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The PLA Becomes More Involved in Myanmar?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
February 25, 2013

Soldiers from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) cross a stream towards the front line in Laiza, Kachin state, January 29, 2013. Soldiers from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) cross a stream towards the front line in Laiza, Kachin state, January 29, 2013 (David Johnson/Courtesy Reuters).

Over the past decade, up until the beginning of Myanmar’s reform period in 2010, China had appeared to consolidate its influence over the country. Without a doubt, China had become Myanmar’s most important ally, diplomatic partner, and aid donor, and probably its largest trading partner, though the statistics were hard to keep. Yet China’s policy toward Myanmar was always more complicated than it appeared. There were multiple Myanmar policies, driven by multiple actors: the Yunnan provincial government and investors from Yunnan; the central government in Beijing; and, the big Chinese resources companies. Not all of these actors were working in sync, and on several occasions the central government appeared to be displeased with Yunnan officials and businesspeople’s activities in Myanmar.

Now, as Myanmar has opened up, it certainly has become less reliant on China—though I do not agree that balancing China was the primary driver of Myanmar’s opening, I do agree with many analysts that it was a factor. Yet China’s Myanmar policy has, if anything, become even more complicated, as shown by a recent report in Xinhua and cited by the New York Times and many other sites. According to the report, Chinese troops in Yunnan have begun training in the hills near Kachin State, Myanmar in preparation for the war between the Myanmar army and the Kachin Independence Army spilling across the border into China.  Although there have been several cease-fires, and attempted Chinese mediation, a lasting cease-fire has not yet held.

Although it is certainly natural for China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to take preparations for a conflict spilling across its borders, both Chinese and Burmese officials have raised to me the concern that this development is also a sign of the PLA growing frustrated with the lack of resolution in the Kachin conflict, and taking a larger role in policy in general toward Myanmar. Several Burmese officials say that the continuing war in northern Myanmar has bolstered PLA hawks, and also has given credence to (credible) claims by many PLA officers and leaders that the army is ill-prepared to actually handle any insurgencies or other low-intensity warfare that crossed into China, whether from Myanmar or from other unstable neighbors of China. Although the New York Times notes that Xi Jinping has spoken of the need to strengthen the PLA, when it comes to policy toward Myanmar the greater presence of the PLA is only going to make it harder for Beijing to regain its influence. Some Yunnan policymakers and businesspeople resent the greater presence of the PLA in Myanmar policymaking, according to several Chinese sources. Meanwhile, the PLA deployment has worried both the Kachin Independence Army and some senior Myanmar officials.

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