The ongoing conflict in northern Myanmar, centered around the Kokang region along the China-Myanmar border, has escalated into a large-scale civil war. The situation is causing concern for all parties involved, as it could lead to geopolitical conflicts and impact on China’s relations.
The historical roots of the conflict between the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Myanmar government are deep, with the MNDAA forming a military alliance with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Arakan Army, and Kachin Independence Army.
The conflict in northern Myanmar reflects the tension between local ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar government, which serves as a window into internal ethnic conflicts within the country. The contradiction between modern state-building and the ongoing struggle for ethnic identity is the root cause of the conflict. Since gaining independence from British colonial rule in 1948, ethnic armed conflicts have persisted for over 70 years without cessation. The construction of national identity has been a primary task of any Myanmar government for ethnic reconciliation.
In 2010, Myanmar’s democratic transition began with its election. President Thein Sein initiated a national peace process, leading to a nationwide ceasefire agreement. However, only eight ethnic armed groups signed. During Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration, efforts continued to advance the agreement, but conflicts persisted.
The 2021 military coup in Myanmar has complicated the issue of ethnic reconciliation, with peace talks stalled and new conflicts emerging within the Bamar community. This shift from an ethnic matter to a conflict concerning democratization has led to a complex understanding of Myanmar’s society regarding ethnic armed groups and conflicts.
The mindset of Myanmar society towards ethnic conflicts is intricate, with a desire for equal rights for ethnic groups like the Kachin and Kokang, but also recognizing the significant implications for national social stability and economic development. This has led to opposition against armed conflicts. Following the coup, mainstream society acknowledged ethnic armed groups’ legitimacy, leading to a shift in support for wars between them and the Tatmadaw, including Operation 1027 in Kokang.
The conflict in northern Myanmar is expected to lead to the disintegration of the country and the intensification of counterattacks by the Tatmadaw. President Myint Swe has emphasized the need for serious treatment of the actions in Kokang, as it could potentially lead to the disintegration of the country. The ultimate outcome of the conflict in northern Myanmar is difficult to predict due to various factors influencing the course of the war. However, a rough analysis and prediction can be made based on power dynamics among the conflicting parties and their motives behind their actions.
If the conflict escalates, the participation of other ethnic armed groups, their manner of involvement, and extent of their participation are unknown variables. Additionally, the People’s Defense Force within the Bamar community introduces uncertainties regarding the level of impact and response.
The situation in northern Myanmar is uncertain, with the Tatmadaw potentially facing a potential recapture of the Kokang region by MNDAA. If MNDAA expands the conflict, the Myanmar junta government may intensify its military efforts, potentially leading to a different outcome.
Myanmar’s economic and financial turmoil following the 2021 coup has led to a debate on whether the country is on the verge of becoming a failed state. However, scholars suggest that Myanmar may not become a failed state but is possibly heading towards a state of ‘limited statehood’. The turmoil in Myanmar will significantly impact the situation along the China-Myanmar border and the relations between the two nations.
China’s official stance on the conflict in northern Myanmar is ‘non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries’ and will not directly intervene. Rumors circulating on Chinese cyberspace suggest that China provided substantial support to the MNDAA, but these rumors are largely confirmed as false.
China and Myanmar are working together to combat cyber fraud in northern Myanmar. After a wanted notice for Mye Shout Hkyann family members, Myanmar has extradited core members to China, aligning with China’s national interests and promoting stability along the border.
China has been closely monitoring the situation in northern Myanmar and actively encouraging peace talks to cease hostilities. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command has organized practical exercises along the China-Myanmar border starting from November 25 to test and enhance border control capabilities. Myanmar has received notification about these exercises and stated that the purpose is to maintain “stability and peace” in the border areas, emphasizing that it does not violate China’s principle of non-interference in Myanmar’s internal affairs.
The impacts on China-Myanmar cooperation are primarily manifested in three aspects: normal trade and the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). The ongoing conflict has significantly affected trade, rendering the major China-Myanmar trade route, the Mandalay-Lashio-Muse-Jiegao-Ruili corridor, unable to operate normally. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects have slowed down under the military government, and with the intensification of the conflict in northern Myanmar, BRI projects may face delays or halt.
Lastly, security threats to the China-Myanmar oil and gas pipelines are a key outcome of China-Myanmar cooperation. While the pipelines have not faced realistic threats from government forces or non-state armed groups, if the conflict escalates, potential threats to the pipelines cannot be ignored by China.