Deliver vaccines to the junta in power since the coup but also to its enemies, the rebel ethnic factions: China is playing a subtle diplomatic double game in Burma to try to stem the coronavirus outbreak and strengthen its alliances.
Beijing has already sold or offered nearly 13 million doses to the generals who overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1, plunging the country and its healthcare system into chaos with thousands of caregivers arrested or on the run.
But China also does not hesitate to secretly supply rebel ethnic groups that populate the Sino-Burmese border, more than 2,000 kilometers long and very porous.
These factions have struggled for decades with the central power for more autonomy, part of the control of the lucrative drug trafficking and the natural resources of the country.
And some intensified the fighting against the military after the February coup, such as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
Since July, the latter has inoculated thousands of people in the territory it controls with vaccines delivered by China, told AFP its spokesperson, Colonel Naw Bu. Masks and hydroalcoholic gel were also provided by Beijing and Chinese Red Cross personnel deployed in the region, he said.
“The KIA asked for help from China, and the latter helped us (…) perhaps out of friendship,” he commented laconically.
With several thousand fighters, the KIA is one of the most active rebel armies in the country.
Since the coup, it has trained many opponents of the junta in the use of weapons who have taken refuge in its territory to carry out guerrilla attacks in the country.
The Chinese “good neighbor” has also provided or promised vaccines to rebel factions in Shan State which also operate along the border.
Beijing’s objective is twofold.
First, to prevent the epidemic from spreading in the Chinese border province of Yunnan.
Burma is experiencing an unprecedented epidemic wave with some 17,000 deaths since the beginning of July, a toll that is undoubtedly largely undervalued and which worries Beijing, a supporter of the “zero Covid” policy.
“If China wants to protect itself from the Covid (…) it must create a buffer zone”, notes Enze Han, specialist in Sino-Burmese relations at the University of Hong Kong.
The Chinese giant is also looking to play on two fronts.
On the one hand, this traditional ally of the Burmese army remains a partner of choice for the junta and refuses to condemn the putsch of February 1.
On the other hand, it strengthens the alliances it has cultivated for years with certain rebel groups to which it also supplies weapons.
These Burmese border areas are important for Beijing because “they represent the lower abdomen of China,” notes analyst David Mathieson, a specialist in Burma. Business is done in yuan and telephone calls are made using Chinese SIM cards.
Beijing’s aid to rebel areas doesn’t stop with vaccines.
In the town of Muse, on the Chinese border, where fighting between the Burmese security forces and an alliance of ethnic factions had broken out in the spring, a quarantine center of 1,000 beds has just emerged … entirely built with materials provided by Chinese authorities.
The junta has “no choice”
“China will provide as always according to the needs, the assistance and the support necessary for the Burmese people in their fight against the epidemic”, commented to AFP a spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asked on the subject. double game led by his country.
When questioned, the Burmese junta did not wish to comment.
“It is certain that she does not appreciate (…) but she has no choice”, comments Enze Han.
China remains Burma’s largest trading partner.
And building an economic corridor between the two countries, designed to link China’s vast domestic market to the Indian Ocean, could greatly boost Burmese trade, which has been in disarray since the coup.