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POLITICS: Rising Border Tension Threatens China-Burma Relations

Mitch Moxley

BEIJING, May 19 2010 (IPS) - When the military regime in Burma launched a campaign last August to disarm the ethnic rebels in the Kokang region, made up mostly of ethnic Chinese and where a two-decade-long ceasefire had been in place, the push triggered an exodus of more than 37,000 refugees into China’s Yunnan province.

The move, which frustrated the Chinese government in Beijing, sheds light on brewing troubles in China-Burma relations. China has a significant interest in a stable Burma and a greater influence over the xenophobic regime than perhaps any other power. But as an election approaches in Burma (officially known as Myanmar) that the ruling generals dubiously claim will be free and fair, China-Burma relations are growing increasingly strained.

Complicating matters is growing anxiety that another push against armed ethnics groups in eastern Burma will cause a second refugee crisis in southern China’s Yunnan province, which borders the military-ruled South- east Asian state along with Laos and Vietnam. Observers say the junta is preparing for a military campaign against the 30,000-strong United Wa State Army, which is ethnically Chinese and has been accused by the United States of being a drug cartel.

“What’s happening on the border brings into sharp relief the fault lines in [China-Burma relations] that have been apparent for some time but are now more clearly defined,” said Dr Ian Storey, a fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.

“This is not a relationship that is based on trust and mutual friendship. It’s very much a marriage of convenience.”

In Burma, distrust of China runs deep, and the junta has for several years tried to reduce its dependence on the latter by courting other nations, namely, India and Russia. China, meanwhile, has grown frustrated with Burma’s lack of progress on political reform and addressing economic disparities, Dr Storey said.


Burma was one of the first countries to recognise the People’s Republic of China in 1949, but relations turned for the worse in the 1960s, culminating in anti-Chinese riots in the then-capital, Rangoon (now known as Yangon). But when Western countries imposed broad sanctions on Burma following a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1988, China upped aid and arms shipments and fostered trade relations.

Since then, China has provided broad diplomatic and economic support for the junta, considered one of the most corrupt in the world. According to state media, China is Burma’s fourth largest foreign investor and has invested more than 1 billion U.S. dollars in the country, mostly in the mining sector. In 2008, bilateral trade grew more than one-quarter to about 2.63 billion dollars.

In October 2009, state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation started building a crude oil port in Burma, part of a pipeline that will carry 12 million metric tons of crude oil a year from the Middle East and Africa through Burma into China, roughly 6 percent of China’s total imports last year. Another pipeline, slated to come online in 2012, will have a capacity to bring in 12 million cubic metres of gas from Burma into China.

Burma gives China access to the Indian Ocean through its ports, not just for oil and gas import and export to China’s landlocked southwest, but also for potential military bases.

The generals, meanwhile, depend on China for money and armaments. In 2006, during a visit to Yunnan, Burma’s Commerce Minister Tin Naing Thein thanked Beijing for being a “good neighbour” and offering “vigorous support” following the 1988 crackdown on pro-democracry prostestors. China also offers Burma some protection within the United Nations Security Council.

“Burma is isolated from the international community, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has put a lot of pressure on Burma to improve its human rights conditions,” said Yu Changsen, an associate professor in the International Affairs Department of Sun Yat-Sen University, located in Guandong Province. “Burma depends on China in many aspects… [The relationship] is somewhat like that of China and North Korea.”

Despite appearances, relations in recent years have been increasingly troubled. For many years, China backed Burmese communists in their armed struggle with the government, and many of Burma’s current leaders once fought against the communists. Today, many Burmese view China as a pillager of resources.

Huang Yunjing, an associate professor at Sun Yat-Sen University’s Asia- Pacific Research Institute, said that the schisms in China-Burma relations are overblown, noting that China’s investments in its military-ruled neighbour continue to grow. “China and Burma share many common interests in political, economic and security aspects,” he said. “We have a good bilateral partnership, and in many ways we support each other in a mutually beneficial way.”

But China is growing increasingly concerned about more unrest in the troubled border region. This concern was made apparent with the recent deployment of 5,000 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops along China’s southwestern border with Burma, according to reports by ‘The Irrawaddy’, a Thailand-based news magazine run by exiled Burmese.

The threat of border skirmishes grows greater as the elections, thought to be held sometime this summer, draw near. The generals have long sought to consolidate power in the restive and porous regions that border Yunnan, where ethnic minorities on both sides share blood ties.

Further violence could disrupt border trade, create a refugee crisis and lead to increased narcotics production and trafficking. It would also put at risk a large number of Chinese nationals in the region, according to Dr Storey.

“If that happens,” Sun Yat-Sen’s Yu said, “it will definitely give the Chinese government a headache.”

 
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