Peace talks between Myanmar’s government and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) rebel movement in Kachin state halted March 12. The KIO has controlled most of Kachin state since the movement’s founding in 1961 and is the only remaining major ethnic group to have not reached a peace agreement with the government.
The Kachin region’s relative independence comes from its geography, culture and ethnic makeup, which are different from the rest of the country. This makes the area difficult for the central government to control.
China has taken advantage of that difference, positioning itself as mediator between the group and the government. Since Myanmar’s isolation from the West after 1962, China has been its only major ally, investor and trading partner. China’s approach to Myanmar is based on its need for energy and alternative international trade routes to the South China Sea.
As Myanmar’s value grows, Beijing is worried that any internal political shift that could affect those interests. To continue its influence, Beijing has used strong relations with the central government while maintaining a balance of power between the government and ethnic opposition groups. Opposition by ethnic groups and Myanmar’s desire to expand its trade partners beyond China and improve ties with the West has led the government to halt the construction of the Chinese-financed Myitsone dam projects in Kachin state. The seven-dam hydropower project planned for the upper Irrawaddy River in Kachin state would provide power to southern China. The Myitsone dam was criticized in 2011 when it was learned that completion of the project would require an area the size of Singapore to be flooded and displace several thousand Kachin civilians. Conflict at Myitsone thus threatens both China’s material interests and its reputation within and beyond Myanmar’s borders.
China is also concerned about oil and natural gas pipelines that begin at the Myanmar coastal port of Kyaukphyu but run through both ethnic Shan- and Kachin regions on their way to Kunming in Yunnan province. This leaves them open to sabotage from a variety of possible enemies. China will try to keep a balance of power within Myanmar to hold onto its influence over both sides in securing Beijing’s interests.