The Je Yang refugee camp is crawling with youngsters. Some run down the camp’s main dirt road in stained clothes rolling along old tires while others hang from tree branches or sit in windowsills. The elderly, looking pensive and forlorn, idle crouched in doorways while able-bodied men hammer together the frame of a new house. The air is smoky from cooking fires and near the raised huts squeezed up against the jungle lingers the unmistakable odor of human excrement.
The camp of 8,000 sits just over the border from China’s southwestern Yunnan province, in the town of Laiza, the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). The KIO is Myanmar’s second largest ethnic rebel group. For more than fifty years its armed wing the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has been embroiled in a simmering conflict with the Tatmadaw (the Burmese military), fighting for greater autonomy within a federalized state as well as for control over the abundant natural resources native to Kachin lands. The residents in Je Yang, one of four such camps in Laiza, have all fled their homes because of the violence, which picked up in 2011 after a 17-year ceasefire was broken. There are over 100,000 refugees both in and outside Kachin state.
China, which lies just across the river from Laiza, occupies a unique role in the Kachin conflict. Its close proximity to Kachin state means that whatever happens there has a direct impact on China’s border stability. Its Jingpo minority group, in fact if not in name, are of the same ethnicity as the mostly Christian Kachin. Their separation by the border is arbitrary and most of them live as if it wasn’t there. The driver who transported me to Laiza for instance, a Jingpo man living on the Chinese side of the border in Yingjiang, has two young sons that attend school in Laiza.
Since the breaking of the ceasefire in 2011, Laiza has also relied heavily on Yunnan for the import of Chinese goods to clothe, feed and entertain its growing non-refugee population of over 5,000. Chinese currency is used alongside Burmese kyat and cell phone calls are made using Chinese networks; the Tatmadaw jams Burmese ones.
China’s role in the Kachin conflict has been anything but consistent. Up until the end of 2012, when fighting took on a new fierceness and resulted in artillery shells exploding on Chinese territory for the first time since the Cold War, Beijing had maintained a largely hands-off approach to the conflict.
Previous to the escalation in December 2012 the Chinese central government mostly stayed out of Kachin. China’s biggest interaction with the northeastern Burmese state had happened through local Yunnan government officials and private traders, who over the past two decades have established lucrative and illegal trading partnerships with KIO officials who facilitate and tax the sale and transport of mostly jade and teak to Chinese buyers. In 2011 alone, the trade of jade to China reached $8 billion, according to Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. These actors, encouraged by some officials in the Yunnan government, have complicated peace efforts in Kachin. “Private businesses do not want to necessarily have the Myanmar government take full control of Kachin state,” says Yun Sun, an analyst for the Stimson Center. “They want to have more flexible arrangements with local political forces and the rebel groups.” In other words, a lasting peace would be bad for business.
It was only after the stark escalation of the conflict between December 2012 and January 2013 that Beijing began, reluctantly, to involve itself directly in Kachin. Bombs were exploding within its borders, thousands of refugees were flooding in, economic activities between Kachin state and Yunnan were being disrupted and its energy extraction projects there were being threatened. Jingpo sympathizers in Yunnan too were growing increasingly agitated by Naypyidaw’s aggression against their brethren across the border. With all of these mounting crises, China had no choice but to get involved.
Its response was swift. The PLA was quickly dispatched to reinforce the border. Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying flew to Myanmar where she met with President Thein Sein to voice China’s concerns over the bloodshed. On the same day, PLA General Qi Jianguo flew to the country for a strategic security consultation. Beijing even created a new government posting to deal with Myanmar called the Special Envoy on Asian Affairs, appointing Wang Yingfan, a former ambassador to the Philippines and Chinese representative at the United Nations, to the post. Within just three days of his appointment, he too was jetted west.
Though Beijing had in the past declined public appeals from the KIO to mediate peace talks, in 2013 China quickly arranged a bilateral dialogue, this time offering to referee. It even provided the negotiating space, the Jingcheng Hotel in Ruili. Its sudden eagerness after years of apathy was easily explained: Chinese interests were under threat. This round of talks held in early February between the KIO and Naypyidaw, the first of several involving Beijing, marked the first time ever that China had publicly hosted a meeting between officials from a sovereign government and a rebel group within its borders, a move strikingly at odds with China’s long-standing mantra of non-interference in foreign affairs.
“Kachin has always been a very tricky place for China,” says Qin Liwen, a former analyst for MERICS and the International Crisis Group. “On one hand it’s good for China to have special connections with the Kachin so they can have some kind of ‘chess on the board’ when they talk with the Myanmar central government. But if they get too supportive the Kachin people will of course make trouble. So it’s always a very subtle game to balance it all.”
The trouble Liwen refers to involves the large-scale energy extraction projects managed by Chinese State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) in northeastern Burma. Chinese SOEs manage a number of projects in the region, mostly hydroelectric dams but also a pair of oil and gas pipelines that run close to conflict zones through Shan state, just south of Kachin. Most of these projects are vulnerable to sabotage. Beijing therefore must tread a cautious line in the restive region lest it provoke a KIA attack.
The $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam project in the upper reaches of the state has had a particularly strong impact on Beijing’s stratagems in Kachin. In 2011, in the face of angry opposition from local Kachin villagers and environmental activists, the project was suspended by President Thein Sein, a concession that would have been unheard of during Myanmar’s years under military rule.
For Chinese policymakers this was a watershed moment. The dam’s failure demonstrated to Beijing that it could no longer act independently of local sentiment in Myanmar. Indeed, with new competition from the West, China could no longer act independently in the country at all. The sort of thinking formed in Beijing during Myanmar’s international isolation, when China was Myanmar’s sole supporter and could more or less do what it wanted in the country, had suddenly become obsolete. Naypyidaw’s democratization and its steps towards the West had caught Chinese policymakers off guard and Beijing has been scrambling ever since to revise its approach, taking very much into account American moves in Myanmar. China’s great fear of what it calls the “internationalization” of the Kachin conflict, what Yun Sun deemed Beijing’s “gravest policy concern in Myanmar in 2013,” is rooted in its deep-seated belief that America seeks to contain China. Having American troops in Kachin state, an area dangerously close to the Chinese border, represents an unacceptable scenario for China, who already feels constrained by the strong American naval presence beyond its eastern shores.
But relations between China and Myanmar have begun to improve. After a few years of turbulence and uncertainty, both sides have begun to readjust their expectations and policies towards one another. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Myanmar in November as well as Naypyidaw’s public support for the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank are both signs of the thaw. As a result, China is minimizing its public role in Kachin state. Sino-Myanmar relations are moving into a new phase and China does not want to disrupt the transition. Yet the conflict will not resolve itself anytime soon and as an invested actor Beijing will most likely have to resume engagement in Kachin state sooner or later, whether it wants to or not.
Brent Crane is a Washington D.C.-based writer. Follow him on Twitter @bcamcrane.