China brokers ceasefire between Myanmar military and rebel alliance
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Beijing has brokered a “formal ceasefire” between Myanmar’s military and a rebel guerrilla alliance in the south-east Asian country, as the civil war near China’s southern border tests its ability to mediate in foreign conflicts.
Beijing’s foreign ministry said representatives from the Myanmar military, which took power in a coup in February 2021, and from the rebel alliance agreed to “an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of military personnel” at talks in China’s south-western city of Kunming.
“They committed to not harming the safety of Chinese border residents and personnel involved in projects in Myanmar,” the Chinese foreign ministry said on Friday. News agencies quoted the Myanmar military government as confirming it had agreed a “temporary ceasefire”.
Beijing has refrained from openly criticising the Myanmar military, which ousted the country’s democratically elected civilian government and jailed its leader Aung San Suu Kyi on corruption charges that human rights groups say are a farce.
But Myanmar’s military regime, the State Administration Council, has been under pressure from attacks from the “Three Brotherhood Alliance” of ethnic rebel groups in northern Myanmar’s lawless Shan state in recent months. The guerrillas claim they have taken over dozens of towns, including border crossings crucial for trade with China.
Beijing also claims the conflict is spilling over to its territory, with the foreign ministry reporting that a shell landed on the Chinese side of the border on January 4, “causing injuries”. China’s state-controlled media has begun portraying the country as a base for criminals involved in telephone scam centres and drug and human trafficking.
Analysts said the reports reflect Beijing’s increasing frustration with the regime’s failure to shut down fraudsters operating in Shan state.
“China’s interest is to see a stable border and that’s always been the case,” said Enze Han, an associate professor at Hong Kong university and an author of The Ripple Effect: China’s Complex Presence in south-east Asia.
“China doesn’t really care who is in the government in Myanmar — they want to see a functional government that can work with China,” he said.
As it steps up geopolitical rivalry with the US, China is seeking to become a bigger actor in international talks, brokering a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran last year.
The southern border area with Myanmar also has a special place in Chinese diplomacy. The foreign ministry’s recent crop of hard-talking ambassadors were dubbed “wolf warriors” after the title of a film portraying special forces operatives battling druglords and foreign mercenaries in the region.
But Beijing’s efforts to portray itself as neutral in the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas wars have been criticised in the west as unconvincing and its calls for peace in both conflicts have produced few visible results.
“China’s diplomatic clout is extremely limited,” said Alan Chong, senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
The test for China in Myanmar will be whether the ceasefire holds. Earlier ceasefire agreements have rapidly collapsed, including a temporary deal last month.
HKU’s Han said a central question would be whether the rebel groups were able to hold on to more territory within Shan state.
These groups were potentially more interested in territorial gains and autonomy than revolution and democracy, analysts said.
This differentiated them from the country’s shadow administration, the National Unity Government, which was set up by elected officials deposed by the coup, and has its own loose network of fighters, the People’s Defence Force.
“These three ethnic armed groups, their primary goal is to gain territorial concessions so they can build up their autonomy,” Han said. “Whether this ceasefire will stick, I don’t know, it’s too early to tell.”
Additional reporting by Anantha Lakshmi in Hong Kong