Will China Borrow Russia’s Crimean Playbook in Myanmar?

on April 3 | in Asia-Pacific, Foreign Policy

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Fierce fighting between ethnic-Chinese Kokang rebels and Myanmar’s armed forces near their border with China, and on occasion within Chinese territory, has been causing much angst for Beijing. Since the Kokang region contains a large ethnic Chinese population, it is tempting to want to draw parallels with Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Beijing’s actual response, however, has been less tantalizing, but is still quite telling. Any Chinese interest or even admiration for what Moscow got away with in Ukraine should not be confused with an intent to replicate Russian military adventurism

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Russia’s annexation of Crimea placed China in an awkward position. Crimea’s forcible secession from Ukraine raised the uncomfortable prospect of a region unilaterally splitting off from its whole, an aspiration for some in Chinese territory like Tibet and Xinjiang. But Beijing could not risk alienating Moscow, a strategic partner that has stood with China against perceived Western interference in its and other countries’ domestic affairs.

So China stayed relatively mum on the issue but conveyed, including through state-controlled press, a veneer of support for Moscow by highlighting a shared discomfort over Western infringement in the region by NATO. These same articles also blamed developments in Ukraine on Washington’s encroachment in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence.

The conflict in Myanmar, like Crimea, also is a conundrum for China. Rebel leader Peng Jiasheng’s appeal to his ethnic Chinese brethren for assistance has resonated with some in the Chinese public. There are even rumors that former Chinese soldiers have joined the fight. The rebels themselves have denied these allegations.

But who we actually believe doesn’t really matter since it’s quite clear it isn’t in China’s interest to provide direct support to the rebels. This is because Beijing seeks to bolster ties with Myanmar, a country that will play no small role in China’s top foreign policy priorities in 2015: The New Silk Road economic belt and maritime route initiative. The spillover of the unrest in Kokang into China’s territory, such as Myanmar’s alleged air strike in China—similar incidents have occurred before—may ultimately push Beijing to insert itself more directly to facilitate a resolution to the conflict, however.

Beijing has unequivocally opposed efforts to establish a link between Kokang and the events in Crimea. Moreover, Chinese Internet censors have stifled netizen support for the rebels. Most recently, a Chinese major general that has been accused of graft actually may have been punished for leaking sensitive information to Kokang rebels during the last round of unrest in 2009.

U.S. officials occasionally insist China might become more brazen in its South and East China Seas territorial claims. Russia’s land grab did not prompt a military response from the West; what is stopping China from doing the same?

The problem with this argument is that Beijing’s push to advance its claims, including by building military infrastructure on a handful of reefs, predates the conflict in Ukraine. After all, it was in 2010 that Chinese officials referred to territorial claims in the South China Sea as a “core interest” in conversations with U.S. diplomats, although Beijing was quick to play that down. Still, there is no doubt that China’s desire to defend what it views as its sovereign territory, which includes claims in the South and East China seas, is a powerful driver of its own.

China has its own playbook for the South China Sea and has no need to borrow Russia’s in Ukraine. Beijing has proven itself adept to date at creating new realities on the ground. For instance, China constructs facilities on disputed reefs and has arguably done so without drawing punishment from the United States, unlike Russia. While it may be true that sanctions are not enough to get Russia to stop its offensive in Ukraine, it would be ill advised to assume China sees no significant costs to testing Washington’s resolve. The specter of sanctions may not completely faze President Putin, but President Xi might be a different story. After all, the U.S. and Chinese economies are highly interdependent, and none would benefit from retaliatory economic punishment.

The annexation of Crimea is also not useful in thinking about how it might influence Beijing’s actions against Taiwan. China will not be disguising its forces in the event it decides to forcibly unite Taiwan with the mainland. Indeed, Beijing has an anti-secession law that in no uncertain terms enshrines China’s perceived right to do just that.

Even if Beijing has chalked Crimea up as another data point the United States would not intervene militarily if China attacked Taiwan, to accept this assessment would be hugely irresponsible on Beijing’s part. Chinese military planners cannot take such a big gamble but must assume that Washington would intervene when crafting options to take Taiwan by force.

Instead of drawing any useful lessons learned from Crimea’s annexation, China again found itself juggling its own opposition to secession movements with standing by its Russian friends. Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 ended with Moscow and a few other countries — but not China — recognizing the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. If anything, Crimea has proven to be more of a headache for China as it tries to address the conflict in Kokang.

This is because any use of force by China in response to the Kokang conflict would develop from a genuine need to protect its citizens who, as mentioned earlier, have been the casualty of stray munitions within China’s territory. Indeed, soon after the airstrike in Chinese territory China put its military aircraft on alert. But beyond efforts to safeguard its own territory, as is any nation’s prerogative, China is not interested in a concerted military campaign against Myanmar.

The desire to protect Chinese nationals overseas also predates Crimea. China in 2011 evacuated thousands of its citizens from Libya. Most recently, the Chinese sent a naval ship to Yemen to facilitate the evacuation of its citizens. Of note, a draft counterterrorism law if passed would allow China to deploy combat troops abroad with the consent of the country involved.

Thus, unlike what occurred in Crimea, a desire to protect its citizens and other interests such as advancing its territorial claims will play a larger role in shaping how Beijing uses its military power. There will be no 21st century Crimean-esque war with Chinese characteristics.

Gabriel Alvarado is a former political analyst with the U.S. government. He currently works at a boutique strategic advisory firm in the D.C. area. 

photo: The Kokang region (Wikicommons)

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