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    Greater China
     Feb 7, 2013


China steps into Kachin conflict
By Brendan O'Reilly

The Chinese government is currently hosting peace talks between Myanmar's government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The KIA expects China "will take a role as a witness and mediate during the meeting". [1] These negotiations are the latest in a series that have been held in recent years by China. Fighting between the KIA and Myanmar's military erupted in 2011 after a 17-year truce.

China is increasingly involved in the conflict raging in northern Myanmar's Kachin state. The many inherent contradictions of Myanmar, also known as Burma, a resource rich, impoverished, and politically liberalizing land locked country in destabilizing ethnic conflict, have vital implications for the Chinese leadership.

Added to these dynamics are Myanmar's strategic position on the

 
Asian landmass and the recent overtures of Western powers to the country's new leadership. China's deepening unusual involvement in another country's internal struggle is a sign of just how important Myanmar is to China's foreign policy goals.

Fighting in Kachin State has intensified in recent weeks as government forces have used heavy weaponry and moved closer to KIA strongholds. The KIA is the last of Myanmar's many ethnic militias to face continued military action from the central government. The other major rebel groups - such as the Karen National Union and Shan State Army - have hammered out ceasefire agreements with the new government in recent years.

That Myanmar is facing intense ethnic fighting is unfortunately typical for the country. Last year saw tens of thousands of minority Muslim Rohingyas flee Myanmar after widespread ethnic riots that pitted the Muslims Rohingyas against Buddhist Rakhines. The recently stalled conflict between the Karen National Union and the central government began in 1949, and is the world's longest-running separatist war.

What is unique about the current situation is the active participation of China in attempting to mitigate or resolve the conflict. For the past several decades, China has usually taken a decidedly hands-off approach to the domestic politics and internal conflicts of her neighbors and trading partners. The guiding principle of "non-interference in other country's internal affairs" has served China well in securing close political and economic ties with a large variety of nations.

Officially, the Chinese government cares not if another country is a theocratic monarchy or a capitalist democracy, so long as trade continues to flow and China's core interests are respected. Letting other nations to sort out their own conflicts without ideological interference has allowed Beijing to expand influence throughout the world.

However, China's active involvement in Myanmar may indicate a significant policy shift. China has extensive interests in the country, and cannot risk an escalation of ethnic conflicts near China's culturally heterogeneous border regions. Furthermore, by investing political capital and prestige in resolving the conflict, China is giving a signal to other concerned global powers that Myanmar remains well within its strategic orbit.

China's interests
Many of China's motives in ending the fighting in northern Myanmar are entirely obvious. Kachin State borders southwestern China's Yunnan province. Already thousands of refugees have crossed the border into China. Furthermore, stray rockets and bombs launched by Myanmar's army have landed in Chinese territory. China is obviously highly motivated to maintain internal stability in the ethnically diverse southwest regions and avoid any violent spillover.

As always, economic considerations are an indispensable component of China's Myanmar policy. Chinese corporations, hungry for raw materials, dominate northern Myanmar's markets for tropical hardwood and minerals. Newly liberalizing Myanmar also represents a potentially massive consumer market for Chinese manufactured goods.

Strategic objectives must also be factored into China's increasingly proactive stance in Myanmar. After decades of isolation, the government of Myanmar is opening up to Western powers. The West has praised Myanmar's domestic reforms - especially the release of opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi. President Barack Obama made a historic visit to Myanmar last year. Myanmar's leaders are publicly flirting with the United States at the same time that American political and military assets are increasingly focused on countering China's regional influence.

Of course these dynamics of China's involvement in Myanmar - the political, the economic, and the strategic - cannot be viewed as entirely independent elements. Rather, there are important parallels and influences linking these trends. For example, local concerns about an extensive copper mine - jointly owned by Myanmar's military and a Chinese firm - have recently erupted in emotional protests that met a violent state response.

On the positive side for China, Myanmar provides an excellent avenue for expanding China's strategic depth. By June, an oil pipeline is due to link Myanmar's Indian Ocean coast with Kunming, the provincial capital of China's Yunnan. This vital energy link will give China much-desired regional maneuverability. At present, nearly all of China's massive and growing oil and energy imports must pass through the strategic bottleneck of the Strait of Malacca and the contested South China Sea.

China's official Xinhua news outlet reports that the pipeline through Myanmar will help satisfy "China's new strategic energy channels" and avoid the "risk-prone Strait of Malacca". In the unlikely event of open hostilities in the region, China's energy imports through Myanmar could be a lifeline offering some degree of economic and geopolitical operating space. Myanmar is an increasingly central factor in the developing Sino-American great power rivalry.

The freedom to flee
A very interestingly timed report from the human rights NGO Freedom House has served to highlight the curious political posturing unfolding in Myanmar between China, the United States, ethnic militias, and Myanmar's central government. In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Freedom House spokeswoman Sarah Cook asserted that, in spite of long standing and serious issues, "Burma has now surpassed China on both political rights and civil liberties". [2]

It is rare - indeed, almost unprecedented - for Freedom House (a self-described "independent watchdog organization" that receives a majority of its funding from the US government) to directly compare the domestic political situation in two different countries. This comparison may reflect American political and strategic attitudes towards the two countries.

A paradox of Freedom House's praise for Myanmar's political changes is that these not-insignificant reforms have coincided with severe and intensifying ethnic strife. In the past year, roughly 100,000 ethnic Rohingya have fled their homes in western Myanmar in the wake of severe ethnic strife that many observers say amounted to state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing.

According to Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch, Myanmar's security forces not only failed to effectively prevent the ethnic fighting but also "unleashed a campaign of violence and mass roundups against the Rohingya". [3] Concurrent with the violent situation in Myanmar's west is the intensified military campaign and use of heavy weaponry against the KIA in Myanmar's north.

While the domestic political situation for majority ethnic Burmese opposition groups has improved, it seems that the only freedom left for restive minorities such as the Rohingya and Kachin in Myanmar is the freedom to die or flee the country. Tempered praise for Myanmar's reforms from American politicians may reveal more about Western strategic interests in the country than any real improvement in the life of Myanmar's people. There are also pertinent lessons for an ethnically diverse China: communal harmony does not always naturally follow political liberalization.

In keeping with Chinese foreign policy, Beijing doesn't officially care one way or another about reform in Myanmar's domestic politics - so long as trade continues to flow, stability is ensured, and Myanmar does not become another Western ally in the increasingly open effort to contain China.

However, the Chinese leadership cannot afford to ignore developments in Myanmar. China's decision to sponsor the talks between the KIA and Myanmar's government might reveal a growing Chinese discomfort with developments in their southern neighbor.

As China's economic, political, and strategic attachments deepen throughout the world, the Chinese government may take a more active role in resolving conflicts that are seen as a threat to Chinese interests.

Talks between the KIA and Myanmar's government may provide China with important diplomatic experience in securing the peace and promoting Chinese foreign policy goals. As great power politics resurface in Southeast Asia, expect more active Chinese involvement in the region's disputes. In the meanwhile, more Kachin refugees vote with their feet and prefer Chinese stability to Burmese freedom.

Brendan P O'Reilly is a China-based writer and educator from Seattle. He is author of The Transcendent Harmony.

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A well-laid war in Myanmar (Feb 2, '13)

Pyrrhic victory in Myanmar (Jan 31, '13

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