This Bystander noted last month that Beijing had moved additional troops and armed police to Yunnan on its side of the border with Myanmar’s Kachin state as Myanmar government forces pushed their new offensive against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Latest reports say the fighting has again flared up, sending a trickle of refugees into China, unwanted as they may be. Most of those displaced by the fighting, estimated to number 30,000, are in makeshift refugee camps on the Myanmar side of the border. Part of the purpose of Beijing beefing up its armed presence was to deter the trickle turning into a flow.
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.
Yet, Beijing’s close relationship with Naypyidaw that carried Myanmar’s military rulers through years of international isolation is now in flux following the installation of a civilian government, albeit one backed by the Army. The new government has been making reformist noises, for which it has been rewarded with the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014, suggesting it is looking south and west as well as northeast. The country’s new Army chief, Gen Min Aung Hlaing, chose to make his first overseas trip to Vietnam this week, not to China like his predecessors, a decision that will readily be seen as a snub to Beijing, especially as Hanoi is embroiled in a maritime dispute with China over the South China Sea.
Update: Beijing will not have been too pleased, either, to read the plea by U Kyaw Hsan, Myanmar’s information minister, for Washington to lift U.S. sanctions against his country, which he said was making it more reliant on Chinese companies. The minister’s comment came during an interview with the Wall Street Journal. We don’t think lifting of the sanctions is imminent, regardless of the Obama administration’s decision to send Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to visit the country. That fits more with the series of moves by Washington to deepen its engagement with China’s neighbors.