Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan, right, greets Myanmar's Deputy Foreign Minister Myint Maung, a special envoy of Myanmar Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein, during their meeting in Beijing, Jan. 21, 2008.
"Rethinking Beijing's Burma Policy"
Op-Ed, The Bangkok Post
February 12, 2008
Authors: Jason Qian, Xiaohui (Anne) Wu, Former Associate, International Security Program/Project on Managing the Atom, 2007–2010; Former Research Fellow, International Security Program/Project on Managing the Atom, 2004–2007
The Bangkok Post changed 'Myanmar' to 'Burma' in this op-ed without the authors' consent. The Korea Times reprinted this op-ed as "China's Myanmar Policy under Scrutiny" on February 17, 2008.
As a political ally and key economic partner of Burma's military government, China should not only continue to actively engage the Burma junta, but also delicately reach out to opposition groups. In recent years, China's use of peaceful diplomatic ''soft power'' has won it much applause around the world. But one risk is that such applause at times comes from the elites without a grassroots echo.
In dealing with a country like Burma, China should consider how its own interests would be affected by a change in that neighbour's political landscape.
China is cautiously taking initiatives to avoid potential setbacks. When China's special envoy Wang Yi visited Burma last November, he urged the government to resolve the political crisis through dialogue and to attain political stability soon.
It was also reported that China maintains relations with several former rebel groups that now have made peace with the government, and that China is willing to listen to opposition groups.
These are encouraging signs that China is shifting its Burma policy to be more flexible.
China should stay in the driver's seat amid international efforts to spur change in Burma, using the United Nations at times as a forum to gauge international concerns, to nurture positive cohesion, and to measure steps to take.
No country chooses to have its domestic issues internationalised. But Burma may accept UN intervention as a makeshift strategy to subdue international criticism. There is a risk to China that if it lets other countries take the initiative on Burma, it could end up being sandwiched between Burma and other major powers.
China would want to avoid choosing sides in Burma, so as not to compromise its holistic interests. A more effective route is to manage relations with all to maximise common interest. To achieve this, the motto of ''there are no permanent friends or enemies in international relations'' is the key.
China is seen as see-sawing. On the one hand, it insists on non-interference in Burma's internal affairs. Last January, China used its veto power—for the fifth time in history—to defeat a UN Security Council resolution condemning Burma's human rights situation.
On the other hand, China helped facilitate two visits to Burma by Ibrahim Gambari, special envoy of the UN secretary-general, after the crackdown late last year on the monks' demonstration. Ironically, the latter resulted from the former, because China's influence stems from its credibility in making friends and refraining from pointing fingers at other countries' domestic affairs.
A ''no-preaching'' style only increased China's influence.
A peaceful Burmese domestic situation and positive Sino-Burma relations are important for China's strategic and economic interests. China and Burma share a 2,100km border.
As in the case of North Korea, China does not want the problems of a neighbour like Burma spilling over into its own territory. Burma is also part of China's strategic configuration with other regional and international players.
Economically, China has become Burma's second-largest trading partner, and the two countries are collaborating on several major projects, including a 2,300km oil and gas pipeline that connects China's landlocked Yunnan province to Burma's coast.
This pipeline will directly transport oil and gas from the Middle East and Africa into China, therefore circumventing the problems of passing the Malacca Strait. Such a strategic project is both a liability and an asset as China tries to leverage Burma, given China's thirst for energy and Burma's hunger for development.
Because of the inter-locking interests, China sees Burma as more a problematic neighbour than a threat to international peace and security—which explains China's aversion to UN Security Council actions.
But this also underlines the importance of a more proactive policy by Beijing itself.
China's Burma policy is facing a bigger challenge with the approach of the Olympic Games. China cannot afford another source of instability in its foreign affairs.
Beijing should pursue an active diplomacy of ''intervening without interfering'', and try to steer Burmese authorities toward greater engagement with the opposition and the international community for the purpose of national reconciliation.
Not the least of the advantages for China of such a policy is that it will keep a door slightly open to future alternative prospects in Burma.
Jason Qian is a fellow at the Harvard Negotiation Project at Harvard Law School. Anne Wu is an associate at the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
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