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. 5/6 |

IV. Analysis

Before presenting a consolidated analysis of the paper’s research, the beginning of this section considers why other potential independent variables are less likely to explain variations in different refugee policies. The paper identified the following variables - humanitarianism, economic relations, and ethnicity.

First off, principles of humanitarianism do not account for variation in treatment towards refugees. Refugees from all three countries experienced economic hardship and political discrimination. China is signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention and 1967 Protocol, though domestic application of the laws varies for each refugee group. There is international consensus that North Korean refugees are indeed refugees, although China refuses to grant them refugee status.146 Through actively repatriating North Korean refugees, China violates the principle of non-refoulement in the Geneva Convention, which stipulates:

“No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group of political opinion.” -U.N. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Article 33, Section 1, 1951

In contrast, China adhered to non-refoulement for Vietnamese refugees. China even extended its obligations and helped fully resettle the Vietnamese. The juxtaposition of the North Korean and Vietnamese cases demonstrate that principles of humanitarianism do not have direct influence on Chinese refugee policies.

Second, a liberal explanation that stronger economic ties would foster higher levels of cooperation serves as a weak argument. While levels of cooperation between North Korea and China are the highest and China follows a strict policy of repatriation towards North Korean refugees, North Korea’s contribution to the Chinese economy is minimal, standing at total trade value of 700 million in 2010.147 In contrast, China benefits greatly from economic ties with Myanmar, with trade values at 1.3 billion.148 The construction of gas pipelines through the Yunnan province falls in line with China’s Western Development Strategy to expand the economy in western China. If economic ties were to serve as a causal factor, China would enforce a stricter, closed-door policy towards Burmese refugees than North Korean refugees. However, what is observed is the opposite, as China practices the stricter policy of refusal and repatriation for North Korean refugees than Burmese refugees. From this perspective, a there is no causal link between economic relations and China’s policy towards treatment of refugees.

Third, while the factor of ethnicity may appear to best explain China’s welcoming policies towards Sino-Vietnamese refugees, an examination of broader Chinese policies in reaction to mistreatments of other overseas Chinese discounts this as an explanatory variable. Chang’s study finds that China claims that overseas Chinese is an important issue, but argues overseas Chinese has never been a significant or sole determining factor in China’s relations with other nations.149 For example, during the 1970s when China received and encouraged Sino-Vietnamese to leave Vietnam, the Chinese-endorsed Pol Pot regime discriminated and massacred ethnic Chinese in Cambodia.150 More poignantly, the Kokang population, towards whom the Burmese government launched an attack against in 2009, are also ethnic Chinese. However, China’s reaction to other ethnic Chinese groups under persecution in no way matched its policies towards the Hoa population from Vietnam. These two examples support Chang’s argument and demonstrate that ethnicity does not drive China’s refugee policies.

Through these comparisons, it is found that the level of cooperation between China and the country of origin of refugees best explains variations in Chinese refugee policies. Specifically, the higher the level of cooperation between two countries, the more likely a country will refuse and repatriate incoming refugees from the country of origin. In contrast, the lower the level of cooperation between two countries, the more likely a country will accept and resettle incoming refugees (see Figure 1). Levels of cooperation characterize bilateral relations, and signify whether relations are friendly or strained. Indicators of levels of cooperation include formalized alliance, documented treaties, frequencies of high-level official visits, aid packages, mutual support in international organizations, and absence of military confrontation.

Figure 1: Level of Cooperation vs. China's Policy


Figure 1

The first case study of North Korea demonstrates high levels of cooperation with China, and a resulting strict closed-door Chinese policy towards North Korean refugees. High levels of cooperation are first observed with China’s support for North Korea during the Korean War, which then defined their relations as one that is “blood-cemented.” A number of signed treaties document their alliance, as exemplified by the continued renewal of the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendly Treaty. Frequent meetings are held between leaders and top officials of China and North Korea in order to maintain close cooperative ties. Most recently, new North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met with senior Chinese officials, and may be planning to visit China in the near future.151 China continues to this day to provide North Korea with political, economic, and developmental assistance. In accordance to the hypothesis, such high levels of cooperation corresponds with China’s consistent policy to refuse recognition of North Korean refugees, as well as repatriate them back to North Korea.

The second case study finds that relations between Myanmar and China are friendly, though at times are marred with mistrust and suspicion. Consequently, China has adopted a policy of refusing to recognize incoming Burmese citizens as refugees to reflect their friendly ties, but still providing assistance to the refugees during the 2009 and 2011 incidences to show discontent of certain Burmese actions. In the past decades, since Myanmar has faced international isolation due to its record of human rights abuses, Sino-Burmese relations have grown much closer. The Framework of Cooperation signed in 2000 between the two countries signalled development of their bilateral relations. In 2006, China showed its political support for Myanmar in the United Nations when China vetoed Security Council Resolution 61/232 condemning Myanmar’s human rights record.152 China has also consistently supplied Myanmar with weapons and other types of assistance.153 However, Myanmar continuously attempts to reduce reliance on China through strengthening relations with countries such as India, Thailand, and Russia.154 Furthermore, Burmese behaviour at times run counter to China’s wishes. For example, the Tatmadaw’s assault on ethnic groups nearby the Sino-Burmese border proceeded without any warning to China, angering China as a result. Overall, Sino-Burmese relations are friendly, though not to the point of being “blood-cemented,” as it is between China and North Korea. As a result, Chinese policy does not accept Burmese refugees, but provides temporary assistance, reflecting a median level of cooperation between the two countries. A closer look at the differences in Chinese reaction to the two refugee incidences in 2009 and 2011 further illustrates the connection between levels of cooperation and Chinese policies. When the 2009 refugee inflow came without warning from the Burmese government, which is indicative of non-cooperation, China openly expressed discontent, and thus accommodated Burmese refugees and offered them shelter. In 2011, China appears to have been notified of the Tatmadaw’s attack in the Kachin state, as China in this instance did not publicly denounce Burmese action, and instead claimed that there was no fighting, and engaged in repatriation of Burmese refugees. In the latter case, less accommodative Chinese policies correspond with a higher level of cooperation between the two states.

The last case study focuses on Vietnam, which in the 1970s witnessed a deterioration of bilateral relations to the point of military confrontation. In accordance to the hypothesis, China accepted Vietnamese refugees, resettled and integrated them into Chinese society. The weakening of bilateral relations saw the cutting of Chinese aid to Vietnam. Vietnam began to side with the Soviet Union, against China’s wishes. The breaking of bilateral relations is best exemplified with China’s military invasion into Vietnam in 1979, marking a zero level of cooperation. Meanwhile, Chinese policy towards Vietnamese refugees was the most generous of all three groups. China warmly accepted, resettled, and integrated 250,000 Vietnamese refugees. This finding falls in place with the proposed hypothesis, as the lower the level of cooperation, the more likely country A will accept the refugee group of country B.

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