The Debate

Is China’s ‘Non-Interference’ Here to Stay?

Major General Huang Xing’s alleged involvement in supporting Myanmar’s Kokang rebels puts China in a tricky position.

Is China’s ‘Non-Interference’ Here to Stay?

Myanmar – China border region

Credit: Flickr/ David and Jessie

Late last week, the South China Morning Post reported on a fairly major development in China’s ongoing anti-corruption crusade against senior officials in the People’s Liberation Army. One of the top PLA officials being investigated for corrupt practices under the campaign, Major General Huang Xing of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, stands accused of leaking state secrets and assisting the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), an ethnic Kokang rebel force (though he faces a formal charge of “committing fraud”). The case, as my colleague Shannon noted on Friday, is significant given the unusual nature of Huang’s transgressions. Non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries is a cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy under the long-heralded Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. Huang’s fall highlights that China won’t soon abandon this principle.

Huang’s case is another example of a major lapse in the the Central Military Commission’s ability to exercise full political control over the entire chain-of-command of the PLA. There has been evidence for some time that miscommunication between the central leadership in Beijing and individual PLA officers and field commanders does exist. As we witnessed last fall, Xi Jinping felt the need to emphasize the importance of the PLA’s “absolute loyalty and firm faith in the Communist Party of China” — he made this declaration shortly after returning from his trip to India, when PLA troops crossed into India-administered Kashmir as the Chinese president arrived in the country. Huang, a PLA strategist, did not quite have the clout necessary to divert hard power assets in his bid to assist the Kokang rebels. Instead, he is being charged with leaking state secrets. Nevertheless, Myanmar military officials have alleged that former PLA soldiers did provide training and tactical advice to the rebels as well.

Huang isn’t the only senior official to have come under scrutiny for alleged support to the Kokang rebels. The CPC is taking accusations of Chinese involvement in the Kokang insurgency seriously. Recently, the provincial government of Yunnan province clarified that it had not hosted Peng Jiasheng, the MNDAA’s commander, despite rumors. On the sidelines of the National People’s Congress, Yunnan party secretary Li Jiheng told reports that “China has always respected Myanmar’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” according to the South China Morning Post. The fighting in Myanmar has led to a large inflow of ethnic Chinese refugees into Yunnan.

This episode also suggests that unlike Russia under Vladimir Putin, Xi’s China will not wade into foreign conflicts to protect the interests of ethnic Chinese, regardless of the circumstances. The Kokang people are Mandarin-speaking Han Chinese, constituting a third of Myanmar’s total ethnic Chinese population. The charges being brought against Huang should put a rest to any and all conspiracy theories that the Chinese government is covertly involved in buttressing the Kokang insurgency in Myanmar. Huang’s “political mistake” will likely still cause China’s neighbors to worry about the extent to which lone PLA officials with sympathies for Chinese citizens abroad could take action unilaterally, without the approval of the political leadership in Beijing.

Regional leaders shouldn’t rush to conclusions over Huang’s case. Even though the PLA may not have a watertight chain-of-command, the CPC’s political leadership recognizes the risks posed by rogue PLA actors. As Xi’s anti-corruption campaign continues, expect to see others like Huang to fall for “political mistakes.”