While peace hasn’t been an easy thing to come by in Kachin State these past few years, peace talks actually have. Since tensions between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese military erupted again in 2011, the two sides have held multiple rounds of informal talks, often to no avail. Last month’s talks, while not bringing an end to the conflict, were still important for another reason – they weren’t held in Myanmar, but instead in the border town of Ruili, China. This was the first time such talks have been hosted by China and raises questions about what significance they could have for the future of Chinese diplomacy.
As is already well known by now, China claims non-interference in other states’ domestic affairs as a guiding principle of its foreign policy. With this recent round of talks between the KIA and the Burmese government, however, we seem to see something different. Is China willingly taking up the mantle of responsibility associated with being a “global power” or is there a different motivation behind hosting these talks?
From my perspective, the latest round of negotiations has much more to do with China’s national security than any grand policy shift. China hosted these talks, which some might see as an involvement in Burmese domestic affairs, because they have a significant interest in seeing the Kachin conflict come to an end. China’s interests are intertwined in two ways.
First, the Kachin conflict has threatened China’s border security. The boundary shared with Myanmar has always been problematic for Beijing, with the mountains that sweep into Yunnan acting as a super-highway of sorts for drugs and other black market goods. This trouble along the border has intensified in recent years as armed minorities have clashed with the Burmese military. 2009 saw a conflict in Shan State between the military and the Kokang minority. By the time the fighting was over, and more than 30,000 refugees fled across the border into Yunnan, putting strain on provincial officials and leading to increased tensions between China and Myanmar. With the most recent phase in the Kachin conflict, the renewed threat of thousands of refugees pouring across in Yunnan has already been realized. According to Human Rights Watch, between 7,000 and 10,000 Kachin refugees have crossed in China, such to the point that Chinese authorities have already begun sending some refugees back to Myanmar.
In addition to the problem of refugees, some of the combat itself has spilled over into Yunnan. Since December, Chinese authorities have noted two incidences of Burmese shells landing on Chinese soil. While there were no casualties and little damage caused, it was still a cause for worry for Beijing and extra security forces were deployed in the border regions. Should the conflict continue to heat up in the coming months, there is a real threat that some of the fighting could spill into Yunnan, a scenario that China will no doubt want to avoid. The sooner the conflict ends, the better for China’s security in the southwest and the sooner the Foreign and Defense ministries will have one less thing to worry about.
Another reason for China’s increased involvment in the resolution of the Kachin conflict is that the fighting has the potential to affect China’s energy sources. In the past few years, China has made significant investments into the extraction of Burmese natural resources, namely oil, natural gas and hydropower and Kachin state is crucial to these projects. Despite seeing the Myitsone dam’s construction halted in 2011, state-owned China Power Investment still expects a restart of the project when Burmese President Thein Sein’s term ends in 2015. Also of vital importance to China is the construction of a twin pipeline that will stretch from the Bay of Bengal to Kunming. The $2 billion pipeline, which will carry a significant portion of China’s imported oil and natural gas, crosses straight through Kachin state. The conflict has already contributed to some delays for the project, which is slated to be completed in June and operational by September. An escalation of hostilities could put the pipeline in jeopardy and seeing the size of the investment and the China’s energy needs, Beijing will want to avoid any problems with the pipeline.
The Kachin conflict is labelled as a civil war, but that isn’t to say that its consequences can be contained within Myanmar alone. Because of its closeness both geographically and economically, China has a significant stake in the conflict coming to a close, or at least an enforced ceasefire, in the near future. Moreover, as the war directly affects China in the form of refugees and misfired mortars, the less it remains a domestic matter for the Burmese to solve on their own. Looking at it from this angle, China’s involvement in the peace process is understandable, if not expected. Hosting peace talks isn’t a matter of China taking on the role of global peacemaker, but instead one of China taking of care of its borders and protecting its immediate economic interests. For those looking for a watershed moment in Chinese foreign policy, the search continues.