia, 30 August 2023; and “Myanmar military ‘provided protection for US$14 billion a year scam hub’ on China border”, The Irrawaddy, 5 January 2024.

[11] China-brokered talks between the regime and Three Brotherhood Alliance reportedly resulted in agreement in early March on resumption of border trade between China and the Kokang zone, but key details remain to be worked out. No such agreement has yet been reached for Muse, the most important border trade point. Crisis Group interview, analyst, March 2024. See also “Myanmar military, resistance alliance sign China-brokered agreement”, The Diplomat, 4 March 2024.

Beijing can and should do more than twist arms to bring about a temporary calm.

There are better options. Beijing can and should do more than twist arms to bring about a temporary calm. In the service of greater stability, it should work on transforming the political economy of the border areas, by encouraging and supporting legal sources of income in enclaves controlled by armed groups along its border, while at the same time pushing for an end to illicit business across the board – particularly drug production and trafficking – rather than targeting only those criminal activities that are hurting China the most, as it is doing with scam centres.[1] It has the necessary leverage over the armed groups along its border to achieve this aim, as well as the economic heft to provide them with alternative economic opportunities.[2]It could, for example, help create border trade and manufacturing zones. China has already planned such projects as part of the stalled China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, and it could repurpose them in accordance with the new ground realities. 

For Western countries, Beijing’s unhappiness with the coup and subsequent developments may present an opportunity to forge international cooperation. They should maintain dialogue with China over conditions in Myanmar, seek to develop opportunities for consensus-based action at the UN Security Council – whether press statements, presidential statements or a new resolution – and ensure that China does not undermine initiatives pursued by others.[3]

Of course, Beijing’s general resistance to international debate of issues in its neighbourhood, and its reluctance to frame foreign policy issues in human rights terms, make reaching consensus challenging. But other UN Security Council members, including the UK as penholder on Myanmar, should still be able to probe potential new areas for agreement, seizing any opportunities provided by the Council’s apparent readiness to discuss Myanmar as opposed to many other crises where geopolitical rivalries inhibit dialogue. In this regard, it is essential that the Secretary-General appoint a new special envoy for Myanmar without further delay. The position, vacant since the departure of Noeleen Heyzer in June 2023, is important for keeping up the tempo of discussions at the UN, including by regularly briefing the Security Council on developments.

This appointment, along with more robust diplomacy from key member states, could help overcome the Council’s current stasis on Myanmar. Since the UN Security Council resolution in December 2022, China has resisted further Council engagement.[4] Its attitude has frustrated other members who want to use the Council’s voice to highlight regime atrocities and other facets of the crisis.[5] The trajectory of events is uncertain, however, and there is value in maintaining Council consensus to enable a response to any further deterioration in conditions. The best prescription is not inaction. Rather, members should pursue active diplomacy on Myanmar, continue to closely monitor developments and seek opportunities to raise the profile of the crisis there, for example through briefings at appropriate junctures, without damaging the somewhat delicate working relationship on these issues with Beijing. Neither excessive deference to China nor preoccupation with crises elsewhere in the world should keep the Council from giving Myanmar the international attention it too often lacks and very much deserves.

[1] See also Horsey, “A New Escalation of Armed Conflict in Myanmar”, op. cit.

[2] For more detail on these projects, see Crisis Group Report, Commerce and Conflict, op. cit.

[3] Russia follows China’s lead on the Myanmar file in New York. Therefore, although Moscow is close to the regime, it is Beijing’s position that is critical.

[4] Crisis Group interviews, diplomats in New York, November 2023.

[5] See, for example, “Statement by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield on the Burma Military Regime’s October 9 Attack on Munglai Hkyet, Kachin State”, U.S. Mission to the UN, 10 October 2023. For more on this incident, the details of which are contested, see Morgan Michaels, “Myanmar regime brings significant escalation to the doorstep of key opponent”, IISS, October 2023.

VI. Conclusion

For China, the February 2021 coup was an unwelcome complication in its relations with neighbouring Myanmar. Xi Jinping had built warm relations with the Aung San Suu Kyi administration and was preparing major infrastructure projects across the country that would connect south-western China to the Bay of Bengal – part of Beijing’s long-held strategic and economic objectives. The coup brought insecurity and uncertainty to Myanmar, making big investments unviable. It also brought to power a leader, Min Aung Hlaing, who harbours markedly anti-China sentiments, even by the standards of the military he leads.

Beijing has declined to normalise relations with the regime, and it continues to signal its unhappiness bilaterally (declining to invite Min Aung Hlaing to China despite much lobbying) and multilaterally (allowing the NUG-supporting Myanmar permanent representative to remain in his seat in New York). China’s tacit support for the armed offensive against the military and its allies in the Kokang region is an even more striking signal of its irritation, in particular at the regime’s failure to take action against scam centres targeting Chinese nationals. 

[Beijing] seeks to maintain relations with all the main parties to preserve its leverage and stop geopolitical rivals from capitalising on turmoil.

Beijing’s displeasure has not, however, translated into disengagement. As part of a longstanding border management approach, it seeks to maintain relations with all the main parties to preserve its leverage and stop geopolitical rivals from capitalising on turmoil. Nor, should push come to shove, would it likely stand idly by and let the regime collapse, lest it be replaced by the Western-leaning NUG or some other configuration of a broadly anti-China resistance movement.

There is room for different actors to work together on improving outcomes in Myanmar. For its part, China should resist overly transactional or short-term approaches in favour of promoting long-term stability, including by supporting legal sources of income in enclaves under the sway of armed groups along its border, while pushing to end illicit activity across the board, not merely the forms that have the biggest impact on China and its citizens. For the NUG, continued signals that it is neither excessively Western-leaning nor a threat to Chinese interests would serve its long-term strategic interests in the region, even if they do not immediately lead to warmer relations with Beijing. Building international consensus for action on Myanmar, including at the Security Council, remains difficult but not impossible. While maintaining dialogue and preserving the possibility for future action is key, members should seize opportunities to raise the profile of Myanmar’s oft-forgotten plight for a global audience.

Bangkok/Brussels, 27 March 2024

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