As China publicly calls for stability and reconciliation in Myanmar, it is also preparing for the possibility that the mounting protests could lead to the downfall of the military junta in its resource-rich neighbor, political analysts said today.
Although China is Myanmar’s most important trading partner, investor and strategic ally, Beijing has also maintained discreet links with opponents of its military rulers, and it tolerates the activity of some exiled opponents on Chinese soil, these analysts said.
While Beijing has shielded Myanmar’s government from its international critics — for instance, by blocking a United Nations Security Council resolution earlier this year condemning its human rights record — it has also urged the junta to avoid a repeat of the violent crackdown on demonstrations in 1988 that led to extended periods of house arrest for the opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Tang Jiaxuan, a member of China’s State Council and a former foreign minister, told Myanmar’s foreign minister, U Nyan Win, on Sept. 13 that the Chinese government hoped its neighbor could restore stability and promote national reconciliation, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
“If Aung San Suu Kyi became the leader of Burma tomorrow, China would be the first country to roll out the red carpet,” said Bertil Lintner, an analyst of Myanmar politics based in Thailand. “But they wouldn’t like to see it happen.”
China, already stung by human rights activists who have warned that its ties with Sudan’s repressive government could cast the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing as the “Genocide Olympics,” wants to avoid further damage to its reputation from Myanmar’s handling of political dissent, analysts and foreign diplomats in Beijing say.
They also note that China wants stability in Myanmar because it is an important supplier of raw materials, including timber and minerals. Two-way trade between the countries increased 39.4 percent in the first seven months of this year over the same period in 2006, reaching $1.11 billion, according to official Chinese government customs figures.
Analysts say China is also eager to import energy from the country, which has 540 billion cubic meters of proven natural-gas reserves, according to a 2007 statistical review of world energy.
China would also like to keep a pliant government in place to develop strategically important access to the Indian Ocean, according to security experts.
In an effort to expand its influence in Myanmar, China has become the junta’s biggest arms supplier, and it has extended discounted loans and development aid to the economically embattled nation.
Moreover, analysts estimate that more than one million Chinese entrepreneurs and traders have crossed the border and settled in Burma in the past decade.
There have been reports that China wants to build a $2 billion oil pipeline from Myanmar’s coast on the Bay of Bengal to Yunnan Province in China. Such a pipeline would allow oil from the Middle East to reach China without having to pass through the Malacca Strait, a waterway that is plagued by piracy and that could easily be closed off in a war or international crisis.
Officially, China maintains its customary diplomatic stance of noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries.
“As a neighbor of Myanmar, we hope to see that its society is stable and its economy developing,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, said on Tuesday at a regular news briefing in Beijing. “We hope and believe that Myanmar’s government and people can appropriately deal with their current problems.”
But analysts say there is evidence that China has been hedging its bets on political developments in Myanmar for some years.
Mr. Lintner, the Thailand-based analyst, said Beijing maintains unofficial contacts with exiled Myanmar opposition groups in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, in a bid to minimize their antagonism and to improve its understanding of political developments.
He said Beijing has also tolerated the presence of these groups in Ruili, a Chinese city on the border with Myanmar in Yunnan Province, where some of them maintain unofficial offices.
Other experts agree that these informal contacts with exiles, along with recent official statements from Beijing calling for a peaceful settlement of differences among all groups in Myanmar, suggest that China has doubts about the junta’s survival.
“One day, they expect the military will no longer be running the place,” said Trevor Wilson, an expert on Myanmar at the Australian National University who was the Australian ambassador to Myanmar from 2000 to 2003.
“It will be political parties, maybe even the current opposition, running the place,” he said, “and China needs to keep open some channels of communication with them, and not put them entirely offside.”
Despite China’s close economic and political ties with the junta, there are also signs that it is dissatisfied with some aspects of its performance.
Mr. Wilson said that senior Chinese diplomats in Myanmar have been bluntly critical of the junta’s poor economic management and its inability to stem the flow of illicit drugs across the Chinese border.
At times earlier in this decade, political tensions led China to suspend making new loans to Myanmar, he said. Political analysts also noted that China had openly called on the junta to show restraint in dealing with the protests.
In his meeting earlier this month with Myanmar’s foreign minister, U Nyan Win, Mr. Tang, the Chinese diplomatic envoy, also said that Beijing wanted Myanmar to move toward “a democracy process that is appropriate for the country,” Xinhua reported.
This did not mean China wanted Myanmar to adopt Western-style democracy, analysts said, but it was a suggestion that the junta should move toward a settlement with its opponents.
China has also recently shown that it is prepared to use its influence with the junta to ease diplomatic tensions with the United States. In June, China arranged in Beijing the highest-level talks between the United States and Myanmar in five years.
The Chinese are famed for their so-called principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, most notoriously in Sudan. One of the more interesting developments is China's current reaction to the turmoil in Burma (Myanmar), as the Chinese government has worked closely with the military junta there. It's a familiar criticism of the PRC as a one-stop totalitarian shop offering to purchase natural resources, sell weapons to "silence" critics, and to veto UN measures against human rights violations. To China, Burma offers the lure of a country rich with raw materials and a relatively close location. In other words, ensuring the flow of resources to the Middle Kingdom is a priority. The New York Times reports that, in the background, China has been looking at possible scenarios should the junta be overthrown and ever after. Might the Chinese be negotiating with Aung Saan Suu Kyi soon? It's nothing personal, despots of all stripes--just business. Gotta keep those resources flowing. To stay ahead, you've got to plan ahead, or so it seems: