Will the PLA cross the Chinese-Myanmar border to safeguard security?

Lianhe Zaobao correspondent Yu Zeyuan notes that while the recent live-fire drills by China’s Southern Theater Command at the China-Myanmar border is aimed at testing the PLA’s capabilities, it is evidently a form of warning to all sides involved in the war in northern Myanmar. Some are even supporting the idea of Chinese military deployment across the border to tackle the serious, long-term issues of smuggling, drug trafficking and telecommunications fraud in northern Myanmar.
Chinese soldiers march in formation in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on 30 September 2023. (Pedro Pardo/AFP)
Chinese soldiers march in formation in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on 30 September 2023. (Pedro Pardo/AFP)

With fighting raging in northern Myanmar and after more than a hundred trucks entering Myanmar from China were burned last week, China's Southern Theater of Operations announced on 25 Nov that it had begun to hold live-fire military drills on the Chinese side of the China-Myanmar border, and that the military was prepared to respond to various emergencies.

A warning to all sides

According to academics studying the Chinese military, the PLA could attempt to cross the border and attack hostile armed forces if necessary, in a bid to tackle protracted issues such as smuggling, drug trafficking and telecommunications fraud in northern Myanmar that pose a serious threat to Chinese citizens.

A report by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Daily on 26 November said that the live-fire drills by the Southern Theater Command were aimed at testing the mobility, border control abilities and firepower capabilities of the military units. At 9 am on 25 November at the southwestern border of Yunnan province, the command for the start of the drills was given. The units converged at the drill location and conducted live-fire drills at staggered timings in their respective areas and directions. 

Under the centralised command of the Southern Command Theater, the participating units acted in accordance with their combat grouping and launched coordinated, systematic attacks, engaging in live-action drills such as border control. Concurrently, several strike units rapidly entered the designated area, launching precise strikes in multiple waves and from different directions on specified targets. 

... the Chinese military is giving a warning to all sides involved in the war, both in terms of preventing the war from spilling over into China, and preventing the possible influx of refugees into China. 

This photo taken on 10 November 2023 shows fighters of the ethnic rebel group Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) walking down a street market in the town of Namhkam in northern Shan state. (Mai Nyi/AFP)
This photo taken on 10 November 2023 shows fighters of the ethnic rebel group Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) walking down a street market in the town of Namhkam in northern Shan state. (Mai Nyi/AFP)

The PLA Daily stated in a commentary on 26 November that it is the duty of the PLA to resolutely safeguard national sovereignty, border stability and people’s lives and property. The live-fire drills on the Chinese side of the China-Myanmar border will boost the sense of responsibility and vigilance of the troops against potential threats and crises, as well as enhance the military units’ capability in border control, so that the PLA is able to effectively carry out its mission on command. 

The official website of the People’s Government of the Yunnan province announced on 24 November that the drills would be held in areas including Mangshi city, Ruili city and Gengma county. Unrelated personnel and all aircraft are restricted from entering the areas during the drills. Meanwhile, taking pictures or videos of the troops and disseminating of information related to the drills via the various media platforms without authorisation are prohibited. 

Evidently, the Chinese military is giving a warning to all sides involved in the war, both in terms of preventing the war from spilling over into China, and preventing the possible influx of refugees into China. 

Tackling scam hubs

Northern Myanmar’s Shan State shares a border with China, and its main residents are ethnic minorities in Myanmar. It has long maintained a relatively high degree of autonomy from the Myanmese government, possessing its own armed forces. 

Actual control over northern Myanmar has been in the hands of armed forces from different regions for a long time, and some areas have even engaged in drug trafficking to sustain their army while at the same time using the army to safeguard drug trafficking activities. In recent years, northern Myanmar has also become a hub for telecommunications fraud, claiming many Chinese victims. 

... military junta spokesperson Zaw Min Tun said that Myanmar was told of the drills and that they did not undermine China’s policy of non-interference in Myanmar’s internal affairs.

This photo taken on 9 November 2023 shows a fighter of the ethnic rebel group Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) walking past the police station in the town of Namhkam in northern Shan state. (Mai Nyi/AFP)
This photo taken on 9 November 2023 shows a fighter of the ethnic rebel group Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) walking past the police station in the town of Namhkam in northern Shan state. (Mai Nyi/AFP)

In the past few months, China has urged all sides in Myanmar to severely crack down on telecom fraud activities in northern Myanmar, and supported either the deportation to China or suicide of members of the Ming Xuechang family — a local group involved in telecom fraud in northern Myanmar. Currently, more than 30,000 people involved in telecom fraud have been repatriated to China. 

On 27 October, local armed group Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) waved the banner of combating telecom fraud up high and successively captured several strongholds of the military junta in northern Myanmar and is now attacking the Kokang capital of Laukkai on the China-Myanmar border. Online information claimed that the MNDAA received tacit approval from the Chinese side to combat telecom fraud, and even “picked up” China-made Type 95 automatic rifles and advanced equipment such as drones in the forest.        

But military junta spokesperson Zaw Min Tun said that Myanmar was told of the drills and that they did not undermine China’s policy of non-interference in Myanmar’s internal affairs. He added, “The military tie between China and Myanmar is firm, and collaboration between both armies is friendly and building up.” 

In this photo taken on 8 March 2023, members of the ethnic rebel group Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) take part in a training exercise at their base camp in the forest in Myanmar's northern Shan State. (AFP)
In this photo taken on 8 March 2023, members of the ethnic rebel group Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) take part in a training exercise at their base camp in the forest in Myanmar's northern Shan State. (AFP)

As telecom fraud has caused huge losses to Chinese residents and hurt the image of the Chinese government, Chinese public opinion hopes that authorities will strengthen their efforts in eradicating telecom fraud dens in northern Myanmar.

If China is able to engage in overseas operations, it will not only eliminate the root causes of smuggling, drug trafficking and telecom fraud that jeopardise the safety of Chinese citizens, but also enhance the PLA’s ability to fight outside its borders. — Wang Yunfei, Chinese military expert

Support for deploying troops overseas

On his social media, renowned Chinese military expert Wang Yunfei called on China to be more open-minded and to deploy troops out of the country where appropriate to eliminate hostile armed groups that seriously harm the interests of Chinese citizens and affect domestic security, while respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of neighbouring countries.  

Wang said that “respecting the sovereignty of neighbouring countries” entails informing neighbouring countries beforehand that the PLA’s overseas operation will only target hostile groups and militants and will not attack their government forces, occupy their territory or station their troops there permanently. After the operation is complete, the troops will immediately return to their territories. 

He added that overseas operations are commonplace internationally, such as the US’s attacks in Afghanistan, Syria and Iran; Turkey’s attack on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party; and India’s fight against anti-India forces in Kashmir. If China is able to engage in overseas operations, it will not only eliminate the root causes of smuggling, drug trafficking and telecom fraud that jeopardise the safety of Chinese citizens, but also enhance the PLA’s ability to fight outside its borders. 

Although China was previously against stationing even a single soldier abroad, there was no international backlash when it deployed large numbers of peacekeepers in other countries later on. The move was even welcomed by several countries.  

Chinese soldiers take part in a counterterrorism exercise during the multinational UN peacekeeping live exercise “Shared Destiny-2021” held by Chinese military at a tactical training base of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in Zhumadian, Henan province, China on 15 September 2021. (Jade Gao/AFP)
Chinese soldiers take part in a counterterrorism exercise during the multinational UN peacekeeping live exercise “Shared Destiny-2021” held by Chinese military at a tactical training base of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in Zhumadian, Henan province, China, on 15 September 2021. (Jade Gao/AFP)

Wang’s suggestion received a lot of likes, highlighting that many people supported his views. 

However, Chinese authorities have always stressed non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. In China’s view, the conflict in northern Myanmar remains Myanmar’s internal affairs, and it is unlikely that the PLA will operate outside China.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said on 20 November, “Since the conflict in northern Myanmar broke out, China has been playing a constructive role in its own way. We have worked actively to encourage talks for peace, urge relevant parties in Myanmar to put people’s welfare first, stop the fighting as quickly as possible, resolve differences through dialogue and consultation and prevent the situation from escalating.” 

She added, “We hope relevant parties will work with China to help restore peace and stability in Myanmar at an early date.”

But if the situation in northern Myanmar spins out of control and results in refugees flooding into China, or if northern Myanmar continues to be a haven for telecom fraud and drug trafficking, Wang’s suggestion to deploy troops overseas could perhaps gain even more public support.

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “中国军队会不会越界打击敌对集团?”.

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