Although unrest in Myanmar’s northeastern Kachin state is a headache for Beijing, it is also an opportunity to promote Chinese strategic aims in the country.
China wants what Myanmar has – Indian Ocean access and abundant natural resources to support its rise. As tensions mount, Beijing is planning its next move to counter growing US and European influence.
Despite ceasefire talks, tensions between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) – which has been fighting for greater autonomy since 1961 – and the Myanmar military continue to rise. La Nan, spokesperson for the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political wing of the KIA, last reported on Feb. 6 that fighting occurred in the northern part of Shan state between the KIA’s 4th Brigade and three government army battalions. A low-scale skirmish also took place south of Kachin state’s capital Myitkyina, in the KIA border town of Laiza, just north of the Chinese oil and gas pipeline, involving the KIA’s 1st brigade and government troops.
These clashes temper already distant hopes that emerged after ceasefire talks two days earlier on Feb. 4 in Ruili, China, where the high-ranking government minister Aung Min met with the KIA’s number two, General Gun Maw. Also at the meeting were Chinese officials, representatives from Myanmar’s diverse ethnic groups and the Myanmar Peace Center, a government-run, EU-funded one-stop-shop for ceasefire activities.
Nor did talks on Feb. 20 in Chiang Mai lead to any major breakthrough. In fact, no senior-level KIA officials were even present. Discussions between the negotiators have focused on ways to stop the fighting, which has reached unprecedented levels since last December, when the Myanmar military began bombarding KIA strongholds with artillery, followed by the first employment of air assaults with Russian-made Mi35 gunships and Chinese-made Hongdu JL-8 attack aircraft.
Beijing is concerned. This recent and aggressive offensive by the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military is both a gift and a burden for the Chinese, worried about an influx of Kachin refugees, of which it already houses a significant number. The Kokang incident of August 2009 is a recent pertinent reminder of the chaos that can ensue during government and rebel skirmishes. An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 refugees were reported to have fled to Yunnan province from northern Shan State when the government, without warning to Beijing or Chinese citizens in Myanmar, went on the offensive. China was furious and demanded a cessation of hostilities.
The proximity of the skirmishes to the Chinese border inflates Beijing’s worries. Most of the recent larger scale battles have taken place around the hills of Laiza, a town of about 20,000, which is home to the headquarters of the Kachin rebels. On the Jan. 17, a Tatmadaw artillery shell landed on the Chinese side of the border. This followed a similar incident on Dec.30 when three artillery shells exploded over the border. The repeat incident prompted a strong reaction from Beijing which called for a cessation of hostilities. The Chinese also took direct action; they increased surveillance, increased the number of border troops in the area, and heightened alert levels.
As a result, high-level meetings took place in Yangon on Jan. 19 between Myanmar’s President, Thein Sein and Special Envoy Fu Ying as well as high-ranking officers from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
China as Broker
The Chinese government is now in a strong position to mediate between the KIA and the government. The talks that took place on Feb. 20 in Chiang Mai focused on the increasing role of China in the peace process. This is just one more link in a long chain of contact that has been renewed amid the fighting in Kachin.
As can be seen by China’s willingness to facilitate ceasefire talks in Ruili just across the border in Yunnan province, Beijing is welcoming greater dialogue. Chinese government-run newspapers also show the appetite for such activities, without of course mentioning the strategic benefits for China.
Over the past 12 months, China has been on the back foot in Myanmar. They were shocked at the suspension of the Chinese-funded Myitsone dam, an investment of US$3.6 billion. This was the crack of the starting pistol in the race for Myanmar. It signaled that the generals, fearing Chinese dominance, were ready to explore Washington’s Asia reengagement policy.
The entry of Europe through aid agencies, multi-national organizations, and world-class companies all offering grants, technical assistance and business opportunities, added to Myanmar’s swing to the west, and therefore China’s angst.
In an increasingly hostile climate, China must play its cards right. This is why recent unrest in Kachin is important. It is a small piece of the puzzle in the overall geopolitical game currently playing out in Myanmar. If China can successfully maneuver itself between the Kachins and Naypyidaw it will be in an excellent brokering position, allowing maximum influence regarding the current Kachin conflict.
Rebranding the Panda
China needs to revamp its image. "Brand China" is often regarded negatively and suspiciously on the world stage. Beijing needs to bolster its global image as a responsible actor promoting peace and development. For this to happen, it must start with the local Myanmar people and temper anger amid claims of growing Chinese imperialist tendencies in northern Myanmar. These claims are regarded as supported by China’s quest for local resources such as jade, timber and hydro-power, and the fact that it has, through foreign direct investment, taken over large parts of the national and local economy.
Locally in Kachin, where pro-Chinese sentiment is at an all-time low, a stake in the talks could also help improve its image as a responsible neighbor. It also helps quell the worries of Christian Kachins living in Yunnan, as well as other concerned Yunnan residents.
Increasing Chinese involvement in the negotiations will also be welcomed by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the largest military non-state actor, with about 30,000 active, well-armed troops. Developments in Kachin have been followed closely by the Wa who fear that after a KIA defeat they would then be in the Tatmadaw’s crosshairs. The Wa people have historical, geographical, cultural and linguistic ties to China.
The PLA supplied the UWSA with PTL02 Military Tank Destroyers in mid-2012 and before that Man Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) as a military deterrent, subtly warning the Myanmar government not to entertain the idea of a KIA-style offensive on the UWSA. The UWSA have threatened war if hostilities do not stop in Kachin.
China’s oil and gas pipelines, which run from Sittwe to Kunming, are set to go online in May 2013, effectively giving China something it has never had – Indian Ocean access and therefore the ability to bypass the expensive and time consuming Strait of Malacca. An active role in the KIA/government negotiations will give China an added diplomatic option and therefore greater ability to push developments along paths that are favorable to Beijing.
Indeed, the ongoing conflict in Kachin is just one piece on the chess board. If played correctly it could be used to promote overall Chinese strategic aims in the battle for influence in Myanmar. If not, it could see a long and costly civil war too close for comfort.
(Christopher O’Hara is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP), Stockholm, Sweden. This is a revised version of a Policy Brief for ISDP. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISDP or its sponsors.)