China has pulled out engineers and technicians working on the Tapain hydropower plant in Myanmar intended to supply China after fighting broke out last week between Myanmar government forces and Kachin rebels. Hundreds of local villages have reportedly fled across the border into China after government forces fired on a position near the power plant held by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Reports say 16 government soldiers have been killed and 80 wounded in the latest fighting, with the KIA suffering four casualties. Bridges on the roads to Yunnan from the remote mountainous area, and along which Myanmar’s exports of minerals, jade, timber and foods move, with cheap Chinese consumer goods coming in the other direction, are also said to have been destroyed.
A similar government offensive against ethnic rebels, in that case, the Kokang, who are ethnically Chinese, led to tens of thousand people fleeing into Yunnan in 2009. A truce between the government and the KIA, which has fought the country’s ruling juntas for decades, broke down last year, ending its semiautonomous rule. Beijing, one of Naypyidaw’s few friends, will not be happy that its energy projects in the country are at jeopardy. An oil and gas pipeline now being built that will connect southern China to the Indian Ocean also passes through the area, and there are plans for a rail link from Kunming to Yangon and onto the coast at Kyauk Phyu, the port being built by the Chinese which is also the terminus for the oil and gas pipeline.
China’s energy and infrastructure projects are far more important to it than its investments in mining and rubber plantations. Kyauk Phyu gives Beijing not only access to Burmese offshore gas but also Middle Eastern oil that won’t need to be shipped through the Straits of Malacca. The fighting is a reminder that there are risks to its continuing and expanding economic involvement with the government of an internationally isolated regime whose control over its country remains incomplete.