With global attention focused on the crisis in eastern Europe, China has surreptitiously stepped up its engagement with Myanmar’s junta and has also got Pakistan involved as its proxy to supply arms and munitions to the southeast Asian nation.
A senior delegation from the Myanmar Military Procurement Authority is slated to visit Pakistan soon for pre-shipment procurement of weapons. According to Indian intelligence agencies, Myanmar’s military is planning to purchase a squadron of Chinese-upgraded JF-17 Block III fighter jets from Pakistan.
Myanmar is also slated to purchase air-to-surface missiles from Pakistan. The JF-17 Block III, a fourth-generation near-stealth jet fighter developed mostly by China’s Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (a subsidiary of the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China) with minimal contribution by Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, has just been inducted into the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and was reportedly on display at the Pakistan Day military parade on Wednesday (March 23).
China will not sell any military hardware to Myanmar because it doesn’t want to be seen as supporting the military junta which seized power in the southeast Asian nation in February last year. Beijing is wary of its global image being adversely affected if it is seen as selling military hardware to the junta, which is sure to use the arms against pro-democracy resistance and ethnic rebels who are supporting the resistance.
Beijing is, thus, using its proxy state--Pakistan--as a conduit to sell arms to Myanmar. A high-level military delegation from Pakistan visited Myanmar and met the country’s defence minister at Naypyitaw (Myanmar’s administrative capital) last September. The two sides discussed and finalised a deal for the sale of the upgraded JF-17 fighter jets and air-to-surface missiles.
Pakistan has been a strong critic of Myanmar for what it alleges is a state-sponsored pogrom against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Myanmar has, many times in the past, accused Pakistan of arming and training the Islamist radicals among the Rohingyas who have their own terror outfit--the (ARSA).
But the two countries have come together at the behest of Beijing, which is learnt to be brokering the arms deal between Islamabad and Naypyitaw. The September visit of the Pakistani military delegation to Myanmar had not been announced by both sides.
Myanmar has been importing Chinese armaments; it was the first country in 2015 to purchase JF-17 Thunder multi-role and lightweight combat jet fighters. These combat aircraft have air-to-ground attack capabilities and are equipped to carry precision-guided munitions as well as ‘dumb’ bombs. These aircraft are now being used to attack civilian targets and pro-democracy resistance fighters (read to know more).
The JF-17 Block III combat aircraft that Myanmar now proposes to purchase also has ground attack capabilities. The air-to-surface missiles that the Myanmar junta wants to purchase from Pakistan can be loaded on the JF-17 Block III aircraft and many fear that these fighters are being purchased by the Myanmar junta to bolster its attacks on ethnic rebels and the pro-democracy resistance.
Apart from the combat aircraft and air-to-surface missiles, Myanmar also proposes to purchase heavy machine guns, 60 and 81 mm mortars and M-79 grenade launchers from Pakistan. These, say experts, will be used against the ethnic rebels and pro-democracy resistance fighters who have been engaged in battles with the ‘Tatmadaw’ (as Myanmar’s military is called) in various parts of the country.
Another reason why China is using Pakistan as a conduit to export military hardware to Myanmar is the surge of anti-China feelings in Myanmar. The Myanmarese view China as a supporter of the military junta in their country and there have been many attacks on Chinese properties and investments in Myanmar since the coup last year.
Security analysts fear that Pakistan will be keen to go much beyond supplying the military hardware to Myanmar. “The Pakistani military, especially the ISI, is looking at using some facilities like ports being built by China in Myanmar to station anti-India elements, including the Islamist terror groups it hosts in its own soil. There are credible reports that the Pakistani generals have asked the Myanmar junta for access to such facilities and the latter are inclined to oblige,” said Major General (retired) Satish Kumar who is an expert on Southeast Asia.
Pakistan’s point person in Myanmar is Aye Ne Win, grandson of the country’s former military strongman and dictator General Ne Win. Aye Ne Win is close to the top brass at Rawalpindi (the Pakistan Army headquarters) and is said to be in close touch with the Pakistani embassy in Myanmar.
China itself has covertly stepped up its engagement with the Tatmadaw after the February 1, 2021 military coup in Myanmar that pushed the southeast Asian country into international isolation. While falsely professing support to international calls for a return to democracy, Beijing has armed the junta and also some of the ethnic rebel groups it has long supported, drawing both further into a deathly hug.
Earlier this month, China surreptitiously exported small arms and munitions, and CH-3 drones, to the Tatmadaw. These have since been used against the junta’s opponents who seem to be steadily gaining in strength. Beijing has also developed very strong ties in recent months with the Tatmadaw-backed Union Solidarity & Development Party (USDP), which fared miserably in the parliamentary polls held in Myanmar in early 2021.
Top 50 leaders of the USDP are currently in Kunming in western China undergoing a six-month course in Mandarin. Beijing reckons that if the Tatmadaw bows to international pressure some time in the future and elections are held in that country, the polls will be rigged and the USDP will come to power. And Beijing’s influence and hold over Myanmar will, thus, continue.
On the infrastructure front, China is forging full steam ahead. Work on the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) that will connect China’s southern Yunnan province with Yangon and Mandalay in Myanmar has picked up momentum. Construction of the Yangon-Sittwe road link is continuing at a frenetic pace. This road will be an extension of the CMEC and will provide a fast overland route from southern China to the Bay of Bengal.
Indian military experts say that this overland route can be easily used by China to move much more than goods manufactured in southern China to Sittwe for export through sea lanes to other countries. China can easily move military hardware to Sittwe which is just about 500 kilometres (by sea) away from Kolkata.
China is also building a naval base in Sittwe and its warships and submarines stationed there can easily target Indian military installations and hardware in India’s eastern seaboard as well as the strategically-located Andaman & Nicobar Islands. “Pakistan will be allowed access to Sittwe by China and that bodes very ill for India,” said Kumar.
What can upset Beijing’s, and Islamabad’s, sinister plans is the growing resistance by pro-democracy resistance forces, known as People’s Defence Forces (PDFs), in Myanmar. The PDFs, in conjunction with ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), have been carrying out attacks on Tatmadaw personnel and facilities and a large number of junta soldiers and officers have been killed in such attacks.
More than 250 of Myanmar’s 330 townships have witnessed attacks on police and military by PDFs and EAOs. Many of these attacks have been devastating and inflicted huge losses on the country’s security forces. Many of Myanmar’s EAOs have extended support to the National Unity Government (NUG), a conglomeration of opposition parties led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). The NUG has been supporting the PDFs and has called for a mass uprising against the junta.
The junta has launched vicious attacks on PDFs and EAOs, as well as civilian habitats suspected of harbouring the rebels and resistance fighters. Helicopter gunships and combat aircraft have been used to bomb and strafe civilian settlements and camps of the PDFs and EAOs. But that has only resulted in the opposition to the junta growing stronger.
The PDFs are now well-entrenched across the country and it will be impossible for the Tatmadaw to snuff them. The partnerships between PDFs and EAOs to attack their common enemy--the Tatmadaw--has also grown very strong.
International support for the NUG has been growing and the PDFs are said to be receiving a lot of international material support. If the PDFs and EAOs manage to tilt the military scales in their favour, the Tatmadaw will be forced to negotiate and strike a deal with them. The PDFs, and the NUG that backs them, as well as many of the EAOs, are strongly opposed to China. A future deal between them and the Tatmadaw for restoration of democracy may well include clauses to push back China’s influence over Myanmar.
India’s best bet thus lies with forging very strong links with the NUG and even extending covert support to the PDFs and EAOs while, at the same time, continuing to play ball with the Tatmadaw. That’s a tightrope that must be walked, and New Delhi has done it many times in the past.
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