Page 1 of 2 Why China has it wrong on Myanmar By Bernt Berger
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
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
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
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
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.
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