New Cold War Proxy Conflict Brewing In Myanmar

Hostilities in Myanmar are intensifying between the junta and resistance groups. The US backs the opposition NUG, while China and Russia support the military rulers. This suggests a wider geopolitical struggle brewing in the region.

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To suggest that the United States and China are waging a New Cold War proxy war in Myanmar would be a leap by any standard.

However, as hostilities between the State Administration Council (SAC) junta and an expanding array of ethnic and political resistance armies intensify, the fate of Myanmar’s increasingly brutal civil war may still be decided by the struggle between the two major global blocs.

The United States is backing the National Unity Government (NUG), which opposes coups, and the armed groups known as the People’s Defense Forces that are linked with it, which are dispersed around the nation. Conversely, China and Russia are more obviously in the junta’s camp, if not always explicitly so.

China has the greatest power stake in the course and result of the war due to its significant and strategically significant investments in Myanmar.

Beijing doesn’t want the conflict to get out of control to the point where it harms or threatens its domestic interests, even though it is playing both sides of the conflict by selling military hardware to the SAC and turning a blind eye to Chinese weapons ending up in the hands of some of the ethnic resistance armies.

For its part, the US seems to have limited its backing to “non-lethal” help to the NUG, which notably maintains an office in Washington, DC and appears to have abstained from actually arming the numerous armed factions battling the junta.

It would make sense for the US to attack China’s significant interests in Myanmar if it wanted to turn the country into a New Cold Battle proxy battle.

Notably, the many armed factions opposed to military control have avoided attacking China’s national interests thus far, the nation’s gas pipelines, which are easily attacked or disrupted.

Like China, Thailand has no interest in inciting unrest that would further extend across its borders, so if the US wanted to get more directly involved in the fighting, it would have to go through Thailand.

Due to its reliance on Myanmar’s natural gas, Thailand has an interest in avoiding upsetting the generals by giving any indication that it may be supplying guns to rebel organizations. Thus, it appears that the US has concentrated its diplomatic efforts on getting the Thais to ignore the NUG and other exile groups that run operations out of Thai territory, particularly the border town of Mae Sot.

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Protesters hold posters in support of the National Unity Government (NUG) during a demonstration against the military coup on ‘Global Myanmar Spring Revolution Day’ in Taunggyi, Shan state, on May 2, 2021. Photo: Asia Times Files / AFP / Stringer

Undoubtedly, the US might be giving the opposition greater covert support than it openly admits, possibly through Thai military personnel who are known to have ties to particular ethnic armies. If so, it hasn’t happened in a way or to the extent that may end the conflict or jeopardize China’s standing.

There are several clear and compelling reasons why China wants to control, contain, and even affect the violence in Myanmar. China can enter the Indian Ocean conveniently and directly only through Myanmar, its only immediate neighbor. This allows China to avoid the disputed South China Sea and the crowded Strait of Malacca, which the US may block in the event of a conflict.

The importation of minerals from Africa and fossil fuels from the Middle East, as well as the export of Chinese commodities to other countries, depend on this kind of relationship. For this reason, China has constructed gas and oil pipelines from the Bay of Bengal’s coast to Yunnan, a province in the south, and it also intends to build high-speed rail and roads along the same path.

Under the plan, Chinese state-owned companies are building a US$1.3 billion special economic zone (SEZ) with an oil and gas terminal as well as a US$7.3 billion deep-water port in Kyaukphyu on the coast of Rakhine State, Myanmar.

These projects are situated near the bottom of the 1,700-kilometer China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which stretches from the Indian Ocean to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, China.

Beijing will therefore take all necessary steps to safeguard its geostrategic interests, and it takes seriously any attempt by those it regards as outsiders to obstruct its long-term goals for Myanmar and the surrounding area.

Following the ascent of reformist Deng Xiaoping and the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, China’s foreign policy shifted from supporting the rebellious Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His new China-focused entirely on economic growth and the establishment of trade with the outside world, abandoning attempts to export revolution.

China finally got the opportunity it had been waiting for in 1988, following the brutal crushing of a pro-democracy uprising by the Myanmar military. China started to encourage cross-border trade while the West levied sanctions and boycotts against the junta in Yangon. In the ten years following the atrocities, China supplied tanks, heavy artillery, anti-aircraft guns, and aircraft to Myanmar for more than US$1.4 billion.

Additionally, China assisted Myanmar in modernizing its naval bases on the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal islands as well as along the coast. Some of these bases had Chinese-supplied radar systems installed, and it is conceivable that the intelligence generated by these systems was useful to China’s security agencies.

However, the military of Myanmar, which is deeply nationalistic, has never been quite at ease with its significant reliance on China for supplies and weapons. Many Myanmar army officers could not forget that many of their men had been slain by the CPB’s Chinese-supplied firearms before that insurgency’s fall in 1989. The Chinese were treating Myanmar like a client state.

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Two Myanmar fighter jets were seen firing shots during an exercise in Meiktila in 2019. Image: State Media

In addition, Russia sent rocket launchers and heavy machine guns to Myanmar. Through dealers in Ukraine, Russian-made tanks and armored personnel carriers were acquired before Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. Additionally, Russian military instructors have been observed visiting an airstrip in Myanmar, most likely to help with attack helicopter maintenance.

But this kind of training is not new; more Burmese troops and scientists—possibly 5,000 in total—than those from any other Southeast Asian nation have studied in Russia since the early 1990s.

It’s unknown how much Russia has been able to sell Myanmar weapons and parts since it invaded Ukraine, which left it in need of every piece of military hardware available.

However, an agreement of understanding to construct a small nuclear power station in Myanmar was signed in February 2023 by the Ministry of Science and Technology of the SAC and Rosatom, the state-owned nuclear enterprise of Russia.

Similar arrangements were made in 2007 when Russia committed to constructing a nuclear research reactor in Myanmar; yet, until the conclusion of this latest deal last year, not much had changed.

China is interested in Myanmar from a geostrategic standpoint, but Russia is more focused on its financial interests, even though this does not fully account for Russia’s involvement in the conflict. It’s noteworthy that although China and Russia are fighting together in the Ukraine, there isn’t any proof that they are cooperating in Myanmar.

China’s relations with the wildly unpopular SAC have been more circumspect. For example, it has not extended invitations to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of the junta, to pay prominent visits after the coup, unlike Russia.

In the immediate wake of the coup, anti-Chinese protesters staged anti-Chinese rallies outside the Chinese embassy in Yangon. The demonstrators were furious with the Chinese for calling the putsch that was destroying democracy a “cabinet reshuffle.”

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Myanmar protesters in front of the Chinese embassy in Yangon after the February 1, 2021, coup. Photo: Facebook

China has sold Myanmar arms and related materials worth at least $267 million since the coup, according to a United Nations study that was made public on May 17, 2023.

However, Chinese weaponry acquired through the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which sprang from the CPB’s ashes, is also being used to support resistance in the north.

China has successfully positioned itself to the SAC as the sole external force capable of serving as a mediator and peacemaker by playing both sides. A form of ceasefire between the SAC and certain ethnic rebel armies in the northern Shan state was mediated by China.

It is also only a matter of time until China gets involved in that fight as well, given the progress being made in Rakhine State by the Arakan Army, which has also profited from weapons provided by the UWSA.

China has consistently maintained that the battle is being waged near Kyaukphyu, giving it the right to do so. Additionally, China has the power to drive away the Nippon Foundation of Japan, which up until now has served as the primary peacemaker in the state of Rakhine.

Conversely, the Russians have taken a more direct and coarser stance. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Vasilyevich Fomin has attended military events in Naypyitaw while wearing his full colonel-general uniform. Min Aung Hlaing has been greeted with warm arms in Moscow.

A gathering of Russian and Myanmar colleagues held a party in Yangon the day before the coup in February 2021, with vodka supposedly flowing freely.

It seems that they were commemorating the grand launch of a military multimedia complex with advanced technology, in which the offspring of Min Aung Hlaing owned stock. It is also alleged that they celebrated the impending coup the next day.

In response to these events, the US expressed deep concern and released statements endorsing the fight in Myanmar “for democracy, freedom, human rights, and justice.” Additionally, Washington has placed several sanctions on SAC members’ companies.

$75 million of a US aid package goes toward refugee assistance programs in Thailand and India, while $25 million goes toward providing the NUG—which was established by the opposition following the coup in 2021—with “technical support and non-lethal assistance.”

“Governance programs, documentation of atrocities, and assistance to political prisoners, Rohingya, and deserters from the junta’s military” have been given smaller budgets.

Concurrently, the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai is undergoing the construction of a vast new US consulate general. A vibrant online brochure describes the initiative as “a tangible symbol of our sustained dedication to the people of northern Thailand and the future of our collaboration,” adding that the diplomatic mission is “dedicated to serving the local American community or those wishing to travel to the United States.”

Nevertheless, there is little question that it is a specific component of a larger initiative to strengthen US intelligence capabilities in the area.

The fact that Chiang Mai has been selected as a tactical listening station is not by accident.

In 1950, the United States established its first diplomatic office in Chiang Mai, primarily serving as an intelligence hub coordinating assistance for Kuomintang, or nationalist Chinese, forces who had fled into Shan state in eastern Myanmar following their defeat in the Chinese Civil War.

Afterward, during the Indochina Wars, the US consulate in Chiang Mai was in charge of obtaining both signals and people information in the area. Local operatives were dispatched across the border, and the Americans and Thais jointly ran a vast network of listening sites throughout northern Thailand.

The largest of these facilities was situated close to Udon Thani in northern Thailand. It was made up of a massive, circular array of Wullenweber antennas, which was given the nickname “Elephant Cage” because of its resemblance to an elephant kraal. This installation monitored Chinese military operations in the area and also received radio traffic from Laos, southern China, and North Vietnam.

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Artist’s concept of new US consulate in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Image: US State Department Brochure

The US used it as a military intelligence terminal to communicate with its many intelligence locations in Southeast and East Asia, which was its primary function. A similar installation was built south of Chiang Mai, close to Lampang, with the express intent of keeping an eye on radio traffic in Yunnan and northern Myanmar.

Intercepted messages were translated into English by American Chinese language experts, and Burmese-speaking Shans translated Burmese texts into Thai and English. The CPB, which was funded by China, was a key target at the time. The “Elephant Cages” lost their usefulness over time, and more complex and modern methods exist now for tracking movements on the ground and in cyberspace.

Even if the current Cold War may not be as intense as the last one, it is obvious that the United States and its allies are fortifying themselves against China throughout Asia. This is evident in the AUKUS, Quad, and new Squad multilateral security agreements, which are designed to restrain Beijing’s ascent.

However, this broader China, and by bloc association, Russia containment policy also includes the building of a massive new US consulate general in Chiang Mai and financial support for the pro-democracy forces within Myanmar.

Before we witness a resurgence of the open Cold War proxy conflicts of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, there is still a long way to go. However, war-torn Myanmar can once more find itself at the center of a fresh geopolitical maelstrom that it has little to no influence over.

Recently, GreatGameIndia reported that the improving ties between Russia and the Taliban have presented significant opportunities for India to influence Afghanistan’s economic development, counter China’s regional influence, and bolster its strategic position through collaborative infrastructure projects.

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