China scrambles to navigate Myanmar’s growing turbulence

The escalating situation in Myanmar's Rakhine State has heightened Beijing's concerns, particularly regarding the Arakan Army's territorial gains near strategic Chinese investments like the Kyaukphyu port and pipelines.

The nervousness in Beijing over the escalating situation in Myanmar, particularly in Rakhine State, is increasingly palpable. The Chinese leadership is closely monitoring developments as the Arakan Army (AA) continues to expand its territorial control, particularly along the border with Bangladesh. The recent series of attacks near Maungdaw township and the strategic city of Sittwe have underscored the AA’s growing military capabilities and its strategic ambitions in the region.

Against this backdrop, the visit of the Chinese envoy, ostensibly focused on enhancing Myanmar-China trade and bilateral relations, hints at deeper concerns. Observers view this diplomatic move as unusual, reflecting China’s apprehensions about potential threats to its strategic investments, including the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port and associated pipelines amid ongoing conflict near these projects.

The Kyaukphyu deep-sea port and oil and gas pipelines, are critical components of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Located in Rakhine State, these infrastructures are not only pivotal for China’s energy security but also serve as key conduits for its trade routes, linking the Indian Ocean to southwestern China.

Recent clashes in Kyaukphyu between the junta and AA forces near Chinese projects have heightened these concerns. The AA’s control over northern Rakhine State and its strategic ambitions towards towns like Maungdaw, Thandwe, and Kyaukphyu are viewed as direct challenges to stability in a region crucial for Chinese interests.

Despite efforts by Myanmar’s military junta to downplay concerns, social media and local media outlets have highlighted anxieties surrounding the security of Chinese investments. Official statements from the junta emphasize cooperation with China on regional and international platforms, focusing on ASEAN and the United Nations, while downplaying internal security challenges.

An agreement was signed between the regime and Chinese ambassador Chen Hai on June 14 for the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) Special Fund 2024. This LMC agreement includes funding for 12 projects that are worth $3.6 million USD. According to Chinese media reports China’s Ambassador to Burma Chen Hai signed these agreements which was launched in 2016 with $300 million USD.

Myanmar’s Deputy Prime Minister and Union Minister for Foreign Affairs U Than Swe is said to have underscored the importance of Myanmar and China’s friendly neighbourly and bilateral relations have become increasingly close over the past 74 years, despite current challenges.

Speculation within the international community suggests discussions between China and Myanmar may also encompass the volatile situations in northern Shan State, where recent escalations between the junta and rebel coalition the Three Brotherhood Alliance have strained Chinese-brokered ceasefires.

Military tensions between the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the military junta have escalated recently despite the ceasefire under the Haigeng Agreement. Rebel groups have accused the Burmese junta of frequently violating these commitments and engaged in provocative actions. On May 18 in Nawnghkio (Naungcho), one TNLA member was killed, and four others injured due to shelling by the junta. Civilian casualties from junta airstrikes and shelling have also been reported in recent days.

Meanwhile, in Rakhine State, the AA’s continued advances and military engagements have disrupted local stability, prompting concerns over civilian safety and humanitarian impacts. Recent airstrikes and clashes in Taungup Township highlight the escalating violence and its toll on local communities.

The AA has also sent out warning to residents of Maungdaw township to evacuate immediately as it plans to attack the remaining military outposts there. The military is said to be of using residents as human shields against the AA as the rebel outfit closes in on Burmese military bases from all sides.

Further, three civilians were killed and at least five were injured in an airstrike on Kanseik village of Taungup Township on June 18. “There were no clashes in the village but two jet fighters dropped bombs. Two girls and an elder were killed,” said a Taungup resident. Fighting began June 15 when the AA launched an attack on military battalions in Taungup.

According to a DVB report in nearby Chin State fighting between two factions of the Chin resistance, the Chin National Front (CNF) and the Chin Brotherhood, occurred in Matupi Township on June 18. A spokesperson from the Chinland Defense Force (CDF) Matupi said that the CNF attacked the Chin Brotherhood while attempting to seize the military’s Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) 140.

Both Chin factions claimed that they will continue the fight against the military in Matupi despite the lack of progress on negotiations to unite their efforts. The Chin Brotherhood seized LIB 304 on Monday. Chin resistance forces now have nine towns under their control across Chinland.

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