China Military Further Tightens Burma Border Control

By Patrick Boehler 27 February 2013

HONG KONG—Chinese troops are conducting military training in southwestern Yunnan Province along the border with Burma’s Kachin State, as part of nationwide yearly exercises and new efforts to boost border surveillance along the restive ethnic region in northern Burma.

Chengdu military region, the military command covering southwestern China, has been staging a series of exercises under the recently promulgated slogan “to fight a battle, and win a battle,” including air defense and reconnaissance training, Ministry of Defense releases said.

Military exercises throughout China at the beginning of the year are regular occurrences and the People’s Liberation Army Staff Command said on Wednesday that 30 exercises were planned this year.

Training in Yunnan’s border region had assumed new significance after fighting across the border in Burma’s Kachin State between Burmese armed forces and the ethnic Kachin Independence Army (KIA) spilled over into China in January. Burmese army units mistakenly shelled Chinese territory. Local eyewitness alleged that Burmese jets entered Chinese airspace, a claim that has been refuted by the Chinese Ministry of Defense.

Last week, Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua reported that Chinese troops have been training in Yunnan for “real combat to increase their capacity to control the border.”

However, as the offensive in Kachin State quieted down in February and China is poised to mediate a third round of peace talks in the border town of Ruili next month, few analysts believe that such a spillover could still happen.

“There is little likelihood that the Kachin insurgency will have significant spillover into Yunnan,” said Jonah Blank, an Arlington-based Southeast Asia specialist at the Rand Corporation. “The Kachin rebels are well aware of China’s redlines, and they don’t want to alienate the most powerful state in the region,” he said.

Since December, there have nonetheless been reports that China’s military is putting in place contingency plans for a possible spread of Burma’s ethnic conflict into Yunnan, where some 130,000 Chinese Kachin, also known as Jingpo in Chinese, live. China has also sealed off its southern border in order to prevent an influx of refugees, as about 100,000 Kachin villagers have been displaced by the conflict.

The Yunnan military command said in a statement in December that troops should “prepare for emergencies, contingencies and fighting” along the Burma-China border. The report praised an unspecified unit for being able to secure a part of the border within 37 minutes in an exercise.

On Dec. 24, the day of a Burmese military ultimatum against the KIA, which triggered an offensive that soon reached the Chinese border, the Yunnan military command issued a five-year plan to upgrade its border security. The plan includes the setting up of an electronic border control system.

“We have looked at the new situation that has arisen along the border,” the People’s Liberation Daily, a mouthpiece for the armed forces, said of the new measures. The border troops have also introduced new “dagger” patrol vehicles and armored broadcasting vans, according to local media reports.

A Kachin activist said China’s tightening of the security situation was likely related to concerns over its own Kachin minority.

“One scenario could be political instability in the border area in Yunnan Province because of the solidarity with the people in Kachin State,” said Naw La, a spokesperson for the Kachin Development Networking Group. “This is not a legitimate concern,” he said, “but behind the scenes, they worry.”

On Jan. 10, Chinese military border guards were confronted by about 1,000 Chinese Kachin who protested against Burma’s ethnic conflict in the border town of Nabang. The protest was allowed and later peacefully dispersed.

Apart from China’s concerns over northern Burma’s ethnic conflict, the cross-border movement of people and illicit drugs has also become a growing concern, as drug seizures reached a historic record last year.

According to media reports on a public security meeting in Yunnan’s capital Kunming on Wednesday, border police confiscated 1,143 arms—5 percent of all weapons confiscated nationwide last year—and five tons of drugs. Police deported 5,228 Burmese civilians and stopped 85 militiamen from entering China.

Despite the challenges that the restive Kachin region poses, China—a vital trade partner to both sides in the ethnic conflict—has so far failed to broker a peace.

According to Blank this is due to a lack of trust. “Neither the Kachin rebels nor the [Burmese] government truly trust China. Both parties see China as favoring the other,” he said.