Soldiers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army 1st Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Division
During the Chinese Spring Festival in February, residents in some small border towns in China’s Yunnan Province had difficulty distinguishing two kinds of explosive sounds — the sounds coming from their firecrackers and the sounds of shells blasting across the border in Myanmar. Unfortunately, something more than just sound came across the border on March 13: a bomb, allegedly dropped by a Myanmar warplane, killed four peasants and injured nine people in a sugarcane field in a village outside of Lincang.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has lodged protests against Myanmar, stating “it was clear” that the bomb came from the Myanmar Air Force. Fan Changlong, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, warned Myanmar’s leaders that China’s military forces will conduct “decisive measures” if similar events happen again. Myanmar, however, denies responsibility for the bombing, claiming that it has radar and GPS records as evidence. The Myanmar government suggested that the Kokang rebels might have created this incident to produce “misunderstanding” between China and Myanmar, but the rebels dismissed this claim on the grounds that they lack heavy weaponry. Currently, a joint Sino-Myanmar task force is investigating the incident, and Myanmar has agreed to pay 70,000RMB to the relatives of each of the deceased.
The Kokang region at Myanmar’s northeast border with China, along with the bordering Kachin state, has long suffered from incessant civil wars. The Kachin state was originally a part of a federal union in Myanmar, but after Ne Win came to power in the early 1960s, the central government increasingly encroached on the autonomy of these peripheral regions. Added to the centralization were Ne Win’s anti-Chinese policies, which led to an exodus of ethnic-Chinese residents toward the border regions. The Kachin Independence Army engaged in a brutal struggle for independence with the government until a ceasefire agreement froze the conflict in 1994, only for it to break out again in 2009, when the central government mandated the disbandment of all ethnic military groups. The Kokang region gained a special administrative status in 1989, but the 2009 government mandate provoked the Kokang ethnic military group to engage in open rebellion.
Because the majority of Kachin residents are of the Jingpo ethnic group, which has a large presence in China’s Yunnan Province, and because many residents in the Kokang region are ethnic Han Chinese and have close economic ties with Yunnan, the turmoil in the region has important implications for China.
The illicit drug and jadeite trade, for example, has flourished due to the military confrontation, and has caused a huge smuggling problem for China. A massive inflow of refugees has also stretched local resources. At the same time, however, many Chinese citizens have taken to the Internet to express sympathy for the plight of ethnic groups and have called on the government to prevent similar incidents from happening again.
This is not the first time that conflicts in Myanmar have spread to China. Shells from Myanmar have previously exploded on Chinese soil, and — given the zigzagging border between China and Myanmar — some Chinese media speculate that Myanmar warplanes frequently pass through Chinese airspace to conduct airstrikes on the rebels.
In August 2009, for instance, an artillery shell from Myanmar killed one Chinese citizen in Yunnan. These incidents used to receive only limited publicity, but their reoccurrence has prompted a strong reaction from the Chinese government. Nowadays, Chinese military and armed police rush to checkpoints, armored vehicles are sent to towns near the border, and J-7 fighters with visible armaments take to the tarmac at local airports. Chinese news websites also report that anti-air missiles have been deployed.
If incidents like these continue, will China intervene in the increasingly serious Myanmar civil war? The prospect for such an action is minimal. Myanmar, after all, relies on Chinese investment for its economy and is unlikely to deliberately provoke its powerful neighbor any further. China, for its part, is also reluctant to smear its record of non-intervention in other country’s domestic affairs. However, if similar incidents happen again, China will probably be forced to use its military in “decisive measures,” either to remove the source of incoming threats or to engage in retaliatory actions.
Given that local commanders may not be able to plan for all contingencies on the battlefield, it is not inconceivable that China will pursue some sort of intervention in Myanmar, especially if there is national support for it. For now, at least, China is trying to prevent the bloodshed from spilling over its border again. Yet considering the instability that has bedeviled this region for so long, the world should be prepared to see future Chinese interventions along its border, in some capacity or another.
Image Attribution: “Soldiers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army – 2011” by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, licensed under CC BY 2.0