BEIJING - Chinese warships are visiting Myanmar, highlighting the strong relationship between the two countries' militaries amid recent clashes in border regions that threaten to complicate relations.
The PLA Navy ships, including the Zibo, a guided-missile destroyer, and the Jinzhou, a guided-missile frigate, arrived in Yangon on Monday for a four-day visit and were met by senior Myanmese officers, state broadcaster CCTV reported on Tuesday.
The Chinese delegation will take part in "professional exchanges, cultural and sports competitions, and mutual visits to military facilities with officers and sailors of the Myanmar Navy", according to the report.
A spokesman for the ruling junta Zaw Min Tun confirmed that the two warships and a supply vessel, carrying more than 700 sailors between them, had arrived at Thilawa port on Monday ahead of "naval security exercises between Myanmar and China", according to the Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper.
He did not give further information about the exercises, but said the visit reflected the "strong friendship" between the two militaries.
It is the first Chinese naval visit to the country since 2017.
Could Myanmar's military be deposed by armed groups fighting across the country?
Fan Hongwei, a specialist in China-Myanmar relations at Xiamen University, said the visit "indicates that military exchanges between China and Myanmar have not been affected by the situation in the north [of Myanmar]".
The visit coincides with an upsurge in fighting close to the Chinese border in Shan state between the junta and the Three Brotherhood alliance, made up of armed groups representing ethnic minorities. The militia groups have taken over a number of crucial trade hubs since launching an offensive last month.
Last week the People's Liberation Army also announced a live-fire exercise involving troops from both countries along the border.
Meanwhile, China is engaged in a crackdown on telecoms scams run from the lawless border region. This has already resulted in the death of a leading warlord in custody and members of his family, along with thousands of other suspects being handed over to the Chinese authorities.
Reports that the rebel groups have been helping to close cybercrime bases have heightened speculation that Beijing may adjust its approach and put even greater pressure on the junta if its fails to put a stop to cross-border telecoms scams.
Yin Yihang, a fellow with Beijing-based think tank the Taihe Institute, said violence in the border regions could create further uncertainty in relations between the two countries.
Distrust of China runs deep in Myanmar, especially since Beijing refused to condemn or sanction the generals behind a coup that removed Aung San Suu Kyi's democratically elected government and saw tens of thousands of people being thrown into jail.
"Any comments by China could be seen as interference in Myanmar's internal affairs and create a backlash from the people in Myanmar," Yin said. "So China needs to tread very carefully to avoid being drawn into the domestic conflicts in Myanmar."
Yin said the crackdown on fraudsters was a question of law and order rather than security, and said it was unclear how much influence Beijing had over the armed rebel groups.
"That's why China started live-fire drills at the border regions, which is not just a warning to the military government but also to the rebel groups that their conflicts should not jeopardise peace and stable bilateral ties."
In a rare demonstration in Yangon last week, protesters gathered in front of the Chinese embassy, accusing Beijing of backing the armed groups.
This handout photograph taken and released by the Myanmar's Military Information Team on Monday shows a China navy ship arriving at Thilawa port in Yangon. (Photo: AFP)
Sun Yun, a senior fellow at Washington's Stimson Centre, said: "It is better for the bilateral relations that the cyber scams are pushed out by the ethnic rebels rather than a solution imposed by China.
"For China to push harder may not bring a solution but bring more stress to the bilateral ties."
Sun said it was unlikely Beijing would change its strategy in Myanmar and the crackdown highlighted its influence.
"In fact, the fact that China has spent so much time and efforts to persuade the military government to cooperate with China on the cyber scams is a good example of China's approach, which may appear to many Chinese as too tolerant," she said.
"I don't think China is aiming to alter the political reality in Myanmar today, but I do think China aims at protecting itself from cyber scams."
Fan said China would continue to push for peace talks in Myanmar.
"Both the internal conflicts and the telecoms scam have demonstrated that China is a direct victim of the instability and unrest in Myanmar," Fan said.
"Only when peace, stability and development are achieved in Myanmar, can Chinese investment in Myanmar and cooperation between the two sides really move forward."