Why are Chinese troops gathering at the Burmese border?
Author: John Walsh, University of Krirk
Following the coup in Myanmar in February and with no sign of resolving the crisis, China has many reasons to be uncomfortable about its interests in the country. It now appears that China is making contingency plans to deploy troops to protect these interests.
China’s interests in Myanmar have steadily increased in recent years through three different but related means: individuals investing primarily in Mandalay and northern Myanmar, companies investing in industrial estates and agricultural land, and investments in state level in long-term development projects such as petroleum. and the gas pipelines from Kyaukpyu to Kunming.
But for these investments to be successful, peace and order in Myanmar is necessary. Chinese institutions and individuals know all too well that when there is internal turmoil, Chinese families and businesses can be victimized very quickly. And such disorder is rife in Myanmar – especially in the northern border regions – due to armed uprisings against the state and against rival factions. Another threat to public order is the cash trade in narcotics and precious stones.
When China closed its border with Myanmar in September 2020 due to the spread of COVID-19 and a Myanmar government apparently overwhelmed by the problem, the impact was immediately apparent. Border trade between the two countries at the only passage of Muse was worth over $ 3.4 million per day and traders and farmers cannot afford the loss of such income.
The border closure is hurting Chinese investors who have established banana plantations and are now threatened with losing their main market. Investment in banana plantations is a controversial issue in Kachin State, where part of the approximately 40,000 acres of land affected has been expropriated from internally displaced persons or otherwise designated as vacant.
Myanmar’s military coup in February 2021 led to widespread protests across the country, some of which involved attacks on Chinese factories in Yangon and elsewhere. Many people in Myanmar blame the Chinese government for its assumed role by supporting the coup for political reasons or for the sale of arms. The situation is particularly tense in Kachin State as protests contribute to the resumption of fighting between the Burmese army (the Tatmadaw) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The new military regime says Chinese-owned factories will be protected, but their scope does not cover the entire country.
Given the difficulty of knowing exactly what is going on in the country now that internet connectivity is compromised, some details remain unclear. But it appears that some long-standing grievances are being exercised under the pretext of conflict. For example, the Tatmadaw raided some Kachin churches are apparently looking for certain individuals and even search trash cans for evidence. Elements of the KIA also organized a arson attack on a Yuzana Co., possibly because of the company’s links to earlier cases of land confiscation in the Hukawng Valley.
These skirmishes escalated into full-scale fighting with scores of deaths and injuries on both sides. Tatmadaw’s forces are now deploying air and artillery strikes against ethnic minority communities in addition to outrages perpetrated by boots on the ground.
There is now potential for international escalation as Chinese troops are reported to gather in Jiegao, a major border town, which is not unexpected in times of high tension. The troops would have rapid response capabilities if it is deemed necessary to protect the Kyaukpyu pipelines. Pipelines are an important part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Myanmar, along with the Muse-Mandalay Expressway, Myitkyina Industrial Zone and Yangon’s redevelopment plans. These projects could link the two countries at a functional level even when governments barely speak to each other.
It was still hard to believe that there weren’t any Chinese boots on the pitch ready for such an event, even though the rumors were hard to substantiate. Plans have certainly been made if the worst were to happen and pose a serious threat to the welfare of leading Chinese interests in Myanmar.
The probability of ASEAN-China Joint Action stabilizing the country seems unlikely, given ASEAN’s institutional weakness. Perhaps there is an opportunity for the Biden administration to engage China in policing talks, which could serve as a confidence-building measure more generally. Otherwise, China might see an opportunity to take its cross-border influence to a new level by openly partnering with one or more of the parties involved in the fighting.
China is likely to receive support from Laos and Cambodia in this regard, given the level of investment already targeted in this country. the generals who run Thailand were reluctant to criticize China and acceded to the Uyghur refugees’ request for return a few years earlier. As Thai dissidents are silenced in the region, it is unlikely that the time is right for Bangkok to change its tone. Indeed, the Thai Navy comes from taken delivery of three Chinese amphibious tanks.
John Walsh is the Director of English Programs at Krirk University International College, Thailand.