On Mar. 13, a Myanmar warplane reportedly dropped a bomb in the Lincang county of Yunnan Province, killing four Chinese civilians. This might mark the worst day of Sino-Burmese relations since June 1967, when Chinese embassy in Rangoon was attacked and Chinese nationals killed as a result of local opposition to the policies of the Cultural Revolution. Over the weekend, Beijing responded in a ferocious manner, lodging diplomatic protest, dispatching fighter jets to the border and demanding investigation, punishment, apology and compensation.
Burma is under major Chinese diplomatic, military and political pressure to deal with the situation to China’s satisfaction. While everyone’s attention is fixated on the simple fact that Burma bombed China, people are missing the most important issue at hand: what is really responsible for the bombing?
The ostensible answer is the Burmese Army. After all, the bomb was most likely dropped by a Burmese warplane that intruded into Chinese air space. However, many commentators seem to have forgotten that the bombing site is next to Laukkai: an active warzone, where the warplane was on a mission to attack ethnic fighters. In this sense, the conflict between the ethnic groups and the Burmese Army—and more importantly, the ethnic groups’ strategy to seek sanctuary along the Chinese border and in China—is the root cause for the tragedy. Such a strategy can be traced to China’s historical support of the Burmese Communist Party and Beijing’s pursuit of relationships with the border ethnic groups in Burma. For that reason, there is cause to debate the innocence of every party involved.
Through years of guerilla warfare, ethnic groups along the Sino-Burmese border have developed a strategy of skillfully playing “hide and seek” with the Burma Army in the jungles. They fight when the situation is to their advantage and retreat into China when they stand to lose. Knowing that the Burmese Army cannot cross into China and chase them down, ethnic armies treat China as their safe haven. The porousness of the border, thriving legal and illegal border trade and frequent border-crossings by locals makes the strategy feasible. The strategy is employed by ethnic armies on the Thai borders as well: the Karen National Union used to fight the Burmese military back and forth from Thailand, and the Shan State Army-South still has its headquarters and five bases along the Thai-Burmese border.
This tactic has drawn Burmese attacks on Chinese territory. The Burma Army and the government could, of course, abandon their national security agenda. However, if they don’t and hit China by accident during an engagement, an angered China will step up pressure and force the Burma Army to retreat. When the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) sought sanctuary along the Chinese border in Dec. 2012, the Burma Air Force made the same mistake and dropped bombs on Chinese territory. A disturbed China intervened to reduce tensions and convened peace talks between the Burmese government and the KIA in China.
It is utterly inconceivable that the Burmese military would intentionally bomb China to kill Chinese citizens. The Burmese military and China have formed a close relationship in the past few decades, which has translated into tacit support of each other’s stake in contemporary Burmese politics. Military-to-military relations are particularly strong, with the People’s Liberation Army selling arms, providing aid, equipment and training to the Burma Army. In the sensitive climate of ethnic conflict and an upcoming general election, it beggars belief that the Burma Army would take such radical action with no apparent gain.
With that in mind, most Chinese analysts and government statements on the bombing indicate an inclination to believe the tragedy was the result of a technical error. Indeed, the bombsite was only one kilometer from the border. Given the training and equipment deficiencies of the Burma Air Force, it is reasonable to assume that the distance is within the reasonable margin of error. This does not necessarily make China less upset, but does clear some doubts politically. While Burmese presidential spokesman Ye Htut has already blamed the bombing on the Kokang rebels, the real investigation will take some time to complete.
Whatever the investigation eventually reveals, China is faced with a difficult dilemma. From a national security point of view, the logical choice for China would be to seal the border or create a border buffer zone to prevent itself from becoming a rebel sanctuary. However, this approach will result in a de facto policy that blocks ethnic armies in Burma and leaves them at the mercy of the military. This will lead to a bigger political and human rights debate about whether the ethnic groups have the legitimacy to fight the central government and if so, whether they merit such external support. The Chinese could also prevent refugees from returning to Kokang until the situation clears, but that will solicit criticisms from a humanitarian perspective.
Last but not least, China could call for peace talks between the Burmese government and the Kokang, as it did in early 2013 between the KIA and the government. However, that approach will also have negative ramifications for bilateral relations: the Burmese government does not want to enshrine a precedent whereby rebel groups use fighting as a means of becoming a legitimate political force. Such a policy on China’s part will also take a toll on China’s strategic interests in Burma.
The Burmese government faces similar dilemmas. History attests that it cannot achieve a military victory without infringing upon China’s border security—and as much as Burma does not wish to anger China, to abandon its military campaign will raise internal questions about the government’s ability to safeguard the nation’s security.
In the short term, an investigation, apologies, compensation and punishment of the responsible parties are all reasonable answers to the tragedy. However, in the long-term, an effort to prevent a repeat of such incidents will require the Burmese government to develop more sophisticated political and military solutions towards ethnic issues and more substantial cooperation with China on the border. If Burma or China act outside of the spirit of consultation and cooperation with each other, the threat to the national interest of both countries and their relationship with each other could be unfathomable.
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.