In China’s border provinces, domestic politics are inextricably bound to foreign policy. Located in southwest China, Yunnan borders Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam and has been strategically promoted by Beijing as a ‘major gateway’ to Southeast Asia and South Asia. Much of the existing literature on Yunnan looks at its pivotal role in China’s cross-border economic development; however, the provincial government’s policies also have implications for national security. In the case of Myanmar, Beijing’s interests are threefold: economic cooperation, energy transportation and, most importantly, border security.
Beijing generally permits Yunnan’s provincial government to manage engagement with ethnic minority groups living along Myanmar’s border. On one level, this enables Beijing to ‘maintain plausible deniability and avoid inconsistency in its relationship with Myanmar’s central government’. However, by devolving responsibility to Yunnan, Beijing creates space for the provinces to ‘resist’ central policies, which in turn can negatively impact bilateral relations with Myanmar. The actions of Yunnan’s provincial government are therefore frequently seen as undermining the effective implementation of Beijing’s policy towards Myanmar.
For example, in 2015, Kachin State in Myanmar arrested 153 Chinese workers from Yunnan for illegal logging and sentenced them to life imprisonment. According to Sun Yun, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was left quietly frustrated by the Yunnan provincial government’s handling of the incident. However, the ministry was unable to exert influence over the provincial government in this matter, which damaged China’s relations with Myanmar. Illegal logging has long been a source of tension between central and provincial governments. In 2005, Greenpeace accused Asia Pulp & Paper Co (APP) of illegal logging in Yunnan. China’s State Forestry and Grassland Administration condemned APP’s exploits and claimed that the Yunnan provincial government was at fault. In response, the provincial government denied that APP was involved in illegal activity. This disconnect between the central and provincial government was picked up by global media, which described how ‘a few Chinese businessmen, backed by the authorities in Yunnan Province, are completely undermining Chinese government initiatives to combat illegal logging’. Under President Xi, Yunnan has become more compliant in its intermediary role between Beijing and Myanmar, but the potential for provinces to influence foreign policy by resisting central directives remains.