The situation just across the border from Yunnan in Myanmar’s Kachin state is becoming increasingly unstable. Beijing has moved additional troops to its side of the border to prevent a trickle of refugees into China again turning in to a flood, and to provide some moral, and possibly material support to Myanmar government forces fighting the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
Fighting has intensified since the midyear collapse of a long-standing ceasefire between the KIA and the government. Ethnic Kachins fleeing the fighting are reportedly being turned back at the border. We hear, but have not been able to confirm, that the transport of supplies of food and medicine in the opposite direction are being hindered if they are thought to be destined for the KIA. Chinese riot police have been holding crowd control exercises within a baton’s length of crossings points on the border, while an additional 6,000 PLA troops were sent to Yunnan this month. They are being deployed opposite the KIA strongholds and refugee camps being set up for displaced Kachins that are close to the China border.
Beijing’s sympathies lie with Naypyidaw not the KIA, which has led the campaign to disrupt the expansion of China’s commercial interests in Kachin. The 17-year ceasefire between the KIA and the government had allowed Chinese companies to start logging, mining and hydropower projects in the region, such as the controversial and now suspended construction of the Myitsone Hydoelectric Dam on the Irrawaddy river. These interests are now at considerable risk.
Beijing would most like its old allies in Naypyidaw just to get the KIA under control. The hardliners in Myanmar’s army, who are close to Beijing, are happy to do that by force of arms, as they have shown in recent weeks, but President Thein Sein’s civilian government that succeeded the military junta that made Myanmar an international pariah, is more constrained. It is courting the West and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in order to return to the international fold. It cannot be seen to be Beijing’s lapdog, protecting Chinese commercial interests at the expense of a native ethnic minority and creating a humanitarian disaster to boot.
For its part, Beijing may have to take some sort of lead in brokering an end to the fighting in Kachin, uncomfortable as that might be for it now. Not only does it want neither unrest nor a humanitarian disaster on its southwestern reaches but it also does not want to create an opportunity for India or ASEAN to step, in the name of regional security, in to what Beijing considers its sphere of influence and a key corridor connecting it to the Indian Ocean.