Last year it was the South China Sea and the contiguous waters of Vietnam and the Philippines which were the focus of Chinese hegemonist instincts. Those issues have quieted down for the time being as China has noted the damage done to some of its other interests, in particular through the strengthening of Southeast Asian links with the US, Japan and India.
But this year it seems attention has been turned to a land border – that with Myanmar. On March 15, China’s Prime Minister Li Keqiang rebuked Myanmar for allegedly killing four Chinese citizens and injuring nine as the result of a bombing campaign by Myanmar against ethnic minority rebels in the region bordering China.
It was not entirely clear from the Chinese statement that those killed were actually in China at the time or were killed while in Myanmar. The Myanmar military itself has denied responsibility. The Li statement, made at a high profile press conference in Beijing at the end of the National People’s Congress, was clearly aimed at exploiting patriotic fervor and, according to reports, was applauded by many of those present. China vowed to strengthen its border patrols and chase away Myanmar air force planes.
Behind this spat is the ugly reality that it is China that is helping to keep alive the ethnic conflict in the Kokang region of Myanmar, which is proving the most intractable of all the various conflicts which the Yangon government faces in its non-Burman territory. It has long been evident that the insurgency in the Kokang district has been supported by arms, money and people from across the border.
Indeed, there has been large-scale settlement by Chinese in this area, which was once part of the Qing empire. Before Myanmar’s tentative opening to the outside world under President Thein Sein, because of the regime’s heavy reliance on Chinese support, the country mostly turned a blind eye to Chinese migration in the border region, and beyond. Kokang, in the northeast of Shan state, has long had a majority Chinese population and was controlled by a local surrogate of the Chinese Communist Party till 1989 when China permitted the Yangon military to acquire a measure of control.
But with liberalisation under Thein Sein has come a reaction against the extent of Chinese influence and of hydropower and other projects in the northeast of Myanmar which were regarded as mainly benefitting China. The Thein Sein government’s attempts to re-balance Myanmar’s relations by improving links with the west, Japan and India have been a setback for China’s efforts to dominate adjacent countries which it likes to imagine should be “tributary states,” to be allowed a measure of independence so long as that did not conflict with China’s imperial interests.
Keeping rebel groups active at a time when Myanmar is trying to resolve its ethnic conflicts is a constant reminder to Yangon of the limits of its power and of China’s ability to cause trouble. In 2009, attempts to suppress the insurgency led to the flight of refugees, reportedly numbering as many as 30,000, into neighboring Yunnan, which led to Chinese protests.
Recently China has done nothing to discourage stepped-up rebel activities in the Kokang region by the so-called Myanmar Democratic Alliance Army which in turn led to Thein Sein’s decision last month to declare a state of emergency in the region. Several dozen Myanmar soldiers are known to have died in recent clashes.
In the Kokang case China is not merely expecting Myanmar not to challenge Beijing’s strategic interests. It is in effect claiming a right to intervene on behalf of the ethnic Chinese in the region and effectively to make Kokang a separate entity. This is the same principle as enunciated by Russian President Vladimir Putin in respect of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, or earlier did with the creation of breakaway Russian enclaves in Moldova and Georgia – Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It can be expected to be viewed with concern in Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia. But equally it sends a message to minorities such as Uighurs and Koreans with their own non-Han compatriots nearby, and to Tibet with its links to Nepal and India.
Is China a state genuinely embracing various nationalities, even while Han were the vast majority, as it attempted to be under the Manchu Qing dynasty? Or is it a Han state which has acquired alien (once termed barbarian) nationalities through conquest whose cultures and political aspirations it tries to suppress?
There may well be a case for border adjustments between China and Myanmar to reflect ethnic realities. But China cannot suggest such a thing without opening up a much bigger issues of its own western and northern borders. Kokang may be a small and remote place in the ever-restless hill country of mainland Southeast Asia. But it is a microcosm of a much bigger issue.