Why China has it wrong on Myanmar

By Bernt Berger

www.atimes.com/, October 3, 2007


While Myanmar's military government cracks down on peaceful protesters, China, as one of the regime's main benefactors, is being held in some quarters as tangentially co-responsible for the violence.

Although China's ability directly to influence the regime is limited, Beijing does maintain considerable diplomatic sway in Yangon, and whether it supports new mooted international initiatives against Myanmar's regime will likely determine their failure or success in affecting change.

China's stance on Myanmar is based on several misjudgments about the internal situation under the military regime and about Beijing's own international role. In his recent speech to the United Nations Security Council, Chinese Ambassador to the UN Wang Guangya admitted to problems in Myanmar. Yet he also expressed Beijing's belief that these problems did not constitute a threat to international peace and security and that in the current situation new Western-led sanctions against the regime were not useful.

That follows China's move in January to block a US-led initiative to put Myanmar's rights record on the UN Security Council's agenda. Last week, the United States and the European Union drafted a joint statement urging China, India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to use their influence in support of Myanmar's people to press for dialogue between the regime and the political opposition led by detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. So far, however, that call has gone unanswered.

Myanmar poses a growing challenge to China's international image, which Beijing is bidding to establish as a responsible global power. After its recent engagement in Sudan over Darfur backfired, Beijing finds itself once again associated with an abusive government that has manufactured a humanitarian crisis.

Although China is not the only country engaged in Myanmar and should not carry sole responsibility for the emerging crisis, it is a member of the UN Security Council and thereby indirectly accountable for any actions that are, or are not, taken. In view of a regime that unscrupulously mistreats its citizens and spurns with impunity all standards of civility, Beijing clearly lacks a sense of urgency.

Even before protesters took to the streets in September, there were rumors on the Yangon street that a popular uprising was in the cards. At the same time, China was gradually changing its approach toward Myanmar. For instance, in May a statement was posted on the Chinese Embassy's website criticizing the extraordinary expense of the establishment of Myanmar's new capital at Naypyidaw. China also initiated a behind-the-scenes meeting between Myanmar and US government representatives to discuss new directions in their severely strained relations.

Faced with the current crisis, however, China has reverted to its traditional stance of non-interference in another country's internal affairs. In doing so, Beijing is not only arguably damaging its international image, but also squandering a unique opportunity to take an active and moral role in influencing Myanmar's leadership. Globally, it could enhance its image considerably by acting as a responsible stakeholder. It could also distinguish itself from regional rival India, which so far has similarly preferred to deal with Myanmar's crisis by looking the other way.

The agreement to send UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari to Myanmar to meet with both military leaders and the pro-democracy opposition represents only a starting point toward internationally influencing the junta to change tack.

China's policymakers understand that the effectiveness of US-led sanctions has been undermined by Beijing's willingness to economically engage the regime. Indeed, Myanmar's military leadership has exhibited significant staying power in the face of economic sanctions, which in the main have hit the already poor and overburdened population and left the ruling junta unscathed. In the current situation, change can only come from within the military and China could use its channels, contacts and influence to convince the regime that now is the time to change.


Redefining interference

China has instead stood firm on its stated policy of non-interference in another country's internal affairs and has emphasized the need for restraint on both sides of the confrontation to ensure stability. However, China has in reality been interfering in Myanmar's internal affairs for at least half a century. During much of the Cold War, Beijing overtly supported the Communist Party of Burma, which fought against government-led forces. Burmese military leader General Ne Win reached a rapprochement with China in 1980, and Beijing has since been a strategic ally to different military governments.

China has invested heavily in Myanmar's infrastructure, business and natural resources and has tacitly supported the waves of migration of Chinese citizens into that country. By providing arms to the regime, Beijing has also disturbed government-society relations and helped to shift the center of political power toward the military. This kind of interference is no different from Western approaches to maintaining influence in their former colonies, and without a change in policy, China will continue to be subjected to accusations of neo-colonialism.

Interference no longer narrowly implies the disturbance of a smaller country's political and economic development, as it arguably did across the developing world during the Cold War. Today, the conviction in the West and many parts of the developing world is that social rights are integral to political stability and development. Indeed, the lack of interference into a rogue regime's internal affairs can have important humanitarian and developmental implications for the global community. Insistence on human rights and development is not just a way to pressure abusive governments, but because of spillover effects, is increasingly important to maintaining global security.

Nonetheless, Beijing frowns on any external intervention toward Myanmar, including a multilateral response led by the UN, because of the precedent it would set. Observers have argued that Beijing fears a similar fate if in future it proves unable to manage the rising number of internal challenges it faces.

However, despite its own spotty human-rights record, today China's pragmatic Communist Party leadership is not viewed as darkly as the likes of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Myanmar's General Than Shwe or other rogue governments with which Beijing is known to have close ties. There are no serious external initiatives to promote regime change in China, and whatever international action is taken toward Myanmar's military junta is unlikely to set any precedent for future action against Beijing.

China has recently said that no country in Myanmar's immediate neighborhood seriously believes that the recent anti-government protests represent a threat to regional stability and security. Yet even before last week's crackdown on demonstrators, some ASEAN members had come around to view Myanmar as more of a liability than an asset to the grouping's international standing.

Despite several diplomatic overtures, Myanmar has steadfastly ignored ASEAN's urgings to improve its human-rights record and move toward more democracy. The grouping's condemnation of recent events underscored its members' growing frustration with the military regime and mounting concerns that Myanmar's obstinacy could undermine efforts under way to become a more rules-based organization.

If China's influence is to transcend merely maintaining good commercial relations with regional governments, its handling of the crisis in Myanmar represents an important test case. Yet all indications so far are that China aims to support the status quo in Myanmar, reaffirming global perceptions that Beijing's foreign policy is guided almost exclusively in pursuit of its narrowly defined economic interests. Beijing clearly fears that international pressure on Myanmar's leadership or possible regime change would harm its economic interests, including in particular its privileged access to the country's energy and natural resources.

After the Cold War, Myanmar's leaders learned to survive by strategically playing their neighbors, namely India and China, against one another as they competed for access to Myanmar's resources. The ideal scenario now would be for China and India to join forces with the West in demanding political change in Myanmar. If China appears now as a progressive force toward influencing political change in Myanmar, potential future democratic governments will be less likely to exclude Beijing from their list of preferred trading partners.

China is Myanmar's biggest neighbor and will inevitably remain a factor in the country's future. In the event of possible regime change, presumably where the military is knocked from power, any new government would be well placed to leverage China's financial resources and technical expertise in managing the transition. Yet any democratic-minded government that rises in Myanmar will no doubt lean toward the US and Europe - which have long maintained economic sanctions against the military regime - at China's expense.

China's accustomed role of blocking UN Security Council resolutions that involve sanctions or interventions against abusive regimes no longer necessarily reflects the spirit among other UN member states from the developing world. Today, many countries, rich and poor, stand for democratization, human rights and good governance and are ready to condemn regimes such as Myanmar that routinely flout those ideals. It's a global reality that China's leadership has, to its international detriment, failed to embrace.



Bernt Berger is a research fellow at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy, Hamburg (IFSH) and associate researcher of the Institute for Asian Studies at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA).

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