China’s Unwanted Kokang Conundrum

THE ESCALATION OF the fighting just over Yunnan’s border in the Kokang region of Myanmar’s Shan state leaves Beijing with an unwanted humanitarian, security and strategic headache. China is providing food and shelter for some 30,000 refugees that have fled across the border into Yunnan, state media say. Most of the refugees can be assumed to be Kokang, who are ethnically Chinese, and Chinese migrant workers.

China first set up refugee camps following the outbreak of hostilities between the separatist Kokang National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Myanmar government forces on February 9. The clashes have since intensified leaving 70 dead, including at least one Red Cross worker after an attack on a Red Cross convoy. The government in Naypyidaw has declared a state of emergency and martial law in the region.

China does not like such instability along its borders at the best of times and has sent troops to reinforce its side of this particular one. Beijing will initially be hospitable to those fleeing the fighting, firstly because they are Chinese, and secondly because the MNDAA was once part of the Chinese-backed Communist Party of Burma.

The MNDAA’s former leader Peng Jiasheng has been in exile in China, if not very publicly, since being driven out of power in 2009 — an event that triggered a similar influx of refugees fleeing the fighting, and which China was less prepared to deal with then than this time. It is Peng’s return now that has caused the renewed flare-up of fighting, ending the ceasefire than has existed since he was driven out.

Peng’s return, this Bystander would hazard, is neither sanctioned nor wanted by Beijing. It has been trying to broker peace deals between the Myanmar government and a score of ethnic groups in the northeast of Myanmar who want varying degrees of autonomy. Naypyidaw wants to strike a comprehensive peace deal ahead of national legislative elections due to be held later this year.

Beyond ensuring peace and stability along its borders, China’s bigger strategic imperatives in Myanmar have changed. The country has natural resources such as jade and desirable crops such as sugar. But more importantly, Naypyidaw’s growing rapprochement with the United States has undermined Beijing’s position as Myanmar’s principal political ally. It is not going to damage that relationship any further by backing separatist groups.

Myanmar is also an important link in President Xi Jinxing’s ‘One Belt One Road’ strategy. This is the development of the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ and the ’21st Century Maritime Silk Road’ — or China’s overland and maritime shipping routes to the Middle East and Europe through which political ties and strategic influence are intended to flow as voluminously as energy, natural resources and manufactures. Myanmar is a particular way station in this endeavour between China and Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean as well as being a prime candidate for Xi’s ‘periphery diplomacy’.

To that end, Beijing wants a stable Myanmar. Its preference is for Naypyidaw to reach a peace settlement with its ethnic rebels to put and to conflicts such as that with the Kokang and with the Kachins, which flared up in 2012 and 2013. It has called for just that course of action.

If, against the odds, Peng does regain control of Kokang, China will be at least passively accommodative towards him. It has done the same in Pakistan or Afghanistan, where it has proven deft at working with local warlords and the central governments. However, that is not a situation Beijing wants to see as it will furnish it with neither border stability nor strategic leverage.

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