Why ‘recover’ Kokang is not an option for China
Published: Mar 08, 2017 08:58 PM
Fighting has resumed in northern Myanmar, forcing a large number of Myanmese to flood into China. Kokang, a region bordering China, has once again aroused widespread public concern. To understand the current situation in this area, one must look back at the political ideals of the first generation of leaders of the People's Republic of China.

In 1885, Britain annexed the Konbaung Dynasty and incorporated Myanmar into British India. Since then, Kokang came under China's rule but later Britain forced the Qing Dynasty government to cede it to Myanmar. Until today, a majority of the residents living there are Han, the major ethnic group of China. As an ethnic minority group within Myanmar, they are autonomously governing the region.

In the 1950s, when China and Myanmar held border negotiations, Kokang was a contentious issue. The Chinese side made a major concession in giving Kokang to Myanmar. In the boundary treaty between China and Myanmar, signed in 1960, Kokang formally became a part of Myanmar.

Until today, many Chinese still believe that giving up Kokang is a great loss for China. There are even voices calling China to "recover" Kokang, similar to what Russia has done to Crimea.

These sentiments are echoed by some rebels in Kokang's ethnic armed forces, who claim themselves "Chinese descendants." They demand that China offer direct military assistance to help them defeat the Myanmar army.

Only by truly understanding the history of this region can we comprehend the importance of the decision to concede Kokang to Myanmar.

China was under the US embargo and blockade in the 1950s. At that time, Myanmar had signed a military treaty with the US and received military aids. India was constantly inciting Myanmar to confront China while the Kuomintang's remaining troops were trying to fight back in northern Myanmar.

The settlement of the border issue between China and Myanmar alleviated the tension in the region and contributed to defeating the Kuomintang's remaining forces as well as providing much needed support to China in the Sino-Indian war. 

The Chinese government intended to showcase China's friendship to its neighbors by solving the border issue with Myanmar through negotiations, and to set a precedent in solving border disputes with other neighboring countries in the future. 

Former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai once said settling the China-Myanmar border could help China ease the pressure from external forces, achieve peaceful coexistence and rip the frontline of foreign invasion and containment of China. However, such goals weren't fulfilled, mainly due to the international environment at the time. China, at that time, offered direct and indirect support to communist activities in Southeast Asia and South Asia, partly resulting in the emergence of Kokang independent armed forces.

China rectified this contradictory policy, which supported both the communist activities and a peaceful end to the conflict, after it embarked on reform and opening-up in 1978. Since former leader Deng Xiaoping's visit to Southeast Asia, overseas Chinese in the region provided great support for China's development.

Now, China has become the world's second largest economy and is facing new opportunities to promote development in the periphery and form an economic zone of common prosperity. It's time to realize the strategic vision of China's past leaders.

China is not Russia, nor will it imitate Russia. Kokang is part of Myanmar; therefore, the development of Kokang is a matter within the jurisdiction of Myanmar. As long as the region continues to develop and the livelihood of its people improves, it can become a driving force for border development between China and Myanmar.

"Recovering" Kokang, like how Russia recaptured Crimea, will not alleviate the conflict in Kokang, but instead, would expand the tension to some other neighboring countries.

China is not ignoring the safety of the Kokang people, but will do its utmost to stabilize the situation through diplomatic and political methods. The most effective aid that China can provide Kokang is to help people settle down and focus on development.

The author is a senior editor with People's Daily, and currently a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. dinggang@globaltimes.com.cn. Follow him on Twitter @dinggangchina