Kachin Conflict a Conundrum for China

By Patrick Boehler 21 January 2013

HONG KONG—Burma’s President Thein Sein met with Chinese special envoy Fu Ying and a high-ranking Chinese military delegation in Rangoon on Saturday to discuss the ongoing Kachin conflict, which is raging near China’s southwestern border.

The outcome of the talks remain unclear as Chinese authorities have not spelled out their strategy for addressing the ethnic conflict. But there are signs that China is growing increasingly concerned over the unrest, which could spill over into its territory.

Following Saturday’s meeting, the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry released a statement saying that Thein Sein and Fu Ying had “exchanged views on deepening the Sino-Burmese strategic partnership and have agreed to protect peace and stability in the Sino-Burmese border areas.”

“We hope to maintain peace in the border areas, so that the border population can go about their ordinary lives,” Fu told Chinese Central Television. “Both sides agree on this point.”

Thein Sein’s office provided few details on the meeting and only mentioned that the president and Chinese officials discussed “matters related to amity and cooperation between the two countries, assistance to Myanmar and border area stability.”

A ceasefire between the Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) broke down in 2011 and fighting escalated last month, when the Burmese army began launching airstrikes on rebel positions using helicopter gunships and jet fighters.

The battles have focused on the mountains around Laiza, a town of about 20,000 residents where another 15,000 displaced villagers are seeking refuge. Kachin rebels have their headquarters in Laiza, which is located on the Burma-China border.

On Dec. 30 and Jan. 17, Burmese artillery shells landed on Chinese soil, prompting an irritated response by China’s foreign ministry, which asked for an “immediate ceasefire” on Jan. 18.

Although the shells caused no damage, Chinese security forces were sent to increase their patrols and surveillance along the border, according to local Chinese reports.

Qi Jianguo, the new Deputy Chief of Staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, also met with Thein Sein in Rangoon as part of bilateral strategic security consultations between the two countries’ armed forces.

Following the meeting, he addressed the conflict, telling Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency that he hoped the Burmese government would “adopt effective measures to achieve stability” in Kachin state. But he added that, “China will not interfere in the internal affairs of Myanmar.”

One particular concern for Chinese authorities has been the potential influx of thousands of Kachin refugees, which could occur if the Burmese army captures Laiza town.

In early January, local Chinese authorities reportedly started preparing four refugee shelters in Nabang town, which is separated from Laiza only by a small river that demarcates the border.

A local medical official told China News Service on Sunday that authorities in Yunnan Province’s Yinjiang County set aside 21 medical staff, five ambulances, tents, food and cooking oil to provide assistance for any potential Kachin refugees.

Such preparations are reminiscent of a situation in 2008, when the Burmese military attacked another ethnic group in Burma, the Kokang, and some 30,000 Kokang refugees from northern Shan State fled across the border into China.

Chinese economic interests are also put at risk by the Kachin fighting, as it has several large hydropower projects in the state, while a Chinese an important gas and oil pipeline runs from Burma’s western coast to China, passing just south of the war zone.

The unrest along its southwestern border presents a challenge to China’s foreign policy and Chinese authorities still seem to be in the process of formulating a coherent response. Some Chinese media have recently begun to address this issue.

“How our government should react is a question worth considering, this is also a new kind of test of what role China should play in the world,” Chinese right-wing daily Global Times said in an article on Friday.

The newspaper said China should not become directly involved in the conflict, as it could strain the country’s relations with Burma and put at risk Chinese investments. It warned against siding with the Kachin movement, which gets support from Chinese ethnic Kachin, who are called Jingpo in China and number about 132,000.

However, an opinion survey on the Global Times’ website on Saturday indicated that 53 percent of its readers think that “China should become involved in the ethnic conflict in northern Burma”. Another 63 percent said they believed that the conflict was affecting bilateral relations between Burma and China. The survey has since been removed from the site.

Zhang Huagang, a scholar at Yunnan University in Kunming, said in a reaction that China’s options in dealing with the Kachin conflict were limited. “The visit by Fu Ying and the high-level talks will not be able to change the situation, the fact is that the Burmese army is besieging the KIA,” he said.

Zhang Huagang said China also had to contend with other foreign powers in dealing with the conflict. “The question of security at the Sino-Burmese border areas is no longer solely an issue in Sino-Burmese relations. The West, led by the United States, now also has stakes in it,” he added.

In other areas along Burma’s long border with China meanwhile, ethnic groups are in a precarious ceasefire agreements with the Burmese government, which could be destabilized by the Kachin conflict.

The local administrations of Burma’s Special Regions II, III, IV in Shan State, all bordering China, recently issued a statement, warning that the Burmese offensive against the Kachin could cause a return to more conflict in the border areas.

Among the ethnic Wa, who control Special Region II with their powerful United Wa State Army, concerns over the Kachin conflict are growing, as they fear that the Burmese army will come after their territory next.

These concerns have not gone unnoticed in China. “Once the Burmese control the Kachin, the next target will be the Wa,” a local Wa source told Chinese Shenzhen TV on Sept. 9.