Bangkok (Mizzima) - There is a growing rift between the two close allies and neighbours, China and Burma over their border problems, with relations at an all-time low. The Burmese junta have cooled towards their main benefactor, Beijing, with increasing public signs of their dissatisfaction. Beijing has even issued some unusually forthright criticism of their neighbour in the past few weeks.
China has also reacted with a diplomatic flurry of activity – in Beijing, Naypyidaw and New York. The Chinese are so concerned about the clouds over their relationship, that they dispatched one of their most seasoned negotiators, the vice-minister for foreign affairs, Wang Yi to Burma on a secret mission within the last ten days, according to senior Burmese officials.
The first signs of the cracks in the relationship appeared when the Burmese army launched an offensive against the Kokang ethnic rebels who have had a truce with the regime for twenty years. Thousands of refugees fled across the border for safety, raising fears of a fresh civil war along Burma’s northern border and alarming China. Beijing’s attitude to Burma has also been compounded by concern over the junta’s future relations with the United States – Beijing is wary of Washington’s offer to the junta of a dialogue.
“Beijing has been taken aback by the Burmese junta’s cavalier approach to their normally strong relationship,” said Win Min, a Burmese academic based at Chiang Mai University. “But it is likely to prove to be a hiccup, rather than a major shift in relations.”
China has several major concerns, including their massive economic investment in the country, especially the planned oil pipeline, pumping oil from the Arakan Sea off the west coast of Burma into China’s southern province of Yunnan. But Beijing is also concerned about the growing unrest along their common border, and the safety of the Chinese living in Burma. Around a quarter of a million Chinese have crossed the border and sought work and economic opportunities in northern Burma in the last ten years.
Concerns are now mounting for their safety with the deteriorating situation in the border areas. Last weekend a government-controlled provincial television channel, which is based in Kunming – the capital of Yunnan -- broadcast a Chinese government announcement advising all Chinese citizens in eastern Burma to return home quickly.
This followed a formal complaint from China to Burma days earlier over the way Chinese citizens living in a border region had been treated during recent clashes between the Burmese army and the ethnic Kokang militia last month. In statement issued last week, China's Foreign Ministry said the recent conflict with the Kokang, in a north-eastern Burmese region bordering China, had "harmed the rights and interests of Chinese citizens living there." It also said the Burmese government should make sure similar incidents do not happen again.
Burma insists that peace has been restored to the area in question, and most of the refugees who fled to China had returned. But there has still thousands seeking refuge across the border, not just from the Kokang areas, according to residents living in China along the border with Burma. Nearly forty thousand refugees, many of them Chinese businessmen fled into China when the fighting erupted. They were housed in makeshift camps provided by the Chinese authorities. Officially these refugees have since been dispersed, and returned to Burma. “The Kokang capital Laogai, remains a ghost town,” a recent foreign visitor there told Mizzima. Most of the main cities and towns are also empty, including the main border city in the east of Shan state, he added.
Right along the border, from the Kachin areas in the west to the Shan areas in the east, people have fled into China for fear of renewed fighting between other ethnic rebel groups, especially the Kachin and the Wa and the Burmese army, according to Indian entrepreneurs who travel along this area doing business. “Everyone fears that the twenty-year old ceasefire agreements have been torn up by the Burmese generals, and a return to fighting is imminent,” said a Kachin student living in the Chinese border town of Ruili.
“At moment it does not look as though the Burmese army is about to attack any of the other ethnic rebel groups that have ceasefire agreements, though there is a lot of posturing going on,” said Win Min. “There is no doubt that the regime means to have all the ethnic rebel armies disarm before next year’s elections and become part of the border guards under the control of the Burmese army.” The ceasefire groups told Mizzima that they have until the end of October to comply with the government order to disarm, and join the Border Police Guard under the control of the Burmese military, and take part in next year’s planned elections.
Earlier this year the junta sought the assistance of the former intelligence chief and prime minister, General Khin Nyunt – who was deposed in October 2004 and is now under house arrest in Rangoon – to help negotiate with these rebels groups, especially the Wa. Khun Nyunt had mater-mined these ceasefire agreement some twenty years ago, and was still trusted by many of the ethnic leaders. He agreed on condition that his men – some 300 military intelligence officers who were jailed in the aftermath of Khin Nyunt’s fall – be freed.
The government refused to accept his condition, and turned to the Chinese – who have extremely close relations with the key ethnic groups along the border – the Kachin, Kokang and the Wa. The Chinese reluctance to help has angered the Burmese junta’s leaders.
It is now increasingly evident that a significant rift exits between the two countries that could have crucial implications for other countries in the region, and any approach the international community may take to encourage the Burmese military regime to introduce real political change.
The implications of this growing divergence could have significant affects on the border region, as the most of the ethnic groups – especially the Kachin, Kokang and Wa – in this area have ceasefire agreements with the Burmese junta, but also have traditionally close ties with the Chinese authorities. Economically and culturally the area is certainly closer to China than the Burmese regime.
Many of these ethnic leaders go to Chinese hospital across the border for medical treatment and send their children to school in China. The Chinese language and even the Chinese currency the Renminbi is used throughout the Kokang and Wa areas in northern Shan state.
Anything which forces Beijing to choose between their ethnic brothers inside Burma—the Kokang are ethnically and the Wa, a Chinese ethnic minority -- and the central government will cause the Beijing immense problems. And in the end will bring into sharp focus the real nature of the Burma-China axis.
Beijing is now more worried about Burma’s longer-term allegiance. The junta has been a China’s key ally and strategic partner in south-east Asia in the past few years. So the current overtures between Washington and Burma have dismayed the Chinese leaders, who remain suspicious of the US interest in re-engaging with the region and increasing its influence – also fearing it is a return to the old US strategy of containing China. The region is seen by Beijing as its back-yard, and any competition for influence is far from welcomed.
China fears that its influence in south-east Asia is waning. Vietnam has never been a strong supporter, and as far as Beijing is concerned, for sometime Hanoi’s main interest has been to cosy up to Washington. Recently Cambodia and Thailand have strengthened their ties with the US, increasing China’s strategic concerns.
Now its rock-solid ally has begun to flirt with improving relations with Washington. “China will react with measured nervousness to this unwelcomed encroachment into Burma,” Justin Wintle, a British expert on Burma and biographer of Aung San Suu Kyi told Mizzima.
Beijing’s current concerns stem from the unstable basis of their bilateral relationship. The Chinese government remains suspicious of the Burmese military junta. “When we meet the Thais, they look Chinese and speak Chinese, but when we see the Burmese leaders, they don’t speak Chinese and they look South Asian,” said a senior Chinese government official.
‘Burma and China are not ‘real’ friends – as with Thailand for example,” he said. “It’s a Machiavellian relationship: we are in for what we can get out of it, and they are also in it, for what they can get out of it,” he said.
So according to Chinese diplomats, it is a relationship that could shift easily. “But it is not likely to become antagonistic anytime soon,” said Win Min. “Burma is far too economically dependent on China for the government to really consider ditching Beijing as its main ally.”
More than ninety percent of direct foreign invest in Burma last year was Chinese. While the western-led sanctions remain in place, that is unlikely to change in the near future. Sanctions of course now more than ever rankle with the regime.
"Sanctions are being employed as a political tool against Myanmar and we consider them unjust," the Burmese prime minister, General Thein Sein told the UN’s annual General Assembly meeting in New York last month. Undoubtedly Burma’s interest in a dialogue with the US is motivated by the regime’s main concerns, to have sanctions lifted, for international humanitarian and development assistance to flow into the country, and to attract foreign investment.
“Though generals are certainly unhappy about being too dependent on one supporter, and will be trying to balance Chinese influence with better relations with the US as well as other countries –like ASEAN and India, they will not be looking to cut the umbilical cord with China in the near future,” said Win Min.
But there is no escaping from the fact that Burma’s military leaders are upset with Beijing. The Chinese embassy put on a lavish reception for the massive 60th anniversary of the founding of the Peoples’ Republic of China. The coverage in the official New Light of Myanmar the next day paid scant notice to the importance of the occasion or the ambassador’s address, Instead it noticeably focused on Secretary One’s attendance. This comes after the Myanmar Times recently was allowed to refer to the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama when he visited Taiwan, last month. Both these incidents are clearly signs that the junta wants to rebuke China.
But thinks may already be on the mend after the Chinese envoy’s secret mission to see Than Shwe recently. China is desperately trying to mend fences with the junta. One example of this is the diplomatic initiative China took at the UN Security Council to make sure Burma is not on its agenda – at least this month.
It looks like the trouble between Burma and China maybe on the wane. Nevertheless Beijing will be watching with growing concern, any further overtures between Burma and the US. So far it seems to have been a spat between two close partners – siblings or even husband and wife, according to Asian diplomats who have also been following the situation closely.
But in the end it is Burma that may hold the upper hand. China’s economic, trade and military involvement in Burma gives the junta the upper hand rather than making them more subservient to Beijing. The issue now is how far will the junta leaders go in flexing their muscles.