In the aftermath of Burma's 2007 "Saffron Revolution" and the military's subsequent crackdown, China has been increasingly pressured to assume a larger role in helping to resolve Burma's crisis.
A gathering cloud of myth however, has formed with regard to Beijing's policy on Burma, indicating that China has limited sway with the military junta’s generals and that Burmese activists and their advocates in the West overestimated China's influence on the generals.
This view is simply wrong or, at worst, Chinese propaganda. Of course China has more power and influence on the generals than any other country. The question is whether the Chinese Communist government wants to use its leverage to facilitate change in Burma. It does not mean that China is the patron that pulls the strings, and the self-isolated, delusive Burmese regime is its puppet.
The generals are highly aware of China's overwhelming strategic weight over Burma and appear eager to diversify and reduce its dependence on China since the mid-1990s. The junta may manage to reduce its military and economic over-reliance on China, but China's political and diplomatic protection remains indispensable to the regime's survival. Moreover, China's influence over the ethnic cease-fire groups in northeastern Burma that borders China's southwestern province could complicate relations between two countries.
If Beijing chose an uncooperative policy toward Burma in the latter's handling of its ethnic groups, the regime's state-building effort would face a serious hurdle. Therefore, the regime has no choice (no matter whether its intentions indicate otherwise) but to rely on China for political and diplomatic protection and cooperation. In other words, Burma's dependency on China is the consequence––by default––of the junta's struggle for survival rather than its stated intentions, such as nationalism and Sinophobia.
Therefore, China has leverage not only in terms of its provision of carrots, but also in terms of the sticks it can wield to hurt the regime. But China has not used its stick to poke the generals toward change at least for two reasons: first, China does not want Western-style democratization on its southern flank; and second, Beijing does not want to be seen as a "threat" to its neighbors.
Although China wants to see economic reform taking place in Burma, China has almost no sympathy for Burma's democratic crusade and its advocates; Beijing considers them too close to the West. China does not have confidence in the opposition's capacity to maintain stability in the divisive nation. And more importantly, China has also gained unrivaled economic advantages by supporting the pariah regime.
The second reason for not using its leverage is related to China's geopolitical strategy that aims to undermine the feasibility and desirability of a US policy of containment mainly by forging solid working relations with its smaller neighbors and other major powers.
While China continued its program of economic and military modernization through the 1990s, it wants to minimize the risk that others, most notably the member-states of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (Asean), will view China as an unacceptably dangerous threat which must be parried or perhaps even forestalled.
If China continued to meddle in Burma's affairs in the 1990s the way it backed Burmese communist insurgents in the late 1960s and 1970s, it would stir grave concerns in Asean. China would be viewed as a bully.
These concerns would coincide with the current South China Sea dispute between China and some Asean members over territorial claims and resources. China's leaders have decided to follow Deng Xiaoping's cryptic instruction: "Hide our capacities and bide our time, but also get some things done." (tao guang yang hui you suo zuo hui). China has adopted an opportunistic foreign policy of maintaining relations with any government that would remain friendly to China and serve China's security and economic interests, irrespective of that government's propensity for reform.
However, this policy of self-serving pragmatism appears to be more and more untenable for at least two reasons. First, it puts China in a difficult dilemma whenever the Burmese regime faces serious vulnerability in domestic power shifts. For instance, Beijing found itself in policy confusion when the opposition National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in the 1990 multi-party elections.
During the Buddhist monk-led protests in 2007, China similarly faced an uneasy situation.
Since former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, who China viewed as "Burma's Musharraf," was purged in 2004, China has felt itself losing its grip on the regime's power establishment and has become increasingly frustrated with Snr-Gen Than Shwe's manipulative foreign policy.
In the wake of Khin Nyunt's fall from grace, Than Shwe visited India and agreed to the latter's bid for a UN Security Council seat. He later backtracked on that policy. The junta chief also reached out to Russia and North Korea, another gesture that irritated the Chinese. To top it off, Burma recently chose to buy a fleet of Russian MiG-29 fighter jets, despite China's offer to sell its latest J-10 and FC-1 fighters at a bargain price.
While Beijing's communist bureaucrats may be able to remain indifferent to the casualties of Burma's "Saffron Revolution," they cannot underestimate the high stakes resulting from the Burmese army's attacks on ethnic cease-fire groups along its border. The Burmese junta's recent military offensive against the Han-blooded Kokang resulted in a massive influx of refugees into China.
Indeed, the policy of "contained Balkanization" in Burma could lead to a resumption of localized armed conflicts between certain ethnic cease-fire groups and the Burmese army. Since the most volatile areas are around the Sino-Burmese border, where formidable Wa and Kachin ethnic armies are based, China is likely to face increased instability in its southwest and consequential disruptions of its economic and strategic interests.
The risk is imminent and urgent because the regime has set 2010 as an election year and has to impose a deadline on cease-fire groups joining the Burmese army's Border Guard Forces.
The military's abusive dealings with the pro-democracy opposition and ethnic groups have also drawn China into the international spotlight; its opportunistic foreign policy toward Burma has been challenged in the international arena.
This is the second reason why the policy is increasingly unsustainable. Burma has become a source of embarrassment for the Chinese leadership who would prefer to avoid being constantly associated with the brutal dictators in neighboring Burma.
According to Chinese sources, after the “Saffron Revolution” erupted in September 2007, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao contacted US President George W. Bush, Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown by phone to discuss the situation and which measures to take. China eventually agreed to the issuance of a UNSC Presidential Statement in October 2007, and its usage of the expression "strongly deplores the use of violence against peaceful demonstrations in Myanmar." China facilitated UN Envoy for Burma Ibrahim Gambari's first visit to Rangoon. In short, China's new role in the international system obliges the country to reexamine its purely opportunistic foreign policy.
While low-key foreign policy does not influence the events taking place a few kilometers across China's border, such as the junta's attack on the Kokang, Beijing has resolved to review its foreign policy. Sources confirm that China has now set up a "Fact-finding Commission" on last year's Kokang conflict and its impact on China.
If Beijing manages to facilitate a genuine reconciliation in Burma, it will serve China's interest.
Some may argue that there are two disincentives for China to modify its current policy. First, the junta may retaliate by disrupting economic cooperation with China (for instance, the gas pipeline deal). The second factor would be with respect to Washington's new policy toward the junta.
The first option would be suicidal for Than Shwe since his regime can't afford the return of a late 1960s scenario in Sino-Burmese relations. And the second factor is a grave concern among China's policy elites.
Dr. Jian Junbo from the influential Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, warned in his Asia Times' article in 2009 that "the US should recognize the fact that China is an important actor in Southeast Asia when it plans its engagement policy in Myanmar, and the US would face great difficulty if it tried to exclude China from its new Myanmar policy."
It is unlikely Asean will object to China's initiative for change in Burma, since the grouping has been disillusioned with its constructive engagement policy to tame the junta, while the relationship between Asean and China has been increasingly strengthened since the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.
Sen. Jim Webb's "China's threat" view and "containment approach" worry the Chinese.
In fact, Webb's alarmist view that states that China's increasing economic and political influence in Burma could further "a dangerous strategic imbalance in the region" has fallen neatly into the manipulative hands of Than Shwe; he now wants to use his US card to scare the Chinese.
If the highest level leaders of US and Asean make it clear to China that they will coordinate with Beijing to facilitate change in Burma, aiming for minimalist goals which do not radically upset the interests of Naypyidaw and Beijing, China would likely take on the role of working toward national reconciliation in Burma (in more concrete terms, the removal of Than Shwe if the latter resisted.)
If this goal cannot be achieved with persuasion, China may use sticks such as abstention in UNSC or support the status quo (i.e. encouraging ethnic cease-fire groups to resist the Burmese army) as the best fallback policy option. To that end, the US must make the first move: to liaise with China. It will perhaps best serve a common interest and workable task for both countries to refresh the tension-ridden Sino-US relationship which has spiked over the recent sale of US arms to Taiwan, friction over trade, the Dalai Lama and allegations of cyber-spying.
Min Zin is a Burmese journalist in exile and a teaching fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Journalism.