Letter from China: Myanmar crackdown sheds light on Beijing’s aspirations

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
Published: September 28, 2007
SHANGHAI: The unfolding civil crisis in Myanmar is precisely the kind of test that China’s image as an emerging global power will increasingly face in coming years, as Beijing’s economic reach and international influence steadily grow.
The question people in this region and in capitals around the world will be asking is beyond the well-worn official rhetoric: What kind of power does China really aspire to be?
Is it a slick free rider on an international system whose workings have done so much to favor its emergence, hiding behind a platitude-based foreign policy while allowing others to do the world’s heavy lifting?
Has it placed a bet on America’s inevitable decline and settled on Deng Xiaoping’s advice about concealing one’s strengths until the time when all the pieces of its national reconstruction effort have fallen into place, and it can openly aspire to what it forswears today: hegemony?
Or is it a nation in the midst of a subtle but momentous transition toward a more traditional sense of great power rights and responsibilities?
Tenable arguments and counter-arguments for all of the above exist today, and the best answer may be that no one knows, not even the Chinese themselves.
What is certain is that the unrest in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is not any ordinary crisis for China. It is a special case whose resolution will tell us a lot about where China’s head is right now.
Beijing doesn’t advertise such things, least of all to its own citizens, but the Burmese regime and North Korea are among the closest things that China has to real allies in the world today.
In reality, the word ally doesn’t do justice to the complex relationship with the Burmese generals. Ties between the two countries are more akin to the vassal-patron relations that China traditionally sought to maintain all along its vast perimeter.
In truth, China is not the only country the Burmese crisis puts on the spot. France has tremendous oil interests in Myanmar, and how its influence will be used and what kinds of sacrifices a Paris under new leadership is willing to make in the name of principles like human rights remains an open question.
Democratic India would like to vie with China for influence in Myanmar and has so far taken an ostrich-like approach to the crisis, as if believing that looking the other way will make it cease to exist. The world, meanwhile, waits for a more democratic ethos to manifest itself in India’s foreign policy.
The United States, too, very quick to announce new sanctions, seems to have reached an impasse in its foreign policy, where reflexive invocation of punitive measures, together with Washington’s exhausting preoccupation with conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, may have resulted in diminishing returns.
Still, for China the Burmese crisis conjures especially difficult questions, all the more because, unlike its Western counterparts, the country is fashioning a new identity for itself on the world stage, not merely managing one.
There are signs that Beijing had already recently begun edging in tiny, carefully measured steps away from its longtime mantra of non-interference in other countries. It must be said that the policy has always only been selectively applied, but in the ever-more-demanding interest of its own image as a global player, China has recently found ways to apply pressure on countries like North Korea, Sudan and Zimbabwe so as not to be on the wrong side of history, or at least of global opinion.
Cases like these were fairly clear-cut, though, and in most instances, Beijing’s moves were subtle; nothing like the bully pulpit tactics long favored in the West, and without dramatic results to show, either.
Myanmar is not testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, like North Korea, and it is not situated on a faraway continent, where China has no colonial baggage, like Sudan and Zimbabwe.
What it is, in point of fact, is what’s most important. Myanmar is a highly repressive state that has been run into the ground by incompetent leaders who have been partially enabled by China. It is, moreover, a country whose people are now risking their lives peacefully for freedom.
This must very nearly be something like a bad dream for Beijing’s foreign policy establishment. One gets a hint of confirmation of this from the way the Burmese crisis has been covered in the Chinese press. The official People’s Daily carried nothing Friday from Myanmar beyond statements of the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
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