Lauren Dickey is a research associate for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Violence along the border between China and Myanmar, in the ethnically Chinese-populated Kokang region, has left Beijing with the dual challenges of refugee outflows and instability along its border. For the last seven weeks, armed conflict between the Myanmar Army and Kokang rebels, under the banner of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), has sent at least thirty thousand people across the porous border between Myanmar and China’s Yunnan province. In response, Beijing has increased its military presence along the border with Myanmar, and has even been accused of supplying the rebel forces with weapons and supplies.
While the cause of the initial outbreak in fighting between Kokang rebels and government troops is debated, official Chinese media have given the fighting little coverage. Social media and alternative news outlets, however, offer evidence of a robust Chinese military presence on the border. Pictures and video footage show a Chinese military with ground forces, fighter jets, air defense missiles, and anti-aircraft artillery batteries deployed along the China-Myanmar border, presumably ready to intervene should the Kokang conflict get out of hand. The Chinese already have ample reason to intensify their response to events in Kokang—several Chinese citizens were killed by a poorly directed Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, air strike last month.
However, a militarized response by the Chinese government risks sparking increased refugee flows into China and derailing current peace negotiations. Moreover, an armed incursion or other heavy-handed response would drag Beijing into a conflict on its periphery, a clash Chinese officials do not have the appetite for, in part because there are “no territorial issues” between China and Myanmar. Beijing is confronted by a tough decision: can it balance its commitment to protecting ethnic Chinese in Kokang while avoiding straining an already tense relationship with Myanmar?
This is not the first time violence has flared between the MNDAA and the Myanmar military. In 2009, a 1989 ceasefire agreement faltered, and the MNDAA, led by Peng Jiasheng (who also inspired the current spate of fighting), were defeated by central government forces. Peng was once part of the Communist Party of Burma, which received broad support from Beijing. After the losses his forces suffered in 2009, Peng fled to Yunnan, along with a flood of refugees. In recent months, however, Peng has returned with anywhere from one thousand to five thousand troops and the goal of retaking Kokang.
The Chinese leadership has few options to resolve the issue quickly. Using the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ground forces currently in place to seal off the border and prevent further inflow of refugees to Yunnan province would check the spillover of fighting into Chinese territory. But it would suggest a Chinese complacency toward the challenges faced by the ethnic Chinese in Kokang. Those fleeing the conflict zone would be trapped in Myanmar. Those in Yunnan dependent upon business ties with Kokang would be hurt, as trade flows would come to a near halt.
Even as Chinese support for the ceasefire is made clear, Beijing also has several, palatable short-term options to consider. Beijing should keep its borders open to Kokang refugees entering Yunnan while forgoing any subsequent actions that could be perceived as supporting the rebels. Similarly, Beijing has the option of granting citizenship to the Kokang refugees already on Chinese soil, or offering it to those fleeing the fighting. Even if the conflict ends soon, tens of thousands already displaced face an uncertain future. Both near-term options would preserve stability along the border and protect ethnic Chinese, while ameliorating the potential for increased conflict. These options allow for Beijing to keep a strong military presence on the border in such a way that the PLA’s presence does not distract from other objectives in resolving the current border challenge.
Additionally, at the request of the Myanmar government, Chinese officials could openly encourage rebels from the active conflict in Kokang to set down their weapons in exchange for more active participation in ceasefire talks. The draft ceasefire agreement signed in late March between the central government and sixteen armed ethnic groups (but not including the MNDAA) was no small accomplishment, as only bilateral ceasefires have been signed in the past. But to be truly effective, the ceasefire must also include the armed Kokang rebels. If Chinese officials could help persuade the rebels from Kokang to commit to the terms of a ceasefire, such steps would help pave the way for both a formal ceasefire agreement and political dialogue between warring parties in the months ahead. Such diplomatic efforts must, necessarily, take place at the highest levels of both governments in order to preserve a Chinese intention of “non-interference” in the internal affairs of Myanmar.
Whatever policy route Beijing chooses, there is neither an easy nor a fast resolution to the current conflict in Kokang. Despite warnings from top Chinese military officials of a possible armed response should fighting further “endanger Chinese territorial sovereignty and national security,” Beijing should remain focused on more pragmatic alternatives. A delicate balance between a proactive but firm response to incursions on Chinese airspace and territory is required. With armed conflict between the MNDAA and the Myanmar government on China’s doorstep, Beijing should seize the opportunity to play a leading role in resolving tensions between the two sides and encouraging the MNDAA to enter ceasefire talks. As presidential elections in Myanmar scheduled for later this fall approach, it is in the interests of the Myanmar and Chinese people to ensure that fighting ends, the newly minted ceasefire is upheld, and border stability is restored before voters take to the polls.