In a Fortnight: Myanmar’s Leaders Court China Despite Violence Along Border

Chinese J-7 fighters deployed to Lincang Airport, near China's border with Myanmar (Source: Weibo)

As global attention focuses on China’s rising tensions with neighboring states in the South China Sea, violence has erupted elsewhere in the region, this time along China’s border with Myanmar. Widely ignored in the western media, the cross-border tension is part of a long-smoldering Burmese civil war that has pushed hundreds of refugees across the border and resulted in major Chinese casualties this spring after Burmese aircraft strayed into Chinese territory in pursuit of Burmese rebels.

Border clashes first erupted in March between forces of the Myanmar government and one of several ethnic separatist groups, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), which resulted in the deaths of five Chinese citizens and the wounding of eight others in Dashuisangshu village, (大水桑树),  located half a mile from the border (Myanmar MOFA, April 3). In response to the violence the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) mobilized air defense units, fighter jets and conducted live-fire exercises (Huanqiu, March 16; SCMP, March 26).  This is the first outbreak of violence along the border since 2009 and sparked a series of high-level  meetings between top Chinese and Myanmar political figures in the run-up to Myanmar’s planned parliamentary elections in November. 

Burma’s Internal Strife

The Burmese government has been actively fighting the MNDAA since February, consolidating state control over northern separatist territories in advance of national elections later in the year after decades of internal strife. Completing the pacification of the border territory would be a tremendous coup in those elections. In recent months Myanmar government forces have made significant progress in defeating the last holdouts of the MNDAA in northern Myanmar, near Laukkaing, a mere three miles from the Chinese border.  (Xinhua, May 15). Elements of the MNDAA subsequently were reduced to fighting with their backs to the Chinese border, a factor that contributed to the accidental bombing of Chinese citizens.  As a demonstration of China’s interest in seeing the conflict end, foreign minister Wang Yi visited the border, meeting with both sides in Ruili, Yunnan (Yunnan Daily, March 17). A provisional ceasefire accord was signed on March 31; and by May the Myanmar government announced it was ready to sign a country-wide ceasefire (People’s Daily, May 5; Nikkei, April 9).

From Beijing’s perspective, Chinese territory bordering Myanmar holds enormous economic and strategic potential because of its proximity to India, the Bay of Bengal and overall access to Southeast Asia.  Economically, it holds geopolitical importance due to gas and oil pipelines that transit the territory, particularly the Trans-China-Burma pipeline which transports oil from the Bay of Bengal to China’s Kunming province.  The pipeline effectively allows China to avoid transporting oil via the strategic chokepoint of the Straits of Malacca.

For Beijing, the China-Myanmar border is an area still in the process of being incorporated into the rest of China proper. As Myanmar expert Thant Myint-U has observed, the greater south-western area that encompasses China’s Yunnan province was only integrated into “China proper” in the 20th century. China considers the border area to be part of its cultural sphere of influence and as far back as 1955 had intervened militarily on the border in an effort to use its influence to delineate the frontier. [1]

Recent tension over the border is further complicated by the presence of rebel groups operating on the Burmese side of the border. Many of these rebel groups are culturally Chinese, including the MNDAA’s commander Peng Jiasheng (RFA, March 13). MNDAA-controlled areas also speak Mandarin, use Chinese characters and even use the renminbi as their primary currency (Myanmar Times, May 19).

Burmese Political Parties Pander Beijing

Following the eruption in cross-border violence, Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Beijing with Myanmar ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) chairman Shwe Mann this past April. During the meeting, Shwe Mann expressed support for China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) proposal (People’s Daily, April 8;People’s Daily, April 28). In June, Nobel Prize–winning democracy advocate and head of opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD) Aung San Suu Kyi also met Xi in Beijing (China News, June 10). Suu Kyi faces additional challenges, as she is generally regarded as a natural ally of the West. Some analysts regard her trip as an effort to reassure Beijing that if her party one-day assumes power, Myanmar will not simply follow the dictates of Western governments that supported her (Myanmar Times, July 6).

As Myanmar forges a new political character for itself, both militarily as a unified state and as an authoritarian country transitioning to democracy, it simultaneously has to contend with its relationship with China. For its part, China seeks greater integration of its south-west region into the wider economy of South Asia, with Myanmar offering it avenues to markets in India, Thailand and beyond. Chinese willingness to engage with Myanmar political figures from both the ruling party and the opposition ahead of the coming election, reflects strategic hedging on the part of Beijing.

This makes the visits by heads of the USDP and NLD particularly noteworthy. For both parties, the meetings are a chance to make the case against Chinese interference as the central government consolidates control over rebellious regions–particularly ones that have traditionally received Chinese support. At the same time, they wish to grow the country with the help of Chinese investment.

Outlook

China will continue to court Myanmar, as it has the potential to play an important role in the New Maritime Silk Road and overland via the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor. The cessation of border conflicts could be a major boost to China’s economic infrastructure as part of its New Maritime Silk Road Initiative. (NMSRI) China’s province of Yunnan occupies an important role in the NMSRI strategy according to the original document laying out Beijing’s One Belt, One Road (NDRC, March 28) strategy. Cross-border security with Myanmar will remain an issue, as the lengthy, mountainous nature of the Myanmar-China border will continue to be a route for drug and people smuggling. The winner of Myanmar’s election will have to continue the delicate balance of interests that have helped Myanmar navigate its relationship with China.

Notes

1.            Thant Myint-U, Where China Meets India, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011 pg. 139.