As a newly-minted world power China’s actions in the past several years have left its neighbors anxious to deal with an implacable giant. But one Southeast Asian country may be on the verge of a real live shooting war with the People’s Republic. Myanmar, which used to call itself Burma, has spent decades battling ethnic armed groups who oppose its military-run government. Even with a democratic revival in 2010 that established civilian leadership over the country chances at a lasting peace are bedeviled by lingering rivalries.
Most troubling is the war between the national armed forces, the Tatmadaw, and the United Wa State Army (UWSA). From 2014 onward the rebel group who control a small mountainous enclave on the edge of Shan State, located just west of Yunnan, have shunned negotiations and fought the government. The skirmishing continued throughout 2016. With an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 fighters the UWSA are recognized as Myanmar’s largest opposition group.
What makes the struggle against the UWSA disconcerting for the authorities in Naypyidaw is China’s role in equipping the rebels. The evidence isn’t difficult to find. Correspondents for Reuters who visited the Wa enclave in late 2016 observed the widespread use of Chinese money and products while local officials admitted to economic reliance on a neighbor who’s also a prolific arms dealer. Photos of the UWSA show fighters carrying Type 81 rifles and Type 69 rocket launchers. In recent years wheeled tank destroyers, 122mm towed howitzers, and even a small fleet of helicopters were added to their arsenal.
Most damning of all, in 2015 the PLA and PLAAF mobilized in Yunnan province in what looked like preparations for an offensive. The reason? A jet from Myanmar had mistakenly bombed Chinese territory. Like a terrible punchline, the bomber in question was a Chinese-made Q-5 sold to Myanmar three decades ago.
For China to be fomenting unrest in Myanmar is quite the odd stratagem. Since the late 1980s Myanmar was a recipient of aid and diplomatic support from its giant neighbor, whose citizens were allowed to do business in Southeast Asia’s largest country. But Myanmar and China aren’t joined at the hip. When the supremacist junta called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) imposed itself on Burma in 1989 their two greatest policy thrusts was to improve ties with Beijing and rename their country Myanmar.
This launched a new era of foreign investment and generous arms deals that enhanced the Tatmadaw’s firepower. It also had a positive effect on the bothersome Chinese-backed Communist Party of Burma (CPB), which fractured. Its largest segment became the UWSA who rule their own “Self-Administered Region” near China and a “southern base” straddling the Thai border–what used to be Burma’s slice of the fabled Golden Triangle. The export of jade and heroin from their ungoverned territory have been linked to the UWSA’s commanders.
The prevailing assumption explaining Chinese support for the Wa is to hedge any political risks that threaten its investments in Myanmar. These span trade, mining ventures, oil and gas exploration, and hydro-power projects. With several countries trying to improve ties with Myanmar–Japan and the US among them–the UWSA are the perfect leverage against a pseudo-ally that can’t be trusted. At the very least, the Wa are the ultimate security buffer in an embattled part of Myanmar. In the worst case scenario the Wa could serve as the PLA-lite.