As the situation remains hot along the China-Myanmar border, where Kokang rebels have been sparring with the Burmese army for months now, China launched a live fire joint air-ground training exercise yesterday. The exercise was confirmed on the website of the Chinese Defense Ministry by Sr. Col. Zhao Picong, a spokesperson for the PLA Chengdu Military Area Command (MAC). The drill involved People’s Liberation Army personnel from both the Army and the Air Force.
According to Zhao’s announcement, “the joint live-fire air-ground training exercise will be kicked off on June 2, 2015 within China’s territory. And the exercise will be held in an area along the China-Myanmar border.” The PLA announcement noted that for the duration of the exercise, the airspace surrounding the area would be closed: “All kinds of aircraft will not be allowed to enter the airspace over the above-mentioned area.” It added that “China has informed Myanmar of the training exercise to be held by the Chinese military according to international practice and the related agreements between the two countries and two militaries.”
The exercise will take place right on the border between the two countries. In fact, to make this patently clear, the PLA’s announcement provided precise coordinates delineating the area of the exercise: it would take place “from No. 105(1) boundary marker: 24°05′02. 5″N, 98°35′33.0″E to No. 144-4 boundary marker: 23°28′43.2″N, 98°49′35.5″E.”
In March, the conflict in Myanmar between the ethnic Chinese Kokang rebels and the Burmese army began spilling over into Yunan. In early March, a Burmese jet dropped a bomb on a Chinese civilian residence, damaging property. A few days later, another stray bomb hit a Chinese sugarcane farm, killing Chinese citizens. Both incidents drew a sharp reaction from the Chinese government, who demanded that Myanmar investigate the bombings, apologize, and pay indemnities to the families of those affected by the bombings. General Fan Changlong, vice chairman of China’s powerful Central Military Commission (CMC), warned at the time that China would take “resolute measures” should cross-border incidents continue. In the meantime, refugee flows from Myanmar into China have continued to grow, causing concern in the Yunnan province.
The live fire drills will ostensibly send a message to Myanmar. Until now, China’s reaction has been to warn Myanmar while observing events on the other side of the border. As Xue Li noted recently in The Diplomat, the current Chinese approach has its drawbacks: “If more citizens are killed, the Chinese government will find it hard provide an outlet for public anger. Moreover, the conflict jeopardizes the implementation of the ‘One Belt and One Road’ strategy in Myanmar.” Staging a live fire military exercise, in addition to sending Naypyidaw a message, puts on a show of strength for concerned Chinese citizens.