In Northern Burma/Myanmar the situation has seriously deteriorated after violence between Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) rebels and the army erupted on February 9 in Laukkai, the capital of Kokang region. The fight began after Kokang fighters led by 85-year-old Peng Jiasheng, launched an attack on government forces in what is widely perceived to be an attempt to reestablish the MNDAA’s control on the region after the defeat they suffered in 2009. According to the Associated Press, on February 21 the fighting had already claimed the lives of more than 50 soldiers and 70 rebels.
For policy makers in Beijing the crisis poses various problems, the most immediate of which is the preservation of border security. Aid workers interviewed by Radio Free Asia claim that about 100,000 refugees have already poured across the border to seek shelter in the Chinese Province of Yunnan.
Right after clashes began, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters that refugees who had entered Chinese territory were being looked after. She reiterated the message on February 14, adding that Chinese authorities “hope that all sides in Myanmar can work hard with China to calm down the situation, returning the situation at the border to one of peace and tranquility as soon as possible, so these border residents can go home.”
The historical links between the Kokang minority – who are ethnically Han Chinese – and the mainland are another issue for officials in Beijing. In order to gain leverage on Myanmar’s central government, China used to support the Communist Party of Burma, which was partly composed by Kokangs. Given these ties, it is no surprise that rebels are hoping that China will take their defense.
Yun Sun, a fellow with the Henry L. Stimson Center and the Brookings Institution, argued on the Irrawaddy that Mr. Peng’s decision to take action was directly linked to the expectation that the Chinese government would intervene to broker a deal. “Peng’s strategic choice to instigate war and send refugees to China right before the Chinese New Year is a calculated move to force Beijing to push the Burmese government to deflate the tension,” she wrote.
If that is truly the case, the gamble is not paying off. On February 16, Global Times, a Chinese state-run paper, published an article warning that “China stands firm on its Myanmar policy. Speculation that China will alter its policy toward Myanmar is a misinterpretation, which will mislead the citizens of Myanmar and China. The intimacy and sympathy that Chinese society holds toward the Kokang people are not decisive elements determining Beijing’s policy.” The media outlet also said that those who compare Kokang and Crimea are ‘spouting nonsense, or have ulterior motives.’
Peng Jiasheng has explicitly denied such claims in an interview, arguing that “since August 8, 2009, Kokangs have forbidden Chinese nationals to join the army,” and that no Chinese national will be allowed to join the struggle, as it would be ‘detrimental’ to their cause. However, on February 19 a government official in Myanmar called on China to cooperate in preventing ‘terrorist attacks’ being launched from inside Chinese territory.
The reason why China is no longer willing to come to the rescue of Chinese ethnic minorities in Myanmar lies in the large investments made by Chinese companies in the country. According to a paper published by the International Crisis Group, Beijing’s priority is “maintaining stability and protecting economic and strategic interests in the country above any democratic or political reforms.”
In this regard, it should be noted that China has a lot to lose by escalating tensions with the government in Naypyidaw. In July 2014, authorities in Myanmar said that China had invested a whopping $14.25 billion in the country. Last year, a gas pipeline capable of transporting 12 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year began operating, while an oil pipeline has begun testing in January. Stretching for hundreds of miles from the Bay of Bengal to southern China, they are supposed to alleviate the country’s dependence on energy resources imported through the strategically vulnerable Strait of Malacca.