New Cold War proxy conflict brewing in Myanmar – Asia Times

New Cold War proxy conflict brewing in Myanmar - Asia Times

It would be ridiculous to suggest that the US is currently fighting China and Russia in Myanmar as part of a New Cold War substitute war.

But as the conflict between the State Administration Council ( SAC ) junta and a proliferating array of ethnic and political resistance armies escalates, the rivalry between the world’s two big blocs could yet determine the outcome of Myanmar’s increasingly vicious civil war.

On the one hand, the US is backing the anti-coup National Unity Government ( NUG) and, by extension, its allied People’s Defense Forces armed groups dispersed throughout the nation. On the other, China and Russia are more plainly, although not always openly, in the regime’s station.

With its significant and strategically significant opportunities in Myanmar, China has the greatest tremendous power interest in the course of the conflict and its results. &nbsp,

Beijing clearly does n’t want the conflict to spiral out of control to the extent that it hurts or threatens its in-country interests, despite Beijing&nbsp, —&nbsp, converting to the&nbsp, and turning a blind eye to Chinese weaponry ending up in some of the ethnic resistance armies.

The&nbsp, US, for its part, &nbsp, appears to have &nbsp, stopped from&nbsp, immediately providing&nbsp, the several armed groups fighting the junta&nbsp, with weapons and has confined its support to “non- life-threatening” aid to the NUG, which somewhat maintains an office in Washington DC.

Targeting China’s big-ticket passions in the country would be a rational strategy if the US wanted to turn the Myanmar conflict into a New Cold War vpn theater.

Significantly, the many military groups opposed to military law have so far refrained from targeting China’s hobbies in the country, including the fuel pipelines that run the length of the country and therefore may be easy to harm or destroy.

Thailand, which like China, has no intention of inciting unrest that may extend beyond its edges in a greater way, would be the best place for the US to be more explicitly involved in combat.

Thailand also relies on Myanmar’s natural oil and so has an opportunity not to stir the generals through any glimpse it may be funneling hands to rebel groups. The US has thus sounded its diplomatic efforts on pressing the Thais to turn their backs on the NUG and other exiled forces operating on Thai soil, including in Mae Sot, a border town.

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: Stringer / AFP / Asia Times Files

To be sure, the US may still be providing more clandestine aid to the resistance than it publicly acknowledges, including potentially through elements in the Thai military known to be sympathetic with certain ethnic armies. If so, the degree or manner that could end the war or put a strain on China’s position has not been done.

China’s reasons for aspiring to influence, contain and even control Myanmar’s conflict are obvious and many. By bypassing the tense South China Sea and the congested Strait of Malacca, which the US might block in a conflict scenario, Myanmar is the only immediate neighbor that allows China to access the Indian Ocean in a convenient, direct manner.

Such a connection is vital for the export of Chinese goods to the outside world as well as the importation of fossil fuel from the Middle East and minerals from Africa. China has plans to construct highways and a high-speed rail along the same route as it has built oil and gas pipelines from the shores of the Bay of Bengal to its southern province of Yunnan.

As part of the plan, Chinese state- owned entities are developing a US$ 7.3 billion deep- water port at Kyaukphyu on the coast of Myanmar’s Rakhine State and a US$ 1.3 billion special economic zone ( SEZ ), which includes an oil and gas terminal.

The 1, 700-kilometer China- Myanmar Economic Corridor ( CMEC ), which connects Kunming in China’s Yunnan province to the Indian Ocean, is located at the lower end of the project.

As such, Beijing will do everything in its power to protect its geostrategic interests— and it does not take lightly any attempt by what it considers outsiders to interfere with its long- term plans for Myanmar and the region.

After supporting the insurgent Communist Party of Burma ( CPB) in the late 1960s and early 1970s, China’s foreign policy changed following Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 and Deng Xiaoping’s ascent. His new China no longer attempted to export revolution, now it was all about economic development and the establishment of trade with the outside world.

China received the opening it needed from the Myanmar military’s brutal suppression of a pro-democracy uprising in 1988. While the West imposed sanctions and boycotts against the junta in Yangon, China began to promote cross- border trade — and in the decade after the massacres, China sold more than US$ 1.4 billion worth of aircraft, naval vessels, heavy artillery, anti- aircraft guns, and tanks to Myanmar.

Myanmar’s naval bases along the coast and on the islands in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea were also improved by China. Chinese- supplied radar systems were installed in some of these bases, and it is reasonable to assume that China’s security services benefited from the resulting intelligence.

However, the fiercely nationalistic Myanmar military was never entirely at ease with how dependent it was on China for supplies and weapons. The Chinese were treating Myanmar as a client state and many Myanmar army officers could not forget that thousands of their soldiers had been killed by the CPB’s Chinese- supplied guns before that insurgency collapse in 1989.

The Myanmar military began establishing defense ties with Russia in order to diversify its sources of funding. Myanmar became a lucrative market for the Russian war industry. Russia purchased Russian-made MiG-29s jet fighters and Mi-35 Hind helicopter gunships, both of which are currently being used all over the nation to combat the resistance.

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

Russia also shipped heavy machine guns and rocket launchers to Myanmar and before the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian- made tanks and armored personnel carriers were obtained through dealers in Ukraine. Additionally, Russian military instructors have been spotted at a Myanmar airfield, presumably to help with the maintenance of the attack helicopters.

Such training is not new, however, probably as many as 5, 000 Myanmar soldiers and scientists have studied in Russia since the early 1990s, more than from any other Southeast Asian country.

Russia’s ability to continue selling parts and weapons to Myanmar is unclear, given how much of the military hardware it currently has is needed following its invasion of Ukraine.

But in February 2023, Russia’s state- owned nuclear corporation Rosatom and the SAC’s Ministry of Science and Technology signed a memorandum of understanding to build a small nuclear power plant in Myanmar.

A similar agreement, in which Russia agreed to construct a nuclear research facility in Myanmar, was signed in 2007, but nothing significant happened prior to the signing of this new agreement, which was completed last year.

While China has geostrategic interests in Myanmar, Russia is more concerned about making money, though Russia’s involvement in the war cannot be explained solely in the context of business deals. There is little evidence that China and Russia are acting in tandem in Myanmar despite the fact that they are at odds with one another in the Ukraine conflict.

The erstwhile Soviet Union was once a major power in Asia and also a bitter enemy of not only the United States but also China, which saw the leaders in Moscow as “revisionists” and” traitors” to the communist cause.

After the Vietnamese intervened in 1978-1979, pro-Moscow regimes were in power in Vietnam, Laos, and also Cambodia. The Soviet Union had a close relationship with India.

All of that disappeared after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the beginning of Boris Yeltsin’s chaotic rule in Russia, which then became a separate country.

The Chinese became allies in common cause against the United States and its power in the Indo-Pacific region after his successor Vladimir Putin’s firm hand was required to restore some of the former glory.

Russian influence over its old allies has vanished, but Myanmar has become a willing new partner in Moscow’s plans for playing a greater role in regional affairs. &nbsp,

And Russia does not seem to care how and against whom the SAC is using its supplied weaponry. The Myanmar Army has had to rely increasingly on Russian-provided air force, including helicopter gunships, to strafe opposition-held towns and villages across the nation, likely causing the deaths of thousands of civilians.

China has been more cautious in its dealings with the hugely unpopular SAC. For instance, it has not, like Russia, invited senior junta official Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to make frequent appearances since the coup.

Anti- Chinese demonstrations were held outside the Chinese embassy in Yangon in the coup’s immediate aftermath, where angry protesters railed against the Chinese for describing the democracy- suspending putsch as a mere” cabinet reshuffle”.

Following the coup on February 1, 2021, protesters from Myanmar demonstrate in front of the Chinese embassy in Yangon. Photo: Facebook

Since the coup, China has sold at least$ 267 million worth of weapons and related items to Myanmar, according to a UN report released on May 17, 2023.

But the resistance in the north is also being equipped with Chinese weapons obtained through the United Wa State Army ( UWSA ), which grew out of the ashes of the CPB.

China has been able to convince the SAC that it is the only outside power capable of brokering peace and serving both sides by acting as a mediator. China helped to negotiate a truce of sorts between some ethnic resistance armies in northern Shan state and the SAC.

It is only a matter of time before China intervenes in that conflict as well as the Arakan Army, which has also benefited from the UWSA’s arms supply, making significant headway in Rakhine State.

China has always claimed that it has the right to do so because the war is being fought dangerously close to Kyaukphyu. Additionally, China has the power to compel Japan’s Nippon Foundation, which has been Rakhine state’s main peacemaker, to leave the area.

The Russians, on the other hand, have been blunter and cruder in their approach. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Vasilyevich Fomin, dressed in his full colonel-general uniform, has attended military ceremonies in Naypyitaw and Min Aung Hlaing has been welcomed with open arms in Moscow.

On the day before the February 2021 coup, a group of Russians and Myanmar colleagues had a party in Yangon, where the vodka reportedly flowed freely.

They reportedly had a financial interest in the opening of a military high-tech multimedia complex in which the children of Min Aung Hlaing were present. They also reportedly toasted the coup that was going to be launched the following day.

The United States has responded to these developments with the utmost concern and issued statements supporting the struggle” for democracy, freedom, human rights, and justice” &nbsp, in Myanmar. &nbsp, Washington has also imposed various sanctions on SAC members and their business interests.

A US aid package provides$ 25 million for “technical support and non-lethal assistance” to the NUG, which was established by the resistance after the 2021 coup, and$ 75 million for refugee assistance programs in Thailand and India.

Smaller amounts have been earmarked for “governance programs, documentation of atrocities, and assistance to political prisoners, Rohingya and deserters from the junta’s military”.

At the same time, a massive, new US consulate general is under construction in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. The project is described in a vibrant online brochure as” a concrete sign of our long-term commitment to the people of northern Thailand and the future of our partnership,” and it goes on to say that the diplomatic mission is “dedicated to serving the local American community or those wishing to travel to the United States.”

Be that as it may, few doubt that it is more specifically part of a wider program to reinforce US intelligence capabilities in the region.

It is no coincidence that Chiang Mai was chosen for a strategic listening position.

The Americans first set up a diplomatic mission in Chiang Mai in 1950 which acted mainly as an intelligence station that coordinated support for nationalist Chinese, Kuomintang, forces that had retreated into Shan state in eastern Myanmar after their defeat in the Chinese Civil War.

Later, during the Indochina wars, the US consulate in Chiang Mai oversaw the gathering of human and signal intelligence in the area. Local agents were sent across the border and the Americans together with the Thais maintained an extensive network of listening posts in northern Thailand.

The main facility, which was located close to Udon Thani in northeastern Thailand, was made up of a sizable number of Wullenweber antennas, which were frequently referred to as the” Elephant Cage” because of how similar its shape was to an elephant kraal. That facility picked up radio traffic from Laos, southern China and North Vietnam while also monitoring Chinese military movements in the region.

Concept of the new US consulate in Chiang Mai, Thailand, by the artist. Image: US State Department Brochure

It also served as a military intelligence hub for communications between the US and its various Southeast Asian intelligence bases. A similar facility was established near Lampang south of Chiang Mai, for the specific purpose of monitoring radio traffic in northern Myanmar and Yunnan.

Burmese-speaking Shans translated messages into Burmese into Thai and English, while American Chinese language experts translated intercepted messages into English. A major target at that time was the China- supported CPB. The” Elephant Cages” have since become outdated, and today there are more advanced and sophisticated methods for tracking movements both online and on the ground.

The New Cold War may not yet be as hot as the previous one was, but it is clear that the Americans and their allies are building a bulwark against China across Asia, seen overtly in the AUKUS, Quad and new Squad multilateral security arrangements geared to contain Beijing’s rise.

However, this larger China, and by bloc association, the construction of a massive new US consulate general in Chiang Mai and the funding for the pro-democracy forces inside Myanmar are also included in this larger China.

There is still a long way to go before we see the return to the open Cold War proxy confrontations of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. However, Myanmar, which is rife with conflict, may once more find itself caught up in a new geopolitical storm that it will have little or no control over.

Bertil Lintner is a Thailand- based journalist and author who has written over 20 books on Myanmar, organized crime and regional security&nbsp, issues.

From Bangkok, Shawn W. Crispin provided editing, fact-checking, and reporting.