Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in Burma today, kicking off a two-day official visit. This is the first by a Chinese Premier to the “isolationist” nation in nearly 16 years. The visit wraps up Wen’s four-nation Asia tour after previous stops in South Korea, Japan and Mongolia.
Wen is scheduled to hold talks with Than Shwe, Thein Sein and other senior government officials. Already speculations are running high over the issues they will most likely touch upon, especially in light of the upcoming sham elections and the rising border instability due to tensions between the ethnic groups and the Burmese Army.
It is obvious that the main purpose of Wen’s visit is to strengthen economic and trade cooperation between China and Burma. Ye Dabo, the Chinese ambassador to Burma, has stated that during the visit, several trade pacts enhancing economic ties between the two countries are expected to be signed.
Both historically and geographically, China has an ally of Burma, which enjoys both political and financial support from its neighbor. China is now Burma’s third largest trading partner and investor after Thailand and Singapore, with bilateral trade totaling $2.907 billion in 2009. Up to January 2010, China had invested $1.848 billion in Burma, or 11.5% of Myanmar’s total foreign direct investment.
But economy is not the only thing on Wen’s mind. It seems that the Chinese premier also wants reassurances from the Burmese generals that they will make border stability one of their top priorities. The trip comes at a politically sensitive time as the ruling generals prepare for the sham elections being boycotted by the party of detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. As part of its plans for power consolidation, the military regime has been attempting to bring armed ethnic groups by force under the command of the Burmese Army. These armed ethnic groups, according to the plan, will be transformed as Border Guard Forces. Major ethnic ceasefire groups such as the United Wa State Army, Kachin Independent Army, Mon State Army, Karen National Liberation Army and a few others have vehemently refused to give up arms and join the Border Guard Forces. This has resulted in mounting tensions between the Burmese Army and the armed ethnic groups, with the former threatening to use military force against the latter.
Wen has enough reasons to be concerned about border stability. In August 2009, when Than Shwe commanded his troops to attack the Kokang Army in the north,in one day 37,000 Kokang refugees fled into Yunnan, the southern province of China. The sudden and massive spillover of refugees into its borders sent red alerts to the Chinese government, which is very concerned with maintaining stability on its land. For the first time in the history of the two countries, China gave Burma a strong official denunciation of the attacks against the ethnic Kokangs and warned against any future offenses.
China is particularly concerned over the military regime’s attempts to force the country’s ethnic minorities to surrender their arms and join government-backed militias ahead of elections scheduled for later this year. Instability that will result from the Burmese military actions will no doubt produce influx of tens of thousands of refugees from Burma into China.