China’s Myanmar conundrum
Myanmar, China’s gateway to the Bay of Bengal region, has emerged as a headache for Beijing in the backdrop of recent conflicts along the common land border.
On November 24, there was an attack on a convoy of trucks bringing goods into Myanmar from China and this was followed by live-fire drills by the Chinese PLA along the China-Myanmar border on the very next day. These developments coincided with China’s Ambassador Chen Hai’s meeting with Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Than Swe. The latest unrest threatens to fuel civil war in Myanmar, creating more complications for China.
A convoy of trucks that was bringing goods into Myanmar from China near the town of Muse, went up in flames on November 24 in what could possibly have been an insurgent attack. The latest development comes after the Brotherhood Alliance, an ethnic grouping of three outfits launched Operation 1027 and captured important outposts along Myanmar’s border with China. The torching of the convoy happened even as China’s Ambassador to Myanmar met top officials in the Myanmar’s capital for talks on stability on the border after recent signs that their relationship has been coming under rare strain, according to observers of Myanmar politics.
The latest incident almost coincided with China’s PLA Southern Theatre Command conducting three-day live-fire drills on the Chinese side of the China-Myanmar border in accordance with the annual training plan, starting from 25 November. According to ChinaMilitary, participating troops rapidly maneuvered to the designated area during the drills, to carry out live-fire drills in different regions, different directions and at staggered times, demonstrating the PLA’s resolution and war-winning capabilities of safeguarding national sovereignty, border stability, and people’s lives and property.
Almost simultaneously, Chinese naval ships are visiting Myanmar in a “show of friendship”. The PLA Navy ships, including the Zibo, a guided-missile destroyer, and the Jinzhou, a guided-missile frigate, arrived in Yangon (27 November) for a four-day visit and were met by senior officers from the Myanmar military, sources informed.
The military exercises, while ostensibly focused on emergency readiness and border control, have an underlying message; Myanmar’s internal disturbances should not spill across borders and that China is prepared to safeguard its interests. Recent estimates are that the conflict in Myanmar has displaced over 330,000 people with many seeking refuge in China. However, recent events suggest a change in China’s stance and use of tear gas and intensified border controls indicate a possible crackdown on the flow of refugees into China, according to one of above mentioned observers.
In a rare rally in Myanmar since a sweeping crackdown on dissent, dozens of nationalist protesters gathered outside the Chinese Embassy in the main city of Yangon with banners and posters critical of Beijing. “We request China government don’t support northern terrorist groups,” read one of their posters, in English. Junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun later said the protesters were opposed to the insurgents. He did not refer to their call for China not to support the rebels but accused the Western media of trying to destroy Myanmar’s relations with China.
China’s embassy in Myanmar issued a notice (24 November) asking Chinese nationals stranded in Laukkai to evacuate as soon as possible, citing “high” safety risks. Earlier at least 10 people were killed in Laukkai town, which like Muse is also in the Shan State bordering China, when a rocket hit a vehicle of people trying to flee the fighting. Spokespeople for the junta and a rebel group operating in the area both condemned the incident and denied responsibility.
State-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper reporting on the latest instance of arson on the border stated that, “Due to this terrorist act … about 120 out of 258 vehicles carrying household goods, consumer goods, clothes and building materials were destroyed by fire.” Li Kyar Win, a spokesman for one of the insurgent forces, denied torching the convoy saying it did not conduct attacks that would “destroy the people’s interests”.
Some analysts indicate the possibility of a misfire by Chinese forces hitting the convoy of trucks. This is yet to be confirmed. Since the middle of 2023, Myanmar’s military has lost control of several towns and military outposts in the northeast and elsewhere around the country as it grapples with the biggest coordinated offensive it has faced since seizing power in a 2021 coup. The UN says that more than 2 million people have been displaced in different parts of the country due to the surge of fighting.
While China is undoubtedly worried about the insecurity fuelled along the borders due to the offensive by the Brotherhood Alliance, another reason for concern is the joint offensive launched in the recent past by Chinese and Myanmar junta officials in the region against gangs operating internet fraud centres that China blames for cheating many of its people. Myanmar had handed over tens of thousands Chinese telecom fraud suspects this month.
China’s frustration with the military-led government’s inability to deal with the financial scamsters has led Beijing to adopt a more hard line and China’s anxieties therefore, with regard to Myanmar are only likely to grow in the short-term.
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