Make China Be Nice?

The despotic regime in Myanmar is among the most odious governments on earth. The military has ruled the isolated state for more than four decades.

The urban democracy movement, symbolized by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, for years has battled bullets and beatings. Even more bloody has been the half-century struggle for autonomy by various ethnic peoples, such as the Karen along the Thai border.

What to do? The U.S. and Europe already sanction Myanmar. Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch contends that smarter financial controls could cripple the regime. Legislation is moving through Congress to target the regime’s gem and teak trade, and the Treasury Department has issued regulations freezing assets of and restricting travel by leading junta members and their families. These steps probably are worth a try, though without an international consensus they are likely to fail.

Unfortunately, defenestrating the so-called State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) – the Orwellian name of the murderous military dictatorship – is not a priority in Asia. Some of Myanmar’s neighbors pay lip service to the ideal of a democratic Myanmar, but few are prepared to sacrifice economic or political advantage to encourage democracy.

ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, admitted Myanmar over international protests. ASEAN ritualistically calls on Myanmar to stop killing its citizens, but has refused either to impose sanctions or suspend Myanmar’s membership. This should come as no surprise, however. Vietnam and Laos remain communist dictatorships, despite significant economic reform in the former. Cambodia is only nominally a democracy. Indonesia and the Philippines are dysfunctional states with undemocratic histories.

Malaysia’s and Singapore’s democracies have authoritarian cores. Thailand suffered a military coup last year; how free its people will be under the new constitution remains unclear. Even more important, Bangkok has proved to be more concerned about stability than human rights in Myanmar: Burmese refugees overflow camps on the Thai side of the border and much money is made in cross-border trade.

Japan provides the SPDC with financial aid. A more assertive India has grown active economically and politically in Myanmar. And China, which rarely lets a client state’s human rights record get in the way of geopolitical considerations, has become Myanmar’s most important friend. Beijing acts as both trading partner and arms supplier.

The latest round of protests in Myanmar have highlighted the brutality of the regime and the futility of previous international democracy campaigns. Thus, while some human rights advocates, like Tom Malinowski, are proposing new approaches towards Myanmar, others are looking elsewhere, at China. If only the People’s Republic of China (PRC) would force reform in Myanmar is the new mantra.

It’s not a new idea. Last January President George W. Bush urged China’s Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, to encourage a peaceful transition to democracy in Myanmar. Why, however, would the PRC see this as being in its interest? There’s certainly no reason Beijing would believe it to be a goal worth any substantial sacrifice to achieve.

During the latest crisis, China did call on the Burmese regime to “show restraint.” But Beijing was more concerned about stability than democracy, and nominally addressed both sides: military dictators and democracy activists. Said Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiang Yu: “We hope that all parties … will maintain restraint and appropriately handle the problems that have currently arisen so they do not become more complicated or expand, and don’t affect Myanmar’s stability and even less affect regional peace and stability.”

Thus, human rights activists and pundits who failed to find a way to effectively pressure Myanmar now want to pressure China. Many of them are urging Washington to threaten a boycott of next year’s Olympic Games.

For instance, Washington Post columnist Fred Hiatt recently declared: “Tell China that, as far as the United States is concerned, it can have its Olympic Games or it can have its regime in Myanmar. It can’t have both.” He added, “If a threat to those Games … could help tip the balance, then let the Games not begin. Some things matter more.” Mike Boyer of the Monterey Institute affirmed Hiatt’s argument: “If there’s even a remote possibility that such pressure could help, then a U.S. threat to withdraw from the games should be made.”

Edward McMillan-Scott, a British member of the European Parliament, has renewed his previous call for a boycott: “If China does nothing and the persecution continues, the civilized world must seriously consider shunning China by using the Beijing Olympics to send the clear message that such abuses of human rights are not acceptable. It is the one lever the world can use.” British Labor MP Ann Clwyd pleaded: “One of the things the rest of the world should do is say to China, ‘You either stop using your veto on the Security Council and do something to make this regime understand this can’t go on any longer [or we will] boycott the Olympics.”

The U.S. Campaign for Myanmar has complained that Beijing is “the main economic, military, and political supporters of the military junta” and encouraged “people of conscience throughout the world” to boycott the competition. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Ca.) has introduced a “sense of Congress” resolution calling for an Olympics boycott “unless the Chinese regime stops engaging in and supporting serious human rights abuses against its citizens and those in the Sudan, Myanmar and North Korea.”

Although the PRC is the region’s big cahuna, with pretensions of international leadership, it really isn’t fair to single out Beijing. The Burmese dictatorship has more than its share of enablers, supporters, and acquiescers.

To start, the U.S. company Chevron, through its subsidiary Unocal, remains active in Myanmar. Moreover, the EU sanctions are limited. Among European firms active in Myanmar are the French oil company Total and telecom Alcatel. Although the largest British concerns have pulled out of Myanmar, some remain involved in the teak trade and river cruises. Other notable foreign firms doing business in Myanmar include Japan’s Suzuki and South Korea’s Daewoo.

Although China accounts for about one-third of Myanmar’s imports, one-fifth come from Thailand; Singapore, Malaysia, and South Korea are other significant economic partners. Moreover, Thailand is the largest purchaser of Burmese products, taking about half of them. The state electrical company Egat plans to construct dams in Myanmar. Next on the list is India, followed by China, Japan, and Germany.

None of these nations seems prepared to sacrifice its interests to punish the SPDC. ASEAN, made up of ten states with a collective GDP close to a trillion dollars, is a significant regional player. It issued a statement expressing “revulsion” over the brutal suppression of the recent protests, but apparently will do no more.

The organization pressed the junta to voluntarily eschew its claim to ASEAN’s rotating leadership this year, but that was more to prevent a PR disaster for the organization and less to punish the SPDC. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has grandly urged ASEAN to expel Myanmar, but Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar dismissed even the idea of a suspension: “ASEAN will never take that route,” he announced. Nor, he added, will the organization impose economic sanctions: “We think the best way of resolving the issue is to get the constitutional process on track, to get the reconciliation going.”

Tokyo confined its response to asking China to do something. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda explained: “I asked China, given its close ties with Myanmar, to exercise its influence” to resolve the crisis. Japan restricted development assistance in 2003, but continues to provide humanitarian aid. Even after the killing of a Japanese journalist during the recent demonstrations, Tokyo affirmed that while it might cut back on the cash, the money will continue flowing. His government was requesting an “explanation” from Myanmar, explained the Prime Minister, but “Sanctions are not the best step to take now.” Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura similarly observed: “I don’t think we can totally abandon the engagement” policy.

India’s Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee says his country will not impose sanctions. Indeed, while the Congress Party once enthusiastically endorsed Suu Kyi’s democracy efforts, over the last decade New Delhi has shifted its position, recently condemning as “unhelpful” the tone of a resolution from the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva that criticized Myanmar.

In response to the recent round of protests, New Delhi said it “is concerned and is closely monitoring the situation.” Far from considering reducing its ties with Myanmar, India is actively competing with China for influence in Myanmar. India has become a substantial trading partner and arms supplier to Myanmar; Indian and Burmese security forces cooperate against the cross-border drug trade and insurgencies (which radiate in both directions). The Indian army chief insists that the two nations will maintain their close military relationship. Moreover, in early October New Delhi inked a deal worth $150 million to explore Burmese gas reserves. Report Michael Green and Derek Mitchell of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, New Delhi even hopes to use Myanmar to expand Indian economic ties throughout ASEAN.

Garry Woodard of the University of Melbourne contends that “the Indian military, and the Indian government, could be brought to perceive that they have a far bigger security stake in their relationship with the U.S.” But Washington is only slightly more likely to risk its relationship with India to pressure it to pressure Myanmar than it is likely to do the same with Beijing.

Although Russia is at best a marginal player in Southeast Asia, it, along followed by Serbia and Ukraine, helps arm the SPDC. In January Moscow joined with China in vetoing a U.S. attempt to bring the problem of Myanmar before the UN Security Council. If anything, America’s relations with Russia have worsened, so Moscow is unlikely to aid a new U.S. initiative regarding Myanmar. “We consider counter-productive any attempts to use these events in order to put pressure from outside or interfere into internal affairs of this sovereign state,” explained the Russian foreign ministry.

So does it come as any surprise that the PRC is unlikely accept responsibility for transforming the junta? Certainly Beijing has no interest in pushing democracy on other states when it will not allow political freedom at home. Even William Kristol, who rarely misses an opportunity to demand that Washington pressure another nation, acknowledged: “the expectation that China might somehow be persuaded to support a democratic uprising in its back yard is probably wishful thinking.”

Nor is the Chinese government well-positioned to criticize the Burmese junta’s violent response to the protesters. As Shen Dingli, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, told USA Today: “China has used tanks to kill people on Tiananmen Square. It is Myanmar’s sovereign right to kill their own people, too.” In part reflecting Beijing’s negative reaction to criticism of its own human rights practices, the PRC long has resisted outside “interference” in a nation’s “internal affairs.” Its position on Myanmar is no different: “No international-imposed solution can help the situation,” explained China’s UN Ambassador Wang Guangya, who added that Myanmar’s problems were “basically internal.”

Beijing’s economic interests in Myanmar are substantial, with $1.4 billion in trade last year. China sells consumer goods and buys gems, minerals, teak, oil, and natural gas. Two million Chinese laborers work in Myanmar. China accounts for the bulk of Myanmar’s arms imports. Moreover, the Chinese military is improving Myanmar’s harbors and has established an electronic listening post on Myanmar’s Coco Islands. Beijing also hopes to build a $2 billion pipeline to improve access to Mideast oil.

But even if the Chinese government was willing to put all this at risk, it’s not likely that the Burmese junta would yield. The fact that the PRC has substantial interests in Myanmar does mean that it has the power to force the SPDC to commit the regime equivalent of seppuku. China’s influence is widely and wildly overestimated.

In July First Lady Laura Bush blithely proclaimed that China has a “huge amount of influence over Myanmar.” Edward McMillan-Scott says “China is the puppet master of Myanmar.” Last month Jeremy Woodrum of the U.S. Campaign for Myanmar contended: “China could easily reverse the growing frustration with its policy on Myanmar by endorsing a multilateral approach to the country, publicly supporting Ban Ki Moon and ASEAN’s calls for the release of Suu Kyi, ending attacks against ethnic minority civilians, and pressing Than Shwe, the military leader, to enter negotiations with Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s ethnic minorities.”

Well, yes, the Chinese government could advocate all of these policies. However, does anyone really believe a call from Beijing would cause the Burmese junta to yield? Only if China was prepared to apply enormous pressure, risking its entire geopolitical stake in Myanmar, is there the slightest chance that Myanmar would comply. And even then compliance would be unlikely.

Analysts Michael Green and Derek Mitchell say that “Beijing’s engagement with the SPDC has been essential to the regime’s survival,” but the Burmese military began its misrule long before China became a significant player in the nation. Loss of Chinese support would be inconvenient and painful, but it would not necessarily be regime-ending.

Indeed, William Overholt of the Rand Center for Asia Pacific Policy argues that the Chinese “actually have very limited leverage, as all foreigners do.” There’s no reason to assume the existence of a lot of love in this political marriage of convenience. Kerry Howley of Reason magazine points out that for years Beijing supported the Communist Party in Myanmar against the regime. That history has not been forgotten. Bertil Lintner, a Myanmar-watcher based in Bangkok, says that “The Burmese don’t like China and see it as a big, dangerous neighbor.” These two countries cooperate out of interest, not affection.

In any case, the Myanmar regime’s principal goal is to hang onto power. Toward that end the SPDC has accepted international isolation, foreign sanctions, pervasive poverty, and eternal war. Losing the Chinese connection would make Burmese life more difficult, but then, most of the burden would fall on the people rather than the leadership. North Korea demonstrates that murder-minded regimes are willing to sacrifice almost any number of their people to retain control. There is no reason to believe that Myanmar is any different. The junta has been under severe international pressure for two decades after having invalidated the elections that would have made Suu Kyi prime minister. It likely can survive a few years of increased pressure.

Some China critics acknowledge that their efforts will fail, but don’t care. Says columnist Ralph Peters: “sure, if the Myanmar situation worsens as China stonewalls, we can and should punish Beijing by boycotting the 2008 Games. But we have to have realistic expectations regarding the results.” Quite simply, “threatening to boycott the 2008 Olympics won’t be enough to get Beijing to abandon the junta. The Chinese would rather win the gold medal in strategy than in field hockey.” That is, the U.S. should engage in an act of moral masturbation which yields no practical benefit.

Washington would not even be likely to convince any of its allies and friends to join in any boycott. Popular antagonism to the U.S. government remains high because of its penchant for arbitrary, unilateral, and violent action, personified by the Iraq debacle. Moreover, China has greatly expanded its economic and diplomatic activities in recent years. China’s ties have grown significantly even with American allies, such as Australia and South Korea. It would be difficult for Washington to isolate the PRC under any circumstances, but the latter’s support for the Burmese junta surely would not be seen as sufficient cause.

Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) calls China and Myanmar “sibling butchers,” but few governments, including that of America, have clean hands when it comes to supporting thuggish regimes. (Anyone want to talk about Washington’s relationship with Saudi Arabia? No, I didn’t think so.) Certainly few governments view China’s responsibility for Myanmar as anything akin to the Soviet Union’s responsibility for invading Afghanistan, which led to the 1980 Olympics boycott. And even fewer countries will want to confront China, whatever they think of Beijing’s policy towards Myanmar.

Moreover, though some people might be inclined to dismiss the importance of the Olympics, much is at stake. A boycott would toss American athletes into the wastebasket, casually sacrificing their sacrifice. There would be more political interference in an international sports event that has repeatedly been marred by political interference – the successive U.S. and Soviet Olympics boycotts in 1980 and 1984.

But more important than the obvious hypocrisy in targeting the PRC for its policy towards Myanmar is the damage a boycott would do to America’s relations with Beijing. The consequences would be serious, far-reaching, and long-term.

The U.S.-China bilateral plate is full. Agreement has not yet been reached on the denuclearization of North Korea. Yet, says Christopher Hill, America’s negotiator for the Six-Party nuclear talks: “China has become the first stop for any American diplomacy.”

The Taiwan Strait remains tense. China’s exchange rate values and trade surpluses cause economic friction with America. Any United Nations action against Iran will require Chinese acquiescence. (Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation contends that Beijing has been helpful in this area, successfully pressing Tehran to release four Iranian-Americans.)

The PRC has been expanding its economic and diplomatic reach throughout East Asia. Beijing is increasingly active in Latin America and Africa, including in another humanitarian hot spot, Sudan. The U.S. has pressed China to display greater transparency in reporting on its military expenditures. Washington is concerned about evidence of Chinese military espionage and reports of Chinese weapons ending up in the Taliban’s hands in Afghanistan.

Moreover, over the longer term the established great power of the United States and the rising, potential great power of China must work to forge a peaceful and cooperative relationship in the face of ever-changing circumstances. Relations between the two inevitably will suffer moments of tension, confrontation, and disagreement. Small events and decisions today could end up having momentous impacts tomorrow. But an Olympics boycott would be anything but small.

A boycott obviously would poison official relations, risking bilateral cooperation in many areas. But a boycott would affect more than official inter-governmental relations. It would fan popular hostility towards America. There already is substantial evidence that the Chinese public is at least as nationalistic, and probably far more so, than the Chinese leadership. Popular reaction to the mistaken bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and the EP3 spy plane incident in 2001 was immediate and sharp. A boycott, or even a threatened boycott, likely would have the same impact on the Chinese people. Notes James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly: “China as a whole – not just its government but also the great majority of its people – would take such a boycott as a deeply hostile act.”

Washington should search for new strategies to put pressure on the Myanmar regime. But that requires finding steps which hurt members of the junta and the security forces, not the population at large – the usual failing of economic sanctions. Moreover, no approach will be effective without cooperation that includes Myanmar’s neighbors. Simply calling for American “leadership” is not particularly helpful since there is no guarantee that anyone, including such critical players as India, Japan, and Thailand, let alone China, will follow.

The best chance of building international cooperation with Myanmar’s neighbors is to emphasize the harm caused by continuing instability in Myanmar as well as the potential benefits for all from an economically prosperous Myanmar, a near impossibility under the present dictatorship. Moreover, the U.S. should emphasize to both China and India that their desire for greater international influence requires a willingness to undertake greater responsibility, including the painful duty of confronting a country such as Myanmar. Since the PRC is viewed with special wariness by its neighbors, Beijing has a particular incentive to act responsibly. Argues Jeremy Woodrum: Chinese pressure on Myanmar “would add substance to China’s claims of a peaceful rise in the region.”

Moreover, allied efforts can be strengthened through private action to publicize and protest the situation in Burma. The Washington Post noted that “Myanmar’s saffron-robed monks will join Darfur’s refugees in haunting the Beijing Olympics.” China has much of which to be proud. The authorities should include positive participation in the international system as another virtue to highlight at the Games. Over the long-term, the PRC will enjoy greater status and influence if it is viewed as acting to promote a better international order rather than rushing to grab more resources, irrespective of the human consequences. As James Fallows put it to Beijing, “Even if you don’t care about Myanmar’s people, if you do care about China’s standing, then you need to do more.”

There is no simple answer to the tragedy in Myanmar. But bashing China is no answer. “The U.S. cannot ‘outsource’ this diplomatic problem to China,” argues Michael Cromartie, Chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Washington must work with all of Myanmar’s neighbors to forge an effective international package that mixes carrots and sticks to encourage the SPDC to move Myanmar forward. Human rights groups, activists, and average people all should add their efforts and voices. However minimal the chance of success, we must make the attempt for the suffering Burmese people.