China’s Burma Shame

Photo courtesy of BurmaNet News

In recent years, much has been made of China’s growing “soft power” in Asia. With the United States distracted by a failed presidency and a disaster of its own making in Iraq, the field has been open to China to assert itself as a friend to developing countries, and an economic partner who will not ask too many questions before dispensing vast reserves of cash for infrastructure projects in return for access to markets and resources.

Indeed, the model has been good for the region, in some ways. Badly needed capital has been mobilized in places like Cambodia and Laos. Far from destroying Asian economies, as some had feared, the remarkable growth of China has increased opportunities for intra-regional trade, while allowing China to expand its influence aggressively into countries like the Philippines that were once the preserve of the United States.

But there are limits to what pure economic muscle can do, and China may have reached that point in Burma this week. When a close ally beats and shoots unarmed monks who are asking for nothing more than to have a voice in the affairs of their country, the hollowness of the Chinese diplomatic model is on plain view.

There is more to being a responsible partner on the world stage than handing out bags of money. China knows this, as it has demonstrated in the ongoing six-party talks to deal with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Beijing has played a leading role in keeping the talks going, cajoling North Korea to be reasonable and working closely with its partners — the two Koreas, Japan, Russia and the United States — to keep the process engaged and to help Washington back away from its unproductive “axis of evil” stance.

On Burma, however, Beijing has been shameful. It has supported the murderous generals who seized power in a hail of bullets with vital amounts of aid and investment in return for access to natural resources, becoming the country’s largest trading partner and undermining efforts by the EU and the West to isolate and force the regime to change. It continues to deflect UN Security Council action and it has failed to engage the junta constructively, preferring to follow the dictates of greed in the name of the Communist Party’s principle of “non-interference” in the domestic affairs of its neighbors.

In the current situation, of course, non-interference is simply a lie. By investing billions in Burma (two-way trade with Burma amounted to $1.11 billion in 2006, according to Chinese government figures cited by the International Herald Tribune. Trade for the first seven months of this year has risen by 39.4 percent over a year earlier) and delivering at least US$1.4 billion in weapons sales over the past several years, China has strategically intervened on the side of an illegitimate regime despised by its own people.

Far from an example of the cuddly “soft power” China wishes to display to its neighbors, in Burma the cold calculus of Beijing’s foreign policy is clear. It wants access to Burma’s land and resources and it does not care what happens to Burma’s own people.

The reality, of course, is that for all its growth and economic dynamism, China’s hermetically sealed leaders are far closer in style and temperament to the junta’s generals than they are to politicians and leaders in democratic countries who have to contend with the messiness of a free press, elections, public debate and the rule of law. Hu Jintao and Co, like the generals who run Burma, are used to laying down the law.

But China faces a serious dilemma in Burma. As a power that wants to be taken seriously on the world stage, China can ill afford to sacrifice its good standing for a bunch of backward, corrupt and immoral thugs. This is why we are told that the politburo in Beijing is deeply troubled by the unrest in Rangoon and may be cautioning the regime to take it easy before opening fire on the monks. This is not out of any compassion for the monks, but out of the cold reality that Beijing knows that a bloodbath in Burma — like the Tiananmen massacre that followed the last crackdown in Rangoon by a year — would reflect badly on China a year ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

But with an estimated 86,000 spontaneous riots and demonstrations in China last year over a variety of grievances, Beijing also knows how difficult it is to keep the lid on its own people. With the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China due in about two weeks, analysts say the timing of a Burma crisis could not be worse. If they act to undermine the generals on their southern border, Beijing’s leaders fear that unrest could spread by example into China. If Beijing does nothing, and things go terribly wrong, the world will hold it responsible for the actions of its client state.

The Burma uprising could be a coming of age test for China. As other major powers have gradually discovered, pariah states make unreliable long-term allies. On a visit to Mandalay a few years ago, I marveled at the many Chinese-style commercial buildings going up in a city fast becoming an economic satellite of southern China. The Burmese I was with were openly resentful. “We have no say in this,” I was told. “The Chinese can do whatever they want because they are friends with the army. But when the generals are gone, we will make the Chinese pay.”

The day when China has to pay for its Burma policy could be drawing near.