China faces a recurring problem along along its border with Myanmar. Beijing has repeatedly emphasised that it wants to play a constructive role in Myanmar's national reconciliation and economic development. But no matter what Beijing does to signal good intentions, on a local level the capacities, skills and willingness to implement these policies are lacking.
Two separate recent events have caused a stir about China in Myanmar's media and public debate.
First, in early January, news broke that over 100 Chinese nationals had allegedly been trapped behind conflict lines in Myanmar's northern Kachin state. As it turned out, the trespassers had been arrested for illegal logging activities in Waingmaw township near Kachin's capital, Myitkyina, en route from Sagaing Division on the Indian border towards China, a region that has not witnessed any major armed clashes for almost two years. In response, Chinese diplomats undertook a major effort to guarantee the humanitarian treatment and diplomatic access to the detainees, and to eventually broker their release.
Myanmar imposed a ban on timber exports in April 2014. The move has fueled resentment and a blame game about who is benefiting from resource concessions. Chinese traders have ignored the ban, and local authorities in Yunnan Province have done little if nothing to stop cross-border activity.
The second event occurred between December and mid-February. Battles between the Myanmar Armed Forces (MAF) and Kokang fighters were reported to have occurred around Muse, Laukkaing (Laogai) and Tamoenye in northern Shan state. The Kokang are an ethic Han-Chinese minority located on the China-Myanmar border. In 2009, during the so-called 'Kokang incident', clashes between the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the MAF resulted in over 30,000 refugees crossing the border into China.
The MNDAA split over disunity about a ceasefire agreement with the MAF. A renegade faction under former commander and drug kingpin Peng Jiasheng (Pheung Kya-shin) fled the country. Recent fighting has been ascribed to Peng and his son, who have revived the MNDAA abroad and returned to the country with the goal of retribution. According to reports, after recent events, Chinese authorities are worried about stability in the border region. A PLA delegation was sent to visit the Ministry of Defence in Naypyidaw.
The region has traditionally been important for drugs and trafficking of all kinds. Groups such as the Wa ethnicity have profited from cross-border support and (illicit) trade. Until the late 1980s China supported the Communist Party of Burma, a Kokang-based group that was led by Peng Jiasheng. The group was was key for Beijing's leverage in Burma.
Recent skirmishes were preceded by an interview with Peng, which was published on 20 December 2014 in the Chinese Government mouthpiece the Global Times. The interview roused spectres of the past and stirred up deep sentiments. As well as announcing his intention to wage sustained guerilla warfare in an alliance with other armed groups, Peng suggested the option of a Crimea-style referendum for parts of northern Mynamar which would either lead to a high degree of autonomy or even integration into 'Greater China'. Overall, he pleaded for the greater involvement of China in northern Myanmar.
Although such scenarios are unrealistic, Beijing has done little to defuse suspicions and nervousness among Myanmar officials and the public. China has made efforts to improve relations by appointing a special envoy who made some half-hearted attempts to mediate in Kachin State, but mistrust prevails. The experience of a small state being trapped in great-power calculations still resonates among Myanmar's leaders. Beijing's grand designs for a geopolitical and economic regional linkages, including transport corridors towards India, raise concerns. Suspicion about ongoing support for armed groups, or at least connivance of arms trafficking and training such as for the Wa, still exists. The revamped MNDAA most likely directly or indirectly obtained its arms from China.
While Beijing has expressed its concerns about the stability of the border region, Naypyidaw has already called on Beijing to prevent local authorities from providing any unofficial support to armed groups. In order to improve relations and build trust, Beijing will have to go beyond mere 'concerns' about stability and put its house in order.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user K. Aksoy.