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A Myanmar border war puts Beijing in a bind

Rebel soldiers of Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) patrol near a military base in Kokang region

Unrest in Kokang

In the last 200 years, the mountainous region of Kokang in northern Myanmar has been a vassal of the Qing Dynasty, part of the British Empire and most recently, the site of an ethnic uprising that threatens to worsen relations between Beijing and Naypyidaw.

One might be forgiven for supposing that China has enough of its own restive minorities to deal with, without getting involved in a neighbour’s dispute. However, the Kokang identify themselves as Han Chinese, speak Mandarin and even use China’s Twitter-equivalent weibo.

To make matters more complicated, on March 13 a bomb landed in a farmer’s field on the Chinese side of the border, killing five and injuring eight Chinese citizens in Yunnan province. Since then Beijing, which blamed the deaths on the Burmese military, has found itself navigating a maze of opposing loyalties and interests.

At home there is the sense that the Kokang are compatriots and therefore Beijing should help them – even if it is simply by allowing civilians to cross the border into Yunnan to flee the fighting. Certainly many of the people who live in Nansan, one of the closest Chinese towns to Kokang, feel that way. People there have raised money to buy food and blankets for the tens of thousands of refugees now sheltering in the area and officials have banned hotels from raising their prices to profiteer from the strife.

The Chinese Red Cross is also quietly running camps in several towns along the border.

These actions risk infringing the long-held Chinese policy of not interfering in other countries’ internal affairs. However, doing nothing may not be an option. Since taking the decision to institute democratic reforms in 2010, Naypyidaw has upped its anti-Chinese rhetoric and called Chinese-led projects on Burmese soil into question. To many in Myanmar the Kokang are seen as Chinese invaders. Its own social media has been awash with support for the Burmese military’s efforts to quash the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army – group of ethnic Chinese in Kokang that have formed an army. The Burmese have also accused local Chinese officials of helping to arm the rebels – an accusation that Beijing refutes.

Naypyidaw, it is worth noting, denies that its own aircraft dropped the bomb that killed the Chinese farmers and suggests that the Kokang group may have lobbed the ordnance across the border in an attempt to destabilise Sino-Burmese relations. Conversely, Beijing has stated that its belief the Burmese military are responsible for the deaths, warning that no further incursions into China will be permitted, and sending its own fighter jets to patrol the area. But it is not pandering to Chinese nationalists calling for greater retribution because it doesn’t want to further strain ties with the Burmese government. “Burma is a place the United States has always wanted to win,” the military website Tiexue said shortly after the bombing. “For China, it is very important to maintain a relatively pro-Chinese government in Myanmar,” it added, citing the country’s importance to China’s energy security. There are currently two Chinese-built pipelines – one for gas, one for oil – running from Maday Island off the west coast of Myanmar up to Yunnan. China also wants to develop a deep sea port.

Despite the previous investments, the commercial prospects are now cloudy. China is still Myanmar’s biggest investor but state media reported last year that Chinese firms and individuals are reducing their exposure, sensing that their government no longer has the sway it once did.

Yet if Beijing can manage the latest fallout effectively, it paves the way for a new type of relationship with Myanmar – not one of the dominant regional power dictating terms to a satellite state, but of two sovereign nations working though their difficulties to find mutual benefit.

If the Kokang can also find a peaceful solution along the way – the ethnic group wants greater autonomy – that would be a true achievement. The worst outcome? An extended conflict similar to that which Sri Lanka experienced with the Tamil Tigers.

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