It may not be apparent that Myanmar has much in common with a remote Western country like Sweden in northern Europe. But both nations profess their strict adherence to neutrality in international affairs — at the same time it is obvious to all who their respective main historical adversaries are but never named in official defense doctrines.

In Sweden, the anonymous adversary is known as “fi”, short for “fiende”, or “enemy”. All of Sweden’s defense installations are designed to protect the country from that unnamed “fi”, which always comes from the east, i.e. the direction of Russia. The two sides fought several wars in the 18th and early 19th centuries, but Stockholm still does not mention its bigger and much more powerful neighbor as its “fi.”

Myanmar’s comparable “fi” has always been its huge northern neighbor, China, though it is likewise seldom identified as such in its defense doctrines. But Myanmar’s military planners are aware that any invasion of aggression will most likely come from the northeast, as it has in recent history, including several invasions in the 18th century.

After Myanmar achieved independence, renegade Nationalist Chinese forces who had been defeated by Mao Zedong’s communists in 1949 retreated into the country’s northeastern mountains, where they set up bases.

In 1968, heavily armed insurgents from the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), supported by thousands of Chinese “volunteers”, crossed the border in the northeast and established a 20,000-square kilometer base area along the Sino-Myanmar border.

Today, that area is controlled by the CPB’s main successor, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which receives substantial material and political support from Beijing. China plays a complex double game in Myanmar where investment, trade and diplomatic support serve as carrot and tacit backing for the insurgent UWSA as stick.

Serious business: United Wa State Army soldiers march during a media display in Pansang, Wa territory in northeast Myanmar October 4, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun
United Wa State Army soldiers march during a media display in Panghsang, Wa territory in northeast Myanmar October 4, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

According to Myanmar’s first Defense White Paper, published in 2015, the country needs a defense that takes “into consideration the aspects of historical background, socio-economic conditions and [the] geographical location of the Union.”

China, of course, is not mentioned by name in the paper, but it was when Myanmar’s first defense doctrine was formulated by Colonel Maung Maung, an army veteran, in the early 1950’s.
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Mary Callahan, an American expert on the Myanmar military, writes in her book Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma that “Defining the enemy was simple, according to Maung Maung: ‘No question about it: It was the Chinese. Indians are not really a problem. The Thais are not strong enough. Realistically, no one is going to invade us from the sea.”

At the time, the Korean War was raging between US-led United Nations forces and the North Koreans supported by “volunteers” from China, and Maung Maung saw that a similar situation could emerge in Myanmar. He therefore “proposed that the army plan a defensive strategy of containing Chinese aggression for three months, which was how long he estimated it would take for United Nations reinforcements to arrive by sea.”

A Myanmar government soldier stands guard on Balaminhtin bridge over the Irrawaddy River near the city of Myitkyina in the north of the country after months of renewed fighting between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army, or KIA, February 22, 2012. Set up in the early 1960s, the KIA is one of the biggest ethnic armed groups that still has not signed a peace agreement with the government. There have been fierce battles between the KIA and government troops since last year while representatives from both sides have been holding peace talks for about six times, including twice in Ruili, a border town in neighbouring China. At the same time, thousands of local people have fled to Chinese border and bigger towns inside the Kachin State to escape the battle.REUTERS/Strinter (MYANMAR - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS SOCIETY) - RTR2Y9AE
A Myanmar government soldier stands guard on a bridge over the Irrawaddy River. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

According to other military observers, the Irrawaddy River is the ultimate line of defense against a foreign invasion, a line the Myanmar army could likely hold until outside support arrived. Although a Chinese invasion is highly unlikely today, past Chinese support for the CPB has not been forgotten.

Indeed, China’s enduring relationship with the UWSA and its ethnic armed group allies in the north is a major security concern that has complicated and may yet undermine de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s peace drive.

An examination of Myanmar’s defense installations around the country reveals that little has changed since Maung Maung’s time. At an early stage, Myanmar began to develop its own arms production. Over time a network of factories, known by the acronym ka pa sa for the local language initials of the Directorate of Defense Industries, all sprung up in locations west of the Irrawaddy.

Myanmar's military parade to mark the 72nd Armed Forces Day in the capital Naypyitaw, Myanmar March 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun
Myanmar’s military parade to mark the 72nd Armed Forces Day in the capital Naypyitaw, Myanmar March 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

Although Myanmar became a major importer of weaponry from China in the 1990s, its new ka pa sas are still always situated west of the Irrawaddy in apparent defense of a possible Chinese invasion. ​There are currently more than 20 such production facilities apart from research facilities where new weaponry, including missiles, are being developed.

Despite official rhetoric of cooperation and friendship, China-Myanmar relations are still calibrated along the lines of an aggressive superpower and a vulnerable smaller neighbor. Myanmar’s political reforms, introduced in 2011, were prompted more by a military desire to lessen dependence on China, which grew under US and Western imposed sanctions, than a newfound appreciation of democracy.

Those reforms also explain how concerned Myanmar’s military planners have become about their “fi” and what designs their unspoken adversary might have for its smaller, weaker neighbor’s future.