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Worldwide Locations

Burma Road Goes Through Beijing

by Jamie Metzl

The Nation (Thailand)
October 3, 2007

Three hard facts are setting the boundaries for the talks United Nations negotiator Ibrahim Gambari is undertaking as he shuttles between Burma's ruling generals and the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. First, despite the heroic leadership of the Buddhist clergy and the pro-democracy community, almost 50 years of military misrule and terror tactics have worn down Burma's people, who will probably find it hard to maintain their defiance without obvious splits among the ruling generals or widespread desertions among ordinary soldiers.

Second, Burma's generals know that they face a stark choice: either maintain power or risk imprisonment, exile, and possible death. In their eyes, this leaves them with virtually no choice but to hold on to power at all costs.

Finally, as long as China provides political, financial, and military support for Burma's rulers, it will be all but impossible for any meaningful change to occur. Until China decides that it has more to gain from a more legitimate government in Burma than it does from the current incompetent military regime, little can happen.

China's decision to block the UN Security Council from condemning the Burmese regime's assault on the Buddhist monks and other peaceful protesters underscores its long-standing political support for the junta. This past January, China, alongside Russia, vetoed a security council resolution that condemned Burma's human rights record and called on the government to stop attacks on ethnic minorities, release political prisoners, and begin a transition towards national reconciliation and democracy. For years, China has also blocked meaningful sanctions against Burma.

China's economic ties to Burma's rulers are strategically important for both sides. Annual bilateral trade, estimated at $1.1 billion—a huge figure, given Burma's total GDP of $9.6 billion—provides an economic lifeline for the Burmese government. China is also Burma's largest military supplier.

At the same time, the $2 billion oil pipeline that China is seeking to build from Burma's southern coast to China's Yunnan province will allow China to get Middle East oil to its southern provinces more easily and securely. When completed, the pipeline will make China much less susceptible to foreign military pressure in the event of international conflict.

So the stakes in Burma are high for China, as are Chinese fears of about how any future "national reconciliation" government might react to China's record of complicity with the corrupt military rulers.

It should be remembered that America and its allies, faced with strategic fears of a similar type during the Cold War, also supported repugnant and oppressive regimes in places like Zaire, Chile, and Indonesia. But America and the West did, at key turning points, realise that times had changed so much that these dictators had outlived their usefulness. Thus, despots like Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Chun Doo-hwan in Korea were jettisoned, because the price of supporting their despicable regimes became greater than the benefits.

In today's Internet age, the costs of China's support for Burma's generals are rising fast. Just as in Darfur, where China's perceived support for the Sudanese government translated into harsh criticism and threats to brand the 2008 Olympics the "Genocide Games," China's backing of the Burmese generals, particularly if the death toll rises, could cause similar problems. Indeed, an Olympic boycott will become more likely if scenes of murdered or brutalised Buddhist monks are flashed around the world. Moreover, Burma's public health woes and drug and human trafficking are increasingly being exported to southern China.

Although China has expressed some vague concerns over the crisis to the Burmese government, it has not taken any action that could meaningfully affect the regime's calculations, despite its singularly unique leverage.

To encourage China to take the lead in fostering national reconciliation in Burma, the international community must convince China that pushing for reform and change can be a win-win proposition. The international community must make clear that China's interests would be protected during a transition to a more open society in Burma, and that some version of the oil pipeline project will be supported by any new regime.

Because China has been competing with India for access to Burma's natural resources, India also needs to be actively included in efforts to pressure the Burmese regime, a process that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) might effectively coordinate. In a statement issued on September 27, ASEAN foreign ministers expressed a surprising degree of condemnation of the crackdown in Burma. They could play an essential leading role in a process including the Burmese parties, China, India, the European Union, Russia, and the United States that could devise a roadmap for change in Burma.

Such an international process simply cannot happen without China. The road to change in Burma runs through Beijing.

Jamie F. Metzl, who served on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, is executive vice president of the Asia Society.

In cooperation with Project Syndicate/Asia Society, 2007.