Sunday, 26 January 2020

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China pushed to the brink

Last week’s media reports that the Chinese army was involved in intense training in the hills of Yunnan Province near the Myanmar border raised few eyebrows.

Marines of the People's Liberation Army (Navy) pictured at Zhanjiang in 2006. (U.S. Marine Corps photo)  
Marines of the People's Liberation Army (Navy) pictured at Zhanjiang in 2006. (U.S. Marine Corps photo)
State news service Xinhua reported that Chinese army units were undergoing rigorous training in the jungle, mountains and rivers; moreover they were preparing “for real combat” and “to be victorious in battle”. Nonetheless, no red flags of warning were raised nor did the nationalistic Myanmar press become over-excited.

Beijing expressed its concern earlier this year when at least four artillery shells landed on Chinese soil during a Myanmar government campaign against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) at its main base in Laiza, which straddles the Chinese border.

Chinese authorities are naturally worried that a continuation of the conflict results in another surge of refugees spilling over its border.

Myanmar government forces retain strategic hilltops outside Laiza. They have already proved their ability to launch air assaults with helicopter gunships and fighter jets, but would require Chinese airspace in order to overfly the town and bomb the Kachin stronghold.

The pressure of the siege has brought the Kachins reluctantly to the negotiating table. The last talks were on February 4 and a new round looks set for early March, peace broker Hla Maung Shwe told Mizzima on Monday. In the meantime, an awkward lull in fighting at Laiza perseveres though skirmishes continue in other parts of Kachin State.

But while both governments take all precautions to ensure that China does not become embroiled in Myanmar’s civil war, a second scenario looms which severely tests Chinese resolve to refrain from direct intervention.

The 700-mile-long Shwe Gas pipeline is due to be completed in May. Optimistic Chinese sources believe the oil and gas may start flowing from the deep-sea port at Kyaukphyu in the Bay of Bengal to China’s southwestern Yunnan in early June.

China’s controversial trans-Myanmar pipeline is now more than 70 percent complete. The remaining portion on the Myanmar side runs through northern Shan State where it will cross the border at Muse, a town currently under government control but in a pocket surrounded by Kachin outposts.

The KIA has stepped up campaigns of sabotage against Myanmar infrastructure over the last year. There is little to indicate that—if peace talks do not go their way—they would feel less inclined to disrupt the transfer of oil across their territory.

Tin Thit, the coordinator of the Myanmar-China Pipeline Watch Committee in Mandalay, is cited in NPR on Friday saying that although the Myanmar army will station soldiers in Shan State to protect the pipeline, this act could fuel the insurgency and threaten national security.

“If insurgents attack or blow up part of the pipeline, the Chinese could send troops into Myanmar to protect it,” Tin Thit is quoted as saying. “This would have a huge impact on our sovereignty.”

Washington-based NPR said that officials in both countries deny such a thing could ever happen. “Nonetheless, it's a common perception among Burmese,” it reported.

Wong Aung of the Shwe Gas Movement told Mizzima on Monday that local resistance to the pipeline will prevent it opening as scheduled. “I am confident that China will not be able to complete the pipelines project as planned in May because some infrastructure development still needs to be completed, especially in the conflict area in northern Shan State,” he said. “The resentment and anger of the local people over the project are growing due to involuntary relocations and uninformed consent during the project activities.”

These are testing times for the Chinese government and its associated investors. The suspension of the Myitsone Dam and the Latpadaung copper mine project must have tried their patience. Losing the Shwe pipeline might push them to the brink.

Is it unrealistic to believe that Beijing would not order its troops across the border to protect China’s national interests? Has it already made a contingency plan for such a scenario? Some analysts have suggested that the Chinese have suddenly taken a renewed interest in arming their old allies, the United Wa State Army.

Several news agencies closely aligned with the Beijing government reported only last week that the Chinese military had last year contemplated using drones to assassinate drug kingpin Naw Kham. If Laotian authorities had not apprehended the Shan warlord in April and handed him over to their Chinese counterparts, would plans for a strategic strike in northeastern Shan State have gone ahead?

Perhaps, but perhaps not. However the fact that China is making its southwestern neighbor aware of its military capabilities sends a message hard to ignore.

It is highly likely that Chinese patience and its committed policy of respecting sovereignty will be put to the test in the coming months—not only in containing the Kachin conflict, but also in protecting a vital pipeline from sabotage.

Naypyitaw must realize that time is running out to agree a concrete ceasefire with the KIA if its wants to avoid putting its Chinese counterparts in that very position.

The Kachin’s last stand
Since October this year, Burma has been in a state of civil war, with fighting between Burmese military and armed ethnic rebels. The ruling junta started a crackdown on these armed groups.

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