China has long played a delicate game in Myanmar’s vast eastern region, secretly arming a rebel ethnic group known as the United Wa State Army. But according to a report by Jane’s Information Group, the stakes just got higher: In February and March, the UWSA took delivery of Chinese military helicopters armed with air-to-air missiles for the first time.
Jane’s reports that between two and five Mil Mi-17 ‘Hip’ helicopters were flown across the Mekong River from Laos into Myanmar’s Shan State, where the USWA has between 20,000 and 30,000 fighters.
Why is China supplying rebels with gunships while simultaneously courting the resource-rich Myanmar government? In a nutshell, it wants to keep the peace along its long border, and discourage the Myanmar army from attacking the Shan and disturbing the status quo.
Myanmar has 10 armed ethnic groups, and China’s nightmare is that conflict could spill over across its borders. Fierce fighting between the Kachin Independence Army and the Myanmar army has already crossed into China and threatened a giant pipeline project between the two nations. China is keen to stop a similar situation develop in Shan State.
Jane’s analyst Anthony Davis told Voice of America that “the Chinese are not stoking fires in northern Burma. By reinforcing the Wa they are reinforcing a military deterrent. If you like, they are reinforcing peace and stability which has existed for the last 20 years in a manner that’s been favourable to China.”
China’s balancing act is made even more complicated by the titanic shifts taking place in Myanmar. The country has emerged from a long period of isolation and engaged with the United States and other western nations, pulling away from the Chinese orbit.
As Prashanth Parameswaran of China Brief wrote in an incisive analysis last week:
Beijing’s more aggressive role with respect to sensitive issues like ethnic rebel groups in Burma will likely buy it less, not more influence in [Myanmar’s capital] Naypyidaw as China is seen as an increasingly untrustworthy partner interfering in internal affairs.
No one ever said playing both sides against the middle was easy.