Asia Report N°177
14 September 2009
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Each time global attention is focused on events in Myanmar, concerned stakeholders turn to China to influence the military government to undertake reforms. Yet simply calling on Beijing to apply more pressure is unlikely to result in change. While China has substantial political, economic and strategic stakes in Myanmar, its influence is overstated. The insular and nationalistic leaders in the military government do not take orders from anyone, including Beijing. China also diverges from the West in the goals for which it is prepared to use its influence. By continuing to simply expect China to take the lead in solving the problem, a workable international approach will remain elusive as Myanmar continues to play China and the West against each other. After two decades of failed international approaches to Myanmar, Western countries and Beijing must find better ways to work together to pursue a wide array of issues that reflect the concerns of both sides.
The relationship between China and Myanmar is best characterised as a marriage of convenience rather than a love match. The dependence is asymmetric – Myanmar has more to lose should the relationship sour: a protector in the Security Council, support from a large neighbour amid international isolation, a key economic partner and a source of investment. While China sees major problems with the status quo, particularly with regards to Myanmar’s economic policy and ethnic relations, its preferred solution is gradual adjustment of policy by a strong central government, not federalism or liberal democracy and certainly not regime change. In this way, it can continue to protect its economic and strategic interests in the country. In addition to energy and other investments, Myanmar’s strategic location allows China access to the Indian Ocean and South East Asia.
But Beijing’s policy might ultimately have an adverse effect on Myanmar’s stability and on China’s ability to leverage the advantages it holds. Political instability and uncertainty have resulted in a lack of confidence in Myanmar’s investment environment, and weak governance and widespread corruption have made it difficult for even strong Chinese companies to operate there. Myanmar’s borders continue to leak all sorts of problems – not just insurgency, but also drugs, HIV/AIDS and, recently, tens of thousands of refugees. Chinese companies have been cited for environmental and ecological destruction as well as forced relocation and human rights abuses carried out by the Myanmar military. These problems are aggravated by differences in approach between Beijing and the provincial government in Yunnan’s capital Kunming, which implements policies towards the ethnic ceasefire groups.
At the same time, resentment towards China, rooted in past invasions and prior Chinese support to the Communist Party of Burma, is growing. Myanmar’s leaders fear domination by their larger neighbour, and have traditionally pursued policies of non-alignment and multilateralism to balance Chinese influence. Increasing competition among regional actors for access to resources and economic relationships has allowed Myanmar to counterbalance China by strengthening cooperation with other countries such as India, Russia, Thailand, Singapore, North Korea and Malaysia. The military government is intensely nationalistic, unpredictable and resistant to external criticism, making it often impervious to outside influence.
While China shares the aspiration for a stable and prosperous Myanmar, it differs from the West on how to achieve such goals. China will not engage with Myanmar on terms dictated by the West. To bring Beijing on board, the wider international community will need to pursue a plausible strategy that takes advantage of areas of common interest. This strategy must be based on a realistic assessment of China’s engagement with Myanmar, its actual influence, and its economic and strategic interests. The West could better engage China to encourage Myanmar’s government to commit to a truly inclusive dialogue with the opposition and ethnic groups. In addition to talks on national reconciliation, dialogue should also address the economic and humanitarian crisis that hampers reconciliation at all levels of society. At the same time, China should act both directly and in close cooperation with ASEAN member countries to continue support for the good offices of the United Nations as well as to persuade the military to open up.
Myanmar is heading towards elections in 2010 which, despite major shortcomings, are likely to create opportunities for generational and institutional changes. International policy towards Myanmar accordingly deserves careful reassessment. China is encouraging the government to make the process genuinely inclusive, but will certainly accept almost any result that does not involve major instability. While its capacity and willingness to influence Myanmar’s domestic politics is limited, the international community should continue to encourage Beijing as well as other regional stakeholders to take part in a meaningful and concerted effort to address the transition in Myanmar.
Beijing/Jakarta/Brussels, 14 September 2009