Beijing’s deployment of 5,000 troops to its shared border with Burma is the latest sign that the Chinese government is increasingly concerned about fighting between the Burmese junta and an ethnic Wa army.
An outbreak of fighting in Shan state, where the United Wa State Army (UWSA) is based, would likely impact on the healthy border trade between the two countries. China is one of Burma’s principal economic allies, but has warned the ruling junta to maintain stability along the border.
This appears an increasingly unlikely prospect however as Burma amasses its troops close to the Wa territory, while the UWSA reinforces itself and readies for fighting. The 30,000-strong UWSA’s resistance to government proposals to transform into a border guard force has riled the ruling generals and caused hundreds of ethnic Wa to flee the region.
Khun Hsai, editor of the Shan Herald Agency for News and an expert on the UWSA, told DVB that China “would assist” the Wa if fighting broke out. The Wa are made up of ethnic Chinese, and Beijing allegedly provides them with financial and military support.
“But defending the Wa is a secondary aim for China; the first would be to send a warning to [Burma’s capital] Naypyidaw not to attack,” he said. “And the Burmese government would not be foolish enough to retaliate against China.”
A UWSA official told DVB today that the possiblilty of fighting “depends on the government; if they want to fight then they will fight”.
“I think [the Chinese government] will wait and see the Burmese government’s policy before deciding what to do,” he added. “Anyway, [China] wishes to see that peace is maintained in the region.”
An offensive last year against an ethnic Kokang army close to the China border forced some 37,000 refugees into China’s southern Yunnan province, and drew a sharp rebuke from China. In May last year, prior to the Kokang incident, China had signed a joint ASEAN-EU statement urging Burma to release political prisoners and lift restrictions on opposition groups.
Analysts have said that the Wa army could also boost its drug trade along the Burma-China border to finance itself in the event of fighting. The UWSA is thought to be Burma’s main drugs producer, and China has seen increasing amounts of methamphetamine and heroin exported from Shan state, and with it spiralling rates of HIV/AIDS in its border towns.
Southeast Asia expert Bertil Lintner said however that it seems “highly unlikely that China would want to get involved in a war between the Wa and the [Burmese] government. They’ll probably just look to seal the border. I don’t think they’d go directly into the fighting; that would be crazy.”
China is also looking to protect serious economic interests across the border: the Shwe Gas pipeline project, which will transport 12 million cubic tonnes of gas annually from western Burma to Yunnan province when it opens in 2012, runs through Shan state, close to UWSA territory. Although Thailand still remains Burma’s largest trading partner, bilateral trade between the China and Burma stands at around $US2.7 billion.