In late March the US naval ship Fall River—a Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport vessel—arrived at Yangon’s Thilawa Port as part of a disaster preparedness training exercise. The port call, the first by a US navy vessel in Myanmar since World War II, was referred to by American officials as a “goodwill visit.”
To analysts, however, it was the latest sign that the two countries’ militaries are taking tentative first steps towards building strategic ties after decades of US sanctions-imposed separation.
The symbolic docking will not have gone unnoticed in neighboring China. For decades, China aimed to keep Western influence at bay by discouraging such exchanges and providing economic and financial aid to the country’s internationally isolated ruling generals.
Those still strong economic ties were on display during Myanmar President Htin Kyaw’s recently concluded six-day visit to Beijing. The visit coincided with the official opening of a US$1.5 billion oil pipeline that runs through Myanmar to south-western China that will significantly enhance the latter’s energy security.
Such crucial commercial interests explain why China frequently shields Myanmar from international condemnation, including at the United Nations.
That was apparent in March, when the UN’s Human Rights Council agreed to dispatch an international fact-finding mission to Myanmar to investigate mounting allegations of military-perpetuated human rights abuses.
China presented the strongest opposition to the initiative, citing the need to respect Myanmar’s sovereignty. The resolution was sponsored by the European Union and strongly backed by the US.
De facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and long- time darling of the West, called personally on certain European envoys to drop the investigation, to no avail, according to diplomats familiar with the situation.
Despite China’s stated policy of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs, Myanmar is an exception. That’s seen most clearly in Beijing’s backing of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Myanmar’s largest and most heavily armed ethnic armed organization (EAO).
The UWSA recently staged a meeting of other ethnic armed groups, now known as the Panghsang summit, that called for a new peace process separate from Suu Kyi’s and the military’s call for a National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) to resolve the country’s many unresolved armed conflicts.
The China-backed and armed UWSA, long notorious for its drug trafficking activities, is now bidding to assume a political leadership role atop various smaller armed groups fighting for autonomy and federalism. That means China is poised, by proxy, to play a key future role in the country’s fractious peace politics.