China says its armed police began joint Mekong River security patrols yesterday with forces from Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, a development likely to deepen Beijing’s influence in an unstable region on its southern flank.
The patrols are a response to the deaths of 13 Chinese sailors who were attacked on two cargo ships in early October along the Thai section of the river that flows through the lawless Golden Triangle region.
The joint operations among the four nations will take Chinese vessels downstream over the border, a first for Chinese border police. China has long contributed police to UN peacekeeping missions overseas, but this is believed to be the first time they will work in another country’s territory without a UN mandate.
Xinhua news agency reported yesterday from Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province, near the borders with Laos and Myanmar that the patrols had begun.
The patrols reflect how Chinese political influence is accompanying the country’s economic penetration of the region, particularly in the impoverished nations of Laos and Myanmar.
However, that does not come without political risk for Beijing, with many of its neighbors already wary of Chinese domination. China’s military strength and willingness to assert its territorial claims have prompted many to seek stronger ties with the US.
Overall, the joint patrols should be positive for relations among the four and will have little real effect on the balance of influence, said Zhao Gancheng (趙干城), director of Southeast Asian studies at Shanghai’s government-run Institute of Foreign Studies.
“China is already the most influential country in the region and it’s not necessary for China to gain more influence,” Zhao said.
Little is known about the scale of the planned operations on the Mekong and it remains unclear how far south on the river they will go.
The Chinese leadership appears to be well aware of sentiments to its south and Chinese Deputy Public -Security Minister Meng Hongwei (孟宏偉) on Friday told the participating troops they must be respectful and mindful of foreign ways and win the support of commercial shippers and people living along the river.
The Chinese force is made up of more than 200 officers and men drawn from border patrol units along China’s coast and major rivers. They will sail in 11 converted flat-bottomed passenger and cargo ships based in the Mekong River port of Guanlei on China’s border with Myanmar.
State broadcaster CCTV ran footage showing the troops drilling on board a ship with the latest models of Chinese assault rifles.
“It’s the first time in the history of Chinese border guarding to go abroad to another country to jointly enforce the law. This is a groundbreaking model of a police cooperation mechanism,” the force’s political commissar, Liu Jianhong, told CCTV.
China will also host a multinational Mekong River security headquarters at Guanlei staffed by officials from the four countries. China has also offered to dispatch experts to help train security personnel in Myanmar and Laos.