The recent escalation of tensions in northern Myanmar – resulting from the military’s crackdown on illegal logging – once again brought Myanmar to the top of China’s list of foreign policy priorities.
Myanmar is the second-largest country in Southeast Asia. It became an independent nation in 1948, although the conflicts between the dominant Burman population and ethnic minority groups have persisted. Myanmar was under military dictatorship from 1962 to 2011, which led to major political crises and chronic economic failures. Following controversial general elections in 2010, a nominally civilian government was installed in 2011. Since then, Myanmar has improved its relations with the West.
Now, China is worried about a rising armed conflict along the Myanmar–China border, refugee inflows, and implications for national security.
Some Chinese are concerned about the potential role of the United States given the fact that a U.S. military delegation visited Myanmar’s Kachin State while China is strategically vulnerable in its own backyard. Many are worried about the 155 Chinese illegal loggers who were arrested by the Myanmar authorities, and have called for Beijing to intervene, rescue, and protect these Chinese nationals.
Most Chinese observers have blamed the recent re-escalation of tensions on the internal chaos of Myanmar. In their view, the conflict is the result of the political struggle among ethnic groups, the Myanmar military, and democratic opposition groups prior to the general elections later this year. Ethnic groups and the military are both aiming for a position of strength, and any victory on the battlefield could be politically rewarding in the coming months.
While this analysis might stand, what the Chinese fail to acknowledge is China’s partial responsibility for the conflict. Illicit commercial activities conducted by Chinese businessmen in northern Myanmar, including illegal mining, logging, and smuggling, have increasingly contributed to the source of conflict between the Myanmar military and the border ethnic groups.
To begin with, these illicit activities are against Myanmar laws and government regulations, including the strict timber export ban imposed since April 2014. More importantly, they have become a main funding source for the ethnic groups in their warfare and are therefore resented by the Myanmar military.
Despite the fact that corrupt government military officials have provided protection for the illegal trade, the Myanmar military’s crackdown campaign is mostly aimed at cutting off this lifeline of the armed ethnic groups. Whether the goal is realistic is debatable. Nevertheless, for China to appear innocent is not only politically convenient but also irresponsible.
Beijing might claim that these illegal activities are carried out by individual Chinese citizens and do not represent China’s national policy. However, such rhetoric does not negate the fact that the Chinese government should be doing more to curb the illegal commercial activities in northern Myanmar.
Chinese customs and border patrol could do a better job rejecting the entry of illicit logs into China. Given the Myanmar central government’s ban of timber export, no permit for logging issued by ethnic groups or local Myanmar officials should be accepted as legal documentation for border entry. The Chinese government could also tighten the leash on local Chinese businesses from within China since their stores and business records are much easier to track down.
While many call for China to once again intervene and mediate the conflict in northern Myanmar, China must first clean up its own role in the conflict if it is to be an honest broker. Given the popular anti-China sentiment in Myanmar in the past few years and China’s passionate public relations campaign in an attempt to improve its image, the failure to manage the illicit commercial activities in northern Myanmar only exacerbates the conflict and contributes to China’s own national insecurity.