The increased tension and fighting between Burmese troops and ethnic armies along the Sino-Burmese border has sent thousands of refugees fleeing to China. This has prompted Chinese foreign ministry officials to express hope that Burma can “properly deal with its domestic issue to safeguard the regional stability of its bordering area with China.”
Authorities in the southeastern Chinese province of Yunnan say some 10,000 people have already fled across the border from Burma in recent days due to the recent clashes. Most are Burmese-born Chinese and Chinese nationals living along the border.
Over the past few months, Beijing has been engaging in quiet diplomacy with Naypyidaw to urge the Burmese junta to solve the ethnic issue along the border in a peaceful way. When Gen Maung Aye visited Beijing in June, Chinese leaders again requested him not to use force against ethnic ceasefire groups and to maintain stability there.
Burmese leaders are also reportedly unhappy, as Chinese continue to support ethnic groups along the border. Many Burmese military leaders harbor anti-China sentiments, as China has in the past heavily backed ethnic armies and the now defunct Communist Party of Burma (CPB). The Wa and Chinese from the Kokang region were former members of the CPB.
However, it seems the Burmese leaders did not listen to China’s advice. Instead, the regime went ahead with plans to press the ethnic groups near the border to disarm and form border guard forces. The regime aims to complete this transformation before elections are held next year.
The current conflict has been 20 years in the making. It is a direct result of the regime’s refusal to grant the ethnic ceasefire groups the self-determination they seek within the framework of a federal union.
The greatest irony of this situation is that China, a major arms supplier and staunch ally of the repressive regime for the past two decades, has proven to be impotent in its efforts to persuade the junta leaders to find a political solution to this issue.
China has consistently backed the regime at the UN Security Council, exercising its veto power to block resolutions condemning the regime for its brutal repression of dissent, arguing that these actions do not represent a threat to international security.
In early August, Chinese foreign ministry officials even defended the regime’s decision to sentence detained Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to a further 18 months under house arrest, saying that the international community must respect Burma’s judicial sovereignty.
After decades of defending the junta, China’s leaders are learning the hard way that the Burmese junta’s sole concern is its own self-preservation. It cares as little about what Beijing wants as it does about the democratic aspirations of Burma’s people.
Like it or not, Beijing’s approach to Burma—and its status as an emerging superpower—is being put to the test. Unless it can find a way to rein in the generals, China risks not only instability along its border with Burma, but also appearing to be powerless to defend its own interests.