|China warily watches US-Myanmar detente
By Larry Jagan
BANGKOK - The border dispute between two close allies, China and Myanmar, has
now been compounded by concerns over the junta's future relations with the
United States, which this week announced a policy shift towards engagement with
the military junta.
The past few weeks have seen a flurry of diplomatic activity between the two
states, with Beijing even issuing some unusually forthright criticism of its
Southeast Asian neighbor. Unrest on their common border led to a mass exodus of
more than 30,000 refugees in late August, and fears of a renewed civil war in
the area, have alarmed Beijing.
China's officials are also now worried by the Myanmar military regime's
interest in developing closer ties with the US, which has
strong economic and financial sanctions in place against the junta.
"Beijing has been taken aback by the [Myanmar] junta's cavalier approach to
their normally strong relationship," said Win Min, a Burmese academic based at
Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand. "But it is likely to prove to be a
hiccup rather than a major shift in relations."
Last weekend a government-controlled provincial television channel, based in
Kunming - the capital of Yunnan province, which borders northern Myanmar -
broadcast a Chinese government announcement advising all Chinese citizens in
eastern Myanmar to return home quickly.
This came on the heels of a formal complaint from China to Myanmar days earlier
over the way Chinese citizens living in a border region had been treated during
recent clashes between an ethnic Kokang militia and Myanmar troops in August.
In a statement issued last week, China's Foreign Ministry said the recent
conflict with the Kokang, in a northeastern Myanmar region bordering China, had
"harmed the rights and interests of Chinese citizens living there". The Myanmar
government should make sure similar incidents do not happen again, the
Myanmar insists that peace has been restored to the area in question, and most
of the refugees who fled to China had returned. But there are still thousands
seeking refuge across the border, and not just from the Kokang areas according
to residents living in China along the border with Myanmar.
Along the border, people have fled into China for fear of renewed fighting
between other ethnic rebel groups, especially the Kachin and the Wa, two of
Myanmar's larger armed groups, according to Indian entrepreneurs who travel
along this area to do business.
"Everyone fears that the 20-year-old ceasefire agreements have been torn up by
the Myanmar generals and a return to fighting is imminent," said a Kachin
student living in the Chinese border town of Ruili.
"At the moment, it does not look as though the [Myanmar] army is about to
attack any of the other ethnic rebel groups that have ceasefire agreements,
though there is a lot of posturing going on," said Win Min. "There is no doubt
that the regime means to have all the ethnic rebel armies disarm before next
year's elections and become part of the border guards under the control of the
Earlier this year the junta sought the assistance of the former intelligence
chief and prime minister, General Khin Nyunt, who was deposed in October 2004
on corruption charges and is now under house arrest in Yangon, to help
negotiate with these rebel groups, especially the Wa.
Khin Nyunt had masterminded these ceasefire agreements some 20 years ago and
was believed to still hold the trust of many of the ethnic leaders. He accepted
the junta's request on condition that his men - some 300 military intelligence
officers who were jailed in the aftermath of Khin Nyunt's fall - be freed.
The government refused to accept that condition and apparently turned to the
Chinese who have extremely close relations with the key ethnic groups along the
border - the Kachin, Kokang and Wa. The Chinese reluctance to help, some say,
angered Myanmar's military leadership.
It is now increasingly evident that a significant rift exists between the two
countries that could have crucial implications for the region. It is also
likely to impact any approach that the international community may take to
encourage the military regime to introduce real political change.
The implications of this growing divergence could also have significant effects
on the border region, as most of the ethnic groups in this area have
long-standing ceasefire agreements with the Myanmar junta. They also have
traditionally close ties with the Chinese authorities. Economically and
culturally, the area is in many ways closer to China than the Myanmar regime.
Thousands of Chinese businessmen and workers have migrated into northern Shan
state over the last decade, seeking employment and economic opportunities. Many
of these ethnic leaders go to Chinese hospitals across the border for medical
treatment and send their children to school in China. The Chinese language and
even the Chinese currency - the renminbi or yuan - are used throughout the
Kokang and Wa areas in Myanmar's northern Shan state.
Anything which forces Beijing to choose between their ethnic brothers inside
Myanmar - the Kokang are ethnically Chinese and the Wa are a Chinese ethnic
minority - and the country's central government will bring into sharp focus the
real nature of the Myanmar-China axis.
Beijing is now more worried about Myanmar's longer-term allegiance. The junta
has been China's key ally and strategic partner in Southeast Asia in recent
years. So the current overtures between the US and Myanmar have dismayed
China's leaders, who remain suspicious of the US interest in re-engaging with
the region and increasing its influence.
"China will react with measured nervousness to this unwelcome encroachment into
[Myanmar]," said Justin Wintle, a British expert on Myanmar and biographer of
opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Beijing's current concerns stem from the unstable basis of their bilateral
relationship. "We are not real friends, as [we are] with Thailand, for
example," said a senior Chinese government official who spoke to IPS on
condition of anonymity. "It's a Machiavellian relationship: we are in it for
what we can get out of it, and they are also in it, for what they can get out
of it," he said.
Thus, it is a relationship that could shift easily, said Chinese diplomats.
"But it is not likely to become antagonistic anytime soon," said Win Min.
"[Myanmar] is far too economically dependent on China for the government to
really consider ditching Beijing as its main ally."
More than 90% of foreign direct investment in Myanmar last year was Chinese.
While the Western-led sanctions remain in place, that is unlikely to change for
some time under the terms of the US's new engagement gambit. The sanctions, of
course, now more than ever have rankled with the regime.
"Sanctions are being employed as a political tool against Myanmar and we
consider them unjust," Myanmar's Prime Minister General Thein Sein told the
United Nations General Assembly in New York in late September.
Myanmar's interest in a dialogue with the US is motivated by the regime's main
concerns: to have sanctions lifted, for international humanitarian and
development assistance to flow into the country and to attract foreign
"Though generals are certainly unhappy about being too dependent on one
supporter, and will be trying to balance Chinese influence with better
relations with the US as well as other countries, like ASEAN [Association of
Southeast Asian Nations] and India. They will not be looking to cut the
umbilical cord with China in the near future," said Win Min.
China will watch with growing concern any further US overtures to Myanmar.
China's extensive economic, trade and military involvement in Myanmar gives the
junta the upper hand, rather than making them more subservient to Beijing. The
issue now is how far the junta leaders will go in flexing their muscles.
(Inter Press Service)
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