Refugee Policy and Foreign Policy: Examining Policy Linkage in Chinese Relations with North Korea, Myanmar, and Vietnam

By Jasmine Lam
2013, Vol. 5 No. 10 | pg. 3/6 |

China & Myanmar

Compared to the case in North Korea, China’s policy towards Burmese refugees is slightly more accommodative, as China provides temporary assistance at the border. From 1949 onwards, Sino-Burmese relations was marked with suspicions and mutual distrust. Only up until the 1970s and 80s did bilateral relations improve. Regardless, the Burmese government continually attempts to reduce its dependence on China and remain neutral in its foreign policy by balancing China and developing ties with the West. As a result of this unsteady bilateral relationship, China’s policy towards Burmese refugees has rested in the middle of the spectrum between accommodation and refusal. In the two incidences in 2009 and 2012 as illustrated below, China provided Burmese refugees temporary relief, while at the same time refusing to recognize them as “refugees.”

Historic Overview and Sino-Burmese Relations

The beginnings of PRC and Myanmar’s bilateral relations were marked with mutual distrust. Myanmar is situated at a historically significant juncture, at the crossroads of China, India, and the region of Southeast Asia. When the state gained independence in 1948 from the British, the new regime, then under the name Union of Burma, 63 had to make a decision to align itself with either the West or the East. However, being located beside the Chinese giant, who has in history invaded Burmese territory, Burma had well-founded fears of China’s intentions.64 Moreover, after the opposition group Kuomintang (KMT) fled China following the establishment of the PRC, KMT elements with support from Western states used Burma as a base to wage attacks into China through the Yunnan border. By 1953, there was an estimated 16,000 KMT troops in northeast Burma.65 Burma, a still newly founded state at this point, did not have sufficient capacity to rid itself of KMT elements. Because of this, Burma further feared China would use this as an excuse for invasion. With these suspicions in mind, Burma decided to please China first, and became the first non-Communist country to recognize the PRC. In 1954, a Joint Declaration and a treaty of friendship and mutual non-aggression were signed between the two countries. Nonetheless, during the period that followed, Burma under the U Nu regime (1948-1962) continued to view China with suspicions, and mutual distrust coloured their relations.66

In order to fully understand Sino-Burmese relations, there needs to be an examination of security issues that underlie their shared-border. For Burma, the border area in the northeast region is home to an array of ethnic militias seeking independence. During colonization, the British pursued a divide-and-conquer tactic, supporting minority ethnic groups over the majority Burman group.67 When independence came, the Burman group gained power and stripped minority groups of their previous privilege. As minorities were pushed from the center to rural areas, they began to regroup in attempts to regain power. These groups eventually formalized into factions such as the Karen (Kayin) National Liberation Army (KNLA) (the armed force of Karen National Union), Communist Party of Burma (CPB), United Wa State Army, and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).68 Overtime, some of these ethnic groups became associated with illicit drug trades, taking part in the infamous Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia.69

On the other hand, bordering Burma is China’s Yunnan province, seen as “China’s wild southwest.”70 This perception of Yunnan has historic roots, as dynasties have long had difficulty consolidating control in this territory. The central government has been pursuing strategies to increase integration of Yunnan into China, as the province has a sizeable non-Han population. For example, the Western Development Strategy aims to develop the province economically.71 Another problem is the extension of the illicit drug trade from the Burmese side into China, which raised concerns for the Chinese government, who eventually led drug crackdowns in the area.72 The widespread narcotics problem has captured international attention. On May 29, 2003, the United States government labeled the United Wa Sate Army as a narcotic trafficking organization.73 For China, this is worrying because this may justify United States intervention in the area. Because of these security concerns, both states would benefit from stability at the Sino-Burmese border areas.

With this in mind, Burmese ethnic minorities form an important factor in their bilateral relations. If China decides to provide support to these groups, this can greatly destabilize the Burmese regime and deteriorate bilateral relations. The 1960s Chinese Cultural Revolution saw radicals in China exporting Communism into Burma, and establishing relations with minority groups such as the CBP and the KIA. 74 In Burma, Chinese embassies were openly distributing copies of Mao Zedong’s revolutionary Little Red Book.75 In one incidence, a large insurgent force of the CBP, officered by the Chinese, crossed over from the Yunnan border and seized territory in Burma’s eastern hills.76 In return, Burma showed discontent towards Chinese behaviour, and Chinese residing in Rangoon faced attacks from local mobs.77

After the Cultural Revolution and going into the 1970s, Sino-Burmese relations saw improvement. China began to slowly drop its support for ethnic minority groups, in favour of developing more economic ties and border stability. When the Burmese State Law and Order Restoration Council took power in 1988, it marked the turning point when the relationship between China and Burma became a “strategic alignment.”78 For Burma, which faced international diplomatic isolation following the 8888 Uprising, establishing good relations with China was highly beneficial.79 The same year, a border agreement in Beijing was signed, legitimizing and opening border trade between the two countries. By the 1980s, China has completely ended support for the CPB and other ethnic minority forces aiming to topple the Burmese government.80 During this time, China used its ties to these minority groups to assist the government to negotiate cease-fire agreements with them. By the 1990s, 27 cease-fire agreements were signed, which gave these groups the power to retain control of their territories.81 Since then, border trade between Burma and China increased remarkably. In recent years, there is an estimated one million Chinese businessmen in Myanmar.82 Assistance in other areas bloomed as well. In military aid, China has exported more than $1.4 billion worth of supplies.83 In 2010, $4.2 billion worth of interest-free-loans over a 30-year period was given to Myanmar to help fund development in hydroelectricity, physical infrastructure, and information technology.84

The discovery of gas fields off the shores of Myanmar in the 1990s presented itself as another occasion to further develop the ties between China and Burma. Proven resources stand at about 10 trillion cubic feet, but some estimates run as high as 90 trillion cubic feet, making this discovery the 10th largest gas fields in the world.85 The Burmese government held a consortium to decide who would be granted a contract to develop the gas fields, and attendees included companies from India, South Korea, and China. For China, to sustain a rapidly expanding economy, this was a perfect opportunity. This was important strategically as well because the proposed pipeline would connect China to the Indian Ocean, and reduce dependent on the congested Malacca Strait for current fuel transportation from the Middle East.86 In addition, the pipeline would run from Myanmar through Yunnan province, helping expand the Yunnan economy in accordance to China’s Western Development Strategy. China’s test to demonstrate its political stance towards Myanmar came when the United Nations Security Council proposed a Resolution condemning Myanmar for its human rights abuses.87 In favour to Myanmar, China used its Security Council membership to veto the resolution. For Myanmar, this helped alleviate international pressure on its regime. Through this, China displayed public support for Myanmar both economically and politically. In November 2008, the agreement to build a $1.5 billion oil pipeline and a $1.04 billion natural gas pipeline with China was accepted. This was finalized with signed agreements in 2009.

Refugee Treatment

There have been two episodes of refugee inflows in 2009 and again in 2011, both resulting from a government crackdown on ethnic minorities in northeast Myanmar. While the first incident saw China giving refugees temporary assistance, during the second instance, China has been erring more to the side of refusal and repatriation. The shift indicates higher levels of cooperation, at least in terms of communication, between the two states.

2009 Kokang Incident

In August 2009, the Burmese government launched an attack against the minority groups Kokang, Wa, and Kachin in the Special Region of northern Shan state, adjacent to the Sino-Burmese border. The Kokang people form the majority of the population in the area. They are in fact ethnic mandarin-speaking Han Chinese who arrived in what is now Shan state today in the 18th century. From the 1960s up until 1989, the CPB ruled the Region. The dissolution of the Party in 1989, along with the end of China’s support for the Party facilitated ceasefire agreements between ethnic minority groups and the Burmese government. The establishment of the area as a Special Region gave the Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), control over the territory. The Kokang had been involved in illegal drug trades and were known to be major opium producers.88

When the Myanmar Armed Forces (formally known as the Tatamadaw) attacked on August 29th 2009,89 no warning was given to the Chinese government. As the attacks were targeted at population based on their ethnicity, this renders citizens who flee as refugees. Conflict in the area prompted 10,000 - 30,000 Burmese refugees to flee into Yunnan within the span of a month. Local Chinese authorities immediately provided emergency shelter, food, and medical care to the refugees.90 UNHCR regional spokesman confirms the Chinese assistance in aid and medical care.91 While China offers humanitarian aid and has no intentions of pushing refugees back into the conflict zone, China does not wish to have refugees settling further inland.92 Furthermore, China never declared incoming Burmese residents as refugees.93 On the official end, the Chinese government openly expressed its discontent. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswomen Jiang Yu stated that “China hoped Myanmar could properly solve its domestic issues and safeguard the stability of its border with China,” a rare statement for a country intent on non-interference.94 As the Tatmadaw won a quick, decisive victory over the Kokang MNDAA by August 31st, 2009, the next day, around two-thirds of refugees who entered China had returned to their homes in Myanmar.95

2011 Incident

In June 2011, skirmishes began between the Burmese government and the KIA in the Kachin state, ending another 17-year ceasefire agreement. Tensions had been brewing between the Burmese government and KIA over the past year. In the 2010 elections, Kachin candidates have been blocked from participating, even though the Kachin Independence Organisation (the political wing of KIA) has been participating in and cooperating with the government’s roadmap to democracy since the 1990s.96 However, KIA ignored several deadlines that the Burmese government have set for incorporation of KIA elements under the Tatmadaw. Meanwhile, KIA called for a withdrawal of all Tatmadaw forces near KIA posts in the Kachin state. Some sources point to the construction of the hydroelectric dams, built by the Chinese companies, as a contributing factor to the conflict.97 These dams are deeply unpopular in the area, and are perceived as destructive to the environment and society.98

As conflict intensified, an estimated 7,000 – 10,000 Burmese citizens fled into China.99 Human Rights Watch stated that in Myanmar, the Tatmadaw have been entering villages to interrogate and torture local residents in efforts to uncover affiliations with the KIA.100 Accounts of forced labour, destruction of property and livelihoods are reported.101 As a result of this conflict, and of well-founded fears of persecution from the government on the basis that they are Kachin residents, Burmese citizens who flee into China are recognized as refugees under the UN Convention.

However, in contrast to the 2009 incident, China has been much less accommodative to Burmese refugees. Quieter Chinese reaction to this incident, in contrast to China’s outspoken discontent with the 2009 incident, would according to the hypothesis, reflect a higher level of cooperation between China and Myanmar in 2011. That is, while China was unhappy about the lack of warning from the Burmese government in 2009, it appears the Chinese government received notice about the impending attack in 2011. Given that the recent nature of the event, research has not found confirmation that the Chinese government was given warning in 2011. However, since China has had no problem displaying its discontent when no warning is given in the past, the non-event of a disapproving public statement suggests that sufficient notice was given to the Chinese government. The official stance of China, as exemplified by the spokesperson for Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hong Lei, disputes the refugee status of incoming Burmese people.102 As such, no international aid groups are allowed in the border area. Burmese refugees who have entered China have so far lacked access to proper sanitation, shelter, healthcare or schools.103 The Democratic Voice of Burma reported that there are around 10,000 Kachins living in makeshift tents on the Chinese side of the border, while some are hiding in the jungle. Furthermore, it has been reported that China is refusing to allow certain refugees to cross the border, claiming that there is no fighting on the Burmese side.104 In other cases, there are forced repatriations back into the Burmese conflict zone.105 This points to a higher level of cooperation between the two states. In accordance to the hypothesis, Chinese refugee policies became stricter, and repatriation was practiced.

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