A rebel soldier peers from an outpost south of Laiza, in Myanmar's Kachin state:Source: AFP
China's focus on deepening ties with Latin America has impacted U.S. engagement with Myanmar
China is feeling the heat in Myanmar — a country which is central to Beijing's energy security and Silk Road plans — following Washington's push to entrench itself in Nay Pyi Daw.
The website Duowei run by overseas Chinese is reporting that China's focus on deepening ties with Latin American countries, in Washington's backyard, has impacted on the decision by the United States to energise its engagement with Myanmar.
Analysts say Yunnan — China's strategic province, which is one of the starting points of President Xi Jinping's 21st century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) project — could be the ultimate target of American inroads in Myanmar. Yunnan is China's gateway to Southeast Asia, sharing common borders with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.
The contest for influence seems to be peaking in the run-up to the October elections in Myanmar, whose results are likely to define the country's geopolitical gradient.
According to Duowei, talks on human rights between the U.S. and Myanmar took place between January 11 and 15. But apart from the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour Tom Malinowski, who headed the delegation, two senior officials from the U.S. Pacific Command — Lieutenant General Anthony Crutchfield, as well as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for East Asia, David F. Helvey also joined the dialogue. Gen. Crutchfield also paid a visit to Myitkyina in Kachin state, the region embroiled in a civil war. A Chinese consular delegation is currently visiting Myitkyina, to ascertain whether some Chinese citizens were trapped in the Kachin state amid armed clashes.
Observers say that any deterioration of the situation following an intensification of fighting between the Myanmar's government forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) should worry China, as it could trigger a flood of refugees towards Yunnan, which is not far from that zone.
The website Sina Military Network is reporting that should Myanmar's army attack Pharkant, one of the main Kachin bases, which is close to the Chinese border, it could trigger refugee flows into Yunnan, a situation similar to 2009, when there was an outpouring of refugees, following an attack by government troops in the Kokang Special Region, which borders Yunnan.
Any refugee exodus can flare social tensions as the Kachin people belong to the same ethnic group as the Jingpo people who reside in the Yunnan province, and would be naturally empathetic to those displaced across the border. Instability in northern Myanmar also has economic implications as China is a major market for jade, gemstones and teak, which originates in the Kachin hills.
For China, a loss of turf in Myanmar can remove one of the hinges of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the MSR — both essential to integrate the economies of Asia and Europe, with China as the hub. China has signed an agreement to build a railroad from Myanmar's port of Kyaukpyu on the Bay of Bengal to its Yunnan province. But the implementation of the project, which would help China to evade the Malacca straits — an international trade artery in waters dominated by the U.S. — is encountering serious difficulties. These obstructions could multiply if a pro-Washington government takes charge in Nay Pyi Daw, following the elections.
Kyaukpyu is also the starting point of a gas and oil pipeline that heads towards Yunnan. Analysts say that Beijing is already wary of local protests against the project, which could multiply if an unfriendly government takes charge in Myanmar.