Guest Column

The Kokang Conflict: How Will China Respond?

By Yun Sun 18 February 2015

One week before the Chinese New Year, the former leader of the ethnic Kokang National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Peng Jiasheng, launched ferocious attacks on the government military in Kokang. Peng was driven out of power during the Kokang Incident in 2009 and has since disappeared from public view. While it remains unclear at this moment whether Peng will regain control of Kokang, the renewed conflict and his reemergence have added major uncertainty to Myanmar’s peace process and could potentially affect the upcoming elections.

China has a significant security interest at stake in the renewed conflict. The armed conflict and refugee crisis during the 2009 Kokang Incident marred the stability China’s borders, as did the Kachin conflict in late 2012 and early 2013. The instability underlines China’s biggest concerns over the Burmese ethnic groups on the border and the peace process. While local authorities in Yunnan Province were better prepared to manage the refugee influx this time, future uncertainly inevitably aggravates China’s negative outlook for the prospects of security and stability in the region.

Aside from security concerns, the Kokang conflict itself has also become a controversial issue in China. Through the internet and media, Peng’s appeal for support of the “Chinese Kokang people” has invoked great sympathy among the Chinese general public. He went on to quite skillfully portray the Burma Army’s actions as serving American strategic interests, which resonates deeply with the distrust among some Chinese about the improvement in US-Burma relations. The assistance he received from other ethnic groups, including the Kachin Independence Army, outlines a picture of solidarity among ethnic groups against the Burmese government, which could undermine China’s confidence in the peace process.

In the renewed Kokang conflict, ethnic groups have clearly grasped and exploited China’s sense of vulnerability. Peng’s strategic choice to instigate war and send refugees to China right before the Chinese New Year is a calculated move to force Beijing to push the Burmese government to deflate the tension. In the desired outcome, a Burma Army retreat would allow Peng to reestablish his control of Kokang, position himself as a legitimate representative and leader of the Kokang minority and insert himself in the peace process—perhaps even in the upcoming elections. Such a risky, destabilizing and deadly move is motivated by the ethnic groups’ narrow interests to gain political capital rather than by any consideration of the local people, the need for peace and reconciliation or China’s national interest.

What happened in Kokang does not represent Beijing’s policy preferences or desired outcome. It undermines the stable and peaceful environment China desires for the success of its commercial investments and strategic endeavors. Furthermore, the conflict creates disturbances for Sino-Burmese relations. While a few so-called “strategic thinkers” in China still call for the country to provide support to the border ethnic groups in order to gain more “strategic leverage” against Burma, this school of thought has been clearly rejected by policymakers and mainstream scholars in China.

Yun Sun is a fellow with the East Asia program at the Henry L. Stimson Center and a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution.
Yun Sun is a fellow with the East Asia program at the Henry L. Stimson Center and a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution.

For China, the strategic importance of Burma significantly outweighs China’s interest in the border ethnic groups. Burma is a critical link in President Xi Jinping’s One Belt One Road strategy (that is, the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road). China intends to build infrastructure and connectivity projects through Burma to Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Indian Ocean in order to boost Chinese economic growth and expand economic returns, political ties and strategic influence. Burma is key to the smooth operation of the Sino-Burmese oil and gas pipelines, a national strategic endeavor to diversify energy transportation routes and reduce trade vulnerability. In addition, in keeping with Xi’s stated emphasis on “periphery diplomacy”, Burma is a priority country where China strives to restore influence, repair ties and mend its damaged reputation.

The border ethnic groups, on the other hand, offer China none of these strategic utilities. By increasingly presenting themselves as the source of the problem without making any constructive contributions to the solution, the ethnic groups are depleting China of the little remaining sympathy and goodwill it has towards their cause. Given China’s prioritization of improving ties with Burma, if the border ethnic groups are seen to have become a strategic liability that undermines Sino-Burmese relations, their actions will push China precisely in the opposite direction they wish to see.

China needs the conflict between the Burmese government and the border ethnic groups to be resolved peacefully. This is not just because of the immediate destabilizing effect of the conflict, but also because any military solution or imposed peace will prolong rather than put an end to the crisis. Nevertheless, China’s involvement in facilitating or expediting a peaceful resolution is constrained by its own principle of non-interference and, more importantly, by the fear of any backlash in Burma for the perceived Chinese meddling in Burma’s internal affairs.

There have been rumors about Peng receiving Chinese support in the renewed Kokang conflict. In fact, given the historical ties between certain local actors in China and the border ethnic groups in Burma, it is not entirely inconceivable that some local actors in China went behind Beijing’s back to pursue a different course of action. If there is indisputable proof of such audacious behavior, Burma should lodge a formal complaint with Beijing. Without pushing specific charges with concrete evidence, Burma will achieve little by speculating or complaining. On the other hand, Beijing needs to carefully examine whether its broader national interests in Burma are being undermined by its own players, and if so, rein in their behavior.

While China is on Burma’s side with regard to peace and reconciliation, Burma’s own ability to manage the issue is a key factor in determining China’s position. China may not like the border ethnic groups and their actions, but it will not adopt a policy that is aimed at their elimination. In other words, if the Burma Army cannot manage the country’s own insurgency, China will not do the job for it either. Indeed, if the Burma Army easily loses Kokang to a thousand local rebels overnight, it does raise the question to everyone as to whether the Burma Army is the guardian of the nation and its territorial integrity, as it claims to be.

As a national policy, China does not support Peng Jiasheng. However, if Peng does successfully consolidate his control of Kokang, China will not opt to oppose him. China will accommodate such a reality, even if it indicates more uncertainties and risks. (In similar cases of internally divided and unstable countries, such as Pakistan or Afghanistan, China has developed a record of smoothly working with both the local tribes/warlords and the central governments.) To manage uncertainty and resolve conflict requires strengths and wisdom from the Burmese authorities. Any suspicion of China undermining the process is as equally misplaced as any hope for China to solve the problem for Burma.

Yun Sun is a fellow with the East Asia program at the Henry L. Stimson Center and a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution.