China’s expansionist goals are not confined to the South China Sea. Beijing’s support for the breakaway Wa state in northern Myanmar bordering China’s Yunnan province has become so brazen that it may only be a matter of time before the state again becomes officially Chinese, as it was for a time under the Qing dynasty.
The area has never been under the control of the central government, be it British, Burmese or Myanmese. Headman tribes earlier were dispersed throughout the heavily forested, mountainous area, with no unified governance. The border with China was left undefined. When the Communists drove the Kuomintang out of China, remnants of the nationalist army retreated to the area, with divisions of the Eighth and 26th Army Divisions remaining in place for two decades, preparing for a counterattack towards the mainland. During the 1960s, the Burmese Communist Party was driven out of central Burma and expanded to the border regions, absorbing local guerillas and maintaining its Chinese character.
It is now 30 years since the Wa leader Bao Youxiang (using a Chinese romanization of his Wa name) signed an agreement with Myanmar’s then-leader Khin Nyunt, effectively ending years of war with the country’s military rulers. It was a victory for Bao’s United Wa State Army, still some 25,000 strong and made Bao, nominally a Communist, the all-powerful ruler.
Bao and his forces have been celebrating the anniversary of the autonomy deal with a show of force, even inviting foreign media to share the occasion and witness not only the de facto complete independence from Myanmar but the close official relationship Bao and his people enjoy with China.
Chinese, not Wa, an Austroasiatic language, is already used for most formal communication and the yuan the currency of the state. Bao a Chinese romanization of his Wa name) has successfully combined the Wa desire to be left alone by the central government (as also previously by the British) with access to Chinese arms, training and trade support.
Nor does Chinese support come with many strings as the Wa state continues to prosper partly on its role in the production and transit of new chemical narcotics as well as traditionally opium-based ones. Promises to end the narcotics trade have proven empty.
The prospects of Naypyidaw ever regaining any authority in the territory are now effectively nil. That may not matter very much in the case of this remote mountainous region between the Mekong and Salween Rivers, but it also sends a message about China’s ability to cause trouble in other areas of a Myanmar still struggling with its many minority issues. It provides leverage at a time when the Burmese majority is torn between fearing Chinese money and ambitions and the trade and investment ties it needs for development.
Meanwhile, there must be question marks over the succession to the all-powerful Bao, who is president and party and army chief. Once the septuagenarian Bao — hero of the long struggle for autonomy from Yangon (Myanmar’s capital) — is gone, can it be long before the Wa state becomes an “autonomous region” of the People’s Republic of China?
But overt support for de-facto secession is a danger for China too. The treatment of the mostly Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang is arousing resentment throughout the Turkic world, and considerable in the west as well. For now, the states such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan may be more concerned with development and China’s Belt and Road money but populist sentiments demanding support for their oppressed cousins may well rise as the old leaders, inherited from the Soviet Communists era are replaced, as has happened in Uzbekistan and will soon enough in Kazakhstan.