Bangkok Post, Perspective >> Sunday January 27, 2008
The China Factor
Diplomacy alone is not enough to compel China to play an effective role in resolving the situation in Burma - action from the global public is needed, writes MIN ZIN
A few weeks after the protests last year in Burma, a Chinese diplomat approached an influential Burmese advocate in New York and asked why the Burmese dubbed their protest the "Saffron Revolution."
"The diplomat was obviously quite uncomfortable with this particular name, which he whispered to me," said the Burmese advocate, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Chinese are very sensitive to the 'colour revolutions'," she added.
In the wake of successful "colour revolutions" such as Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution and Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution - victories of nonviolent democracy movements in post-communist countries - Beijing is anxious to prevent similar occurrences at home or among its neighbours.
Then a country in its own backyard triggered the "Saffron Revolution", and the military's subsequent crackdown captured the world's attention. Along with the crisis in Burma, China was drawn into the spotlight with unflattering coverage in international media, and diplomatic pressure increased to withdraw its support of one of the world's most odious regimes. Public outcry across the globe called on China to assume a larger role in helping to resolve the crisis.
However, contrary to common perceptions, China is not a patron that pulls the strings, and the self-isolated, delusive Burmese regime is not a puppet. In fact, China has limited sway with the junta's generals. The relationship runs in both directions. This complicates Burma's problems and their resolution.
Of course, China has more power and influence on the generals than any other country. It also intends to use that leverage to its own benefit.
According to Chinese diplomats, Beijing has been gradually changing its Burma policy since the removal of former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt in 2004, and this has accelerated since the recent deadly crackdown in Burma. However, the diplomats warn that the policy shift should not be expected to be quick or dramatic. It will be slow and well-calculated.
"Than Shwe and Maung Aye are more intransigent than former dictator Ne Win, and they often do incredibly silly things," said a Chinese official during a meeting with a Burmese opposition activist. "China knows that Burma will not prosper under their leadership."
China's special envoy, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi, was sent to Burma in November. He met with the junta's top leader, Senior-General Than Shwe, and asked the military "to resolve the pending issues through consultation, so as to speed up the democratisation process."
However, the regime responded that it will go at its own pace in the unilateral implementation of its "Seven-Step Road Map," according to a Western diplomat.
"The Chinese keep telling us that the international community is overstating their influence with the Burmese generals," said the diplomat. "Beijing says they don't have ability to tell the regime what to do."
Aung Kyaw Zaw, a Burmese analyst living on the China-Burma border, disagrees with that interpretation.
"Persuasion, without power backup, will not work. The soft-soft approach should be changed. China must show the stick part of its diplomacy," said Aung Kyaw Zaw.
Tipping Toward Responsibility
At the present time, Beijing is clearly not ready to apply real pressure to the junta. It still believes that working to resolve Burma's problems is secondary to pursuing its principal economic and strategic interests.
But simultaneously, China would like to solidify an international role as "a responsible stakeholder."
The time has come for concerted international diplomatic pressure on China to tip the balance toward responsibility. China must consider the sentiments of Thucydides: An amoral foreign policy is neither practical nor prudent.
Protesters in Bangkok calling for an end to the brutal use of force by the Burmese military junta against its people during the crackdown last year.
At the same time, it should be obvious that the United States and the European Union cannot outsource Burma's transition to democracy to China, which itself lacks democracy.
The West's most powerful countries should coordinate with China to facilitate a real transition in conflict-ridden Burma.
However, diplomacy alone is not enough to compel China to play an effective role. Public action on a global scale is needed.
"China was very annoyed to see the wave of protests taking place outside its embassies in major cities around the world in the wake of the September protests," said Aung Kyaw Zaw. "More importantly, they were really worried when demonstrators linked Burma's cause with a 2008 Olympic boycott."
China is very anxious to prevent any negative effect on the Olympic games. The vice mayor of Beijing warned in October 2007 that any move to link China's role in Burma to a boycott of the 2008 Olympics would be "inappropriate and unpopular."
China's leadership might even accommodate its Burma policy and give more support to the UN's Burma mediation role if they sensed a possibility of real damage to the much-hyped gala this summer, even though it might be a tactical and temporal accommodation.
However, the Burmese opposition has so far failed to seize and exploit this opportunity effectively. During the peak of Burma 's "Saffron Revolution", The Washington Post labelled one of its editorials the "Saffron Olympics", highlighting the dynamics of an international campaign against the summer Olympics. But that effort has run out of steam.
"The Burmese opposition in exile cannot accelerate the campaign in a consistent manner," said Nyo Ohn Myint, the head of the Foreign Affairs Office of the National League for Democracy (Liberated Area). "Our campaigners are going after ad hoc protests without a focus. We fail to form a wider coalition with other Olympic detractors. Unless we can launch a coordinated international grassroots action, China will not be swayed to our direction."
Beijing plans to start its Olympic festivities on 8/8/08, a date that is surprisingly similar to the 20th anniversary of Burma's "Four Eight ( 8/8/88 ) Democracy Movement."
Whether or not the heirs to the movement can make the most out of this coincidence remains to be seen.
Min Zin is a freelance journalist.