Myanmar Risks Clash With China Along Restive Border

5 MINS READMar 18, 2015 | 08:51 GMT
Myanmar Risks Clash with China Along Restive Border
(Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images)
A Myanmar military helicopter flies above Lashio in February of 2015.

On March 13, an errant Myanmar air force strike killed five Chinese citizens in China's Yunnan province across the border from Myanmar's Shan state. The Myanmar aircraft had been targeting ethnic Kokang insurgents in rebel-controlled territory as part of clashes that began Feb. 9. The terrain along the China-Myanmar border is rugged and porous with identical ethnic groups on either side. In recent years, fighting between the Myanmar government and insurgent groups has periodically pushed refugees over the border into Yunnan province. But ordnance landing on Chinese territory is a different matter. The recent incident was the second in less than a week, and in response, Beijing has strengthened its border air defenses. The move raises the risk of a military exchange between the People's Liberation Army and Myanmar forces in spite of the desire by both countries to avoid a military confrontation.

Even before these misdirected airstrikes, clashes between Myanmar government forces and the ethnic Kokang insurgent group, known as the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army, posed significant problems for Beijing. China estimates that between 30,000 and 50,000 refugees have crossed the border into its territory since February. China shares ethnic affiliations with the Kokang; the militants are members of a Mandarin-speaking Han Chinese group that settled there in the 17th century. These ties have led some Chinese citizens and analysts to publicly call for Beijing to support the rebels against the Myanmar government. There is already evidence that Chinese citizens in Yunnan province with close ties to Kokang rebels have been sending food and medical supplies across the border. It is likely that this even extends to local-level weapons assistance, and it may extend further. Beijing has accused Maj. Gen. Huang Xing, recently arrested for corruption, of leaking state secrets and assisting Kokang rebels in 2009.

Beijing has long been concerned about instability along the remote China-Myanmar border, which is home to numerous insurgencies and rife with smuggling. Instability, and thus Beijing's unease, has grown in recent years as Naypyidaw turns its attention to the area. In 2009, a Myanmar government drug raid sparked the "Kokang Incident," which saw open fighting with Kokang militants. Beijing expressed concern that it had not been informed ahead of time of troop mobilizations and warned Naypyidaw to get its house in order. At a strategic level, these clashes concern Beijing because they are symptomatic of Naypyidaw's increasing push to consolidate control over the border. Since it transitioned away from military rule and pariah status in 2010, the Myanmar government has been putting military pressure on regional insurgencies. This has led to open fighting with the Kachin Independence Army, Shan State Army-North and Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance that is intended to put pressure on the larger United Wa State Army. This shift jeopardizes China's decadeslong strategy of maintaining ties with these insurgencies to maintain a buffer zone and a lever over Myanmar. Beijing is now forced to seek a means of pushing back against Myanmar's more aggressive posture.

For the moment, the Chinese central government wishes to avoid direct involvement in the conflict between the Kokang and the Myanmar government. Instead, Beijing wants to maintain the notion that China does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. More important, Beijing is striving to maintain its close ties with Naypyidaw at a time when Myanmar is increasingly seeking new economic and political ties with other states. As it has done multiple times in the past, China could seek to increase covert involvement with the separatist militias in Myanmar to Naypyidaw's detriment. For now, however, Beijing is keen to avoid instability along its border and is not interested in a direct clash with Myanmar forces.

For its part, the Myanmar government has benefited from promoting the idea that China is assisting the Kokang rebels. This has contributed to some of the highest domestic popularity ratings for the Myanmar military in recent times, especially after several decades of unpopular military rule. Linking the rebels to China also provides a convenient excuse for recent reversals suffered by the military in the fight against the rebels and casts the Kokang rebels as foreign stooges. The Myanmar government, however, has been careful to portray any assistance to the Kokang as emanating from local Chinese actors in the border region and not from Beijing itself. Myanmar officials have also officially denied that their bombs fell on Chinese territory and blamed Kokang rebels instead.

Despite wanting to avoid greater military involvement in the China-Myanmar border at this time, China feels it has no choice but to act decisively, especially now that its citizens have been killed on Chinese territory. Beijing could fear that a lack of action signals weak resolve and might erode Chinese credibility on the defense of its sovereignty and citizens. The Chinese government is also increasingly seeing Naypyidaw's push for unity and associated offensives against the rebels as a threat to Chinese strategic concerns regarding border security, regional trade and energy corridors.

As a result, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang issued a statement March 15 warning that China would take "decisive" action if this occurred again and would "firmly defend" the stability of its border. Gen. Fan Changlong, the vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission, also informed Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of Myanmar's armed forces, that Myanmar should "seriously control" its military or face resolute measures by the Chinese military.

To this end, China has sent aircraft, likely from Mengzi and Luliang air bases, to reinforce and patrol the border zone. Large convoys of People's Armed Police and People's Liberation Army forces equipped with HQ-12 and HQ-64 surface-to-air missile systems as well as YJ-1 radar have also been dispatched toward the China-Myanmar border.

Fighting continues along the frontier between China and Myanmar. Since the Chinese military has stepped up its border presence, there is now a real possibility of direct military engagement between the People's Liberation Army and the Myanmar military. Beijing has essentially given it an ultimatum that any further miscalculation, overflight or stray fire across the border could result in retaliation by the Chinese military. This could occur in spite of Myanmar's desire to avoid a confrontation with the much stronger Chinese forces and Beijing's hope to avoid further instability along the border.

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