In the north of Myanmar a Chinese minority is fighting for more autonomy. But according to DW columnist Frank Sieren, the rebels cannot count on support from China because Beijing has broader interests.
In recent years, coverage of unrest in Myanmar has usually focused on the Muslim minority's persecution by radical Buddhists. Several hundred people have died in the last 3 years in clashes between these two groups, and over 140,000 Muslims have reportedly been displaced.
But in the last few weeks, another conflict in the north of the country has hit the headlines.
Superficially, the conflict unfolding on the border between Myanmar and China (pictured above) has much in common with the Ukraine crisis. Russia is supporting a pro-Russian separatist militia, while these ethnic Chinese rebels in Myanmar have repeatedly called on Beijing to join them and fight side-by-side against the Mayanmar army. But not only does Chinese head of state and party leader Xi Jinping operate differently from Putin, a closer look at the conflict reveals a quite different situation to the one in Ukraine.
A few weeks ago the Kokang rebels under local leader Phone Kya Shin, attacked military facilities and attempted to take control of the border town of Laukkai. Since then, around 130 soldiers on both sides have died in street fighting. 30,000 refugees have fled across the border taking refuge in the Chinese province of Yunnan. The ethnic Chinese Kokang rebels are fighting for more autonomy in a region with a Chinese majority.
China not keen to support Kokang rebels
But unlike Russia, China is not taking advantage of the situation. Calls for solidarity with the Kokang rebels were soon deleted from social networks by the Chinese censors. Comparisons with the situation in Ukraine have also been dismissed by Chinese state media as ridiculous. And indeed western comparisons with Ukraine are somewhat spurious. Unlike Russia in Crimea, China does not have practically its whole naval fleet stationed in Myanmar. And Myanmar is not flirting with the Americans. On the contrary, China is Myanmar's biggest supplier of weapons.
In fact, ever since work began on its new Silk Road. Beijing has more of a vested interest than ever in a stable government in Myanmar. Within this trade network – which will extend to the Middle East and beyond, all the way to Europe - Myanmar plays an important role, providing China with direct access to the Indian Ocean.
Since January, oil has been flowing from there on the west coast of Myanmar and directly to China through a 771 kilometer pipeline after arriving in tankers from Africa. The strategically important pipeline supplies two of the most important growth centers in the south of China - the industrial conurbations around the cities Chonqing and Kunming which will be the starting points for the new Silk Road.
The big advantages of this land route for oil supplies are obvious. Not only do they reduce the time needed for the journey by 30 percent compared to the sea route, but the pipeline through Myanmar also means avoiding the Strait of Malakka, which links the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.
Up till now, 80 percent of oil headed for China from the Middle East and Africa arrives in tankers that pass through this bottleneck.
Beijing's military strategists have been warning for years that the sea route would make China vulnerable in the event of a geopolitical crisis, as a US blockade imposed by the US Sixth Fleet with little preparation could have a significant impact on China's energy supply.
But the pipeline project that Beijing is putting $2.5 billion into is relatively minor compared to the next item on China's Myanmar investment shopping list.
In addition to the pipeline, a $20 billion railway line is planned, which will carry not only oil but also should be able to transport a host of other goods more quickly from the Indian Ocean to China.
The Myanmar government will also benefit. The rebels are disturbing this political symbiosis both in Beijing and Naypyidaw. For this reason it is unlikely that they will ever play the same kind of role on the global political stage as Ukraine's separatists.
DW columnist Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years.