Two recent developments on the China-Myanmar border show the anxiety that Beijing is undergoing. First, is the attack on a convoy of trucks bringing goods into Myanmar from China (24 November), while the other is the conduct (25 November onwards) of live-fire drills by the Chinese PLA on the China-Myanmar border. These developments occurred at the same time as China’s Ambassador Chen Hai met with Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Than Swe and other military officials and called for peace and stability in Myanmar, even as the latest unrest threatens to fuel further civil war, creating more complications for China. Reuters reported that a convoy of trucks that was bringing goods into Myanmar from China near the town of Muse, had gone up in flames in what could possibly be an insurgent attack. This compounds surging insecurity that has raised concern in China. The latest development comes after the Brotherhood Alliance, an ethnic grouping of three outfits launched Operation 1027 and captured important outposts along Myanmar’s border with China. The torching of the convoy happened even as China’s Ambassador to Myanmar met top officials in the Myanmar’s capital for talks on stability on the border after recent signs that their relationship has been coming under rare strain.
The latest incident near coincided with China’s PLA Southern Theatre Command conducting three-day live-fire drills on the Chinese side of the China-Myanmar border in accordance with the annual training plan, starting from 25 November. According to ChinaMilitary, participating troops rapidly maneuvered to the designated area during the drills, to carry out live-fire drills in different regions, different directions and at staggered times, demonstrating the PLA’s resolution and war-winning capabilities of safeguarding national sovereignty, border stability, and people’s lives and property. Almost simultaneously, Chinese naval ships are visiting Myanmar (South China Morning Post, 29 November) in a “show of friendship”. The PLA Navy ships, including the Zibo, a guided-missile destroyer, and the Jinzhou, a guided-missile frigate, arrived in Yangon (27 November) for a four-day visit and were met by senior officers from the Myanmar military, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported.
The military exercises, while ostensibly focused on emergency readiness and border control, have an underlying message; Myanmar’s internal disturbances should not spill across borders and that China is prepared to safeguard its interests. Recent estimates are that the conflict in Myanmar has displaced over 330,000 people with many seeking refuge in China. However, recent events suggest a change in China’s stance and use of tear gas and intensified border controls indicate a possible crackdown on the flow of refugees into China. In a rare rally in Myanmar since a sweeping crackdown on dissent, dozens of nationalist protesters gathered outside the Chinese Embassy in the main city of Yangon with banners and posters critical of Beijing. “We request China government don’t support northern terrorist groups,” read one of their posters, in English. Junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun later said the protesters were opposed to the insurgents. He did not refer to their call for China not to support the rebels but accused the Western media of trying to destroy Myanmar’s relations with China.
The sudden movement of Chinese military on the borders and in the seas towards Myanmar should be seen against the backdrop of their call for peace and stability in Myanmar by its Ambassador, Chen Hai, who met with Myanmar’s military-appointed foreign minister, Than Swe, and military officials in the capital, Naypyitaw. Both sides discussed “bilateral relations, continued implementation of mutually beneficial bilateral projects” and “cooperation in peace and stability and rule of law along the borde”, Myanmar state media reported. China’s embassy in Myanmar issued a notice (24 November) asking Chinese nationals stranded in Laukkai to evacuate as soon as possible, citing “high” safety risks. Earlier at least 10 people were killed in Laukkai town, which like Muse is also in the Shan State bordering China, when a rocket hit a vehicle of people trying to flee the fighting. Spokespeople for the junta and a rebel group operating in the area both condemned the incident and denied responsibility.
State-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper reporting on the latest instance of arson on the border stated that, “Due to this terrorist act … about 120 out of 258 vehicles carrying household goods, consumer goods, clothes and building materials were destroyed by fire.” Li Kyar Win, a spokesman for one of the insurgent forces, denied torching the convoy saying it did not conduct attacks that would “destroy the people’s interests”. Some analysts indicate the possibility of a misfire by Chinese forces hitting the convoy of trucks. This is yet to be confirmed. Since the middle of 2023, Myanmar’s military has lost control of several towns and military outposts in the northeast and elsewhere around the country as it grapples with the biggest coordinated offensive it has faced since seizing power in a 2021 coup. The UN says that more than 2 million people have been displaced in different parts of the country due to the surge of fighting.
While China is undoubtedly worried about the insecurity fuelled along the borders due to the offensive by the Brotherhood Alliance, another reason for concern is the joint offensive launched a short while ago by Chinese and Myanmar junta officials in the region against gangs operating internet fraud centres that China blames for cheating many of its people. Reuters reports that as part of that drive, Myanmar had handed over tens of thousands Chinese telecom fraud suspects this month. Thus, border insecurity due to the activism shown by resistance forces and the drive against online fraud gangs, many organised by Chinese criminals, plays a role in the current downturn in relations. Since the coup in 2021, China has been supportive of the Myanmar military, but China has for years had complex cross-border relations with factions in northeast Myanmar often outside the control of the central government. In some instances, Myanmar has long suspected China of meddling in support of a few militia factions. The bottom line is that the Myanmar Army has lost control of its major border areas with China. While there have been more combat contacts between the Myanmar Army and insurgents, China’s frustration with the military-led government’s inability to deal with the financial scamsters has led Beijing to adopt a more hard line and that is why military activism is more apparent today than before. The issue is that of stability, something that the military cannot certainly provide at this juncture. China on its part, will not want to get tool involved, as this will only create more problems. China’s anxieties therefore, with regard to Myanmar are only likely to grow in the short-term.