Friday, September 11, 2009

China’s Failed Foreign Policy

The Irrawaddy News

The recent breakdown of a two-decade-old ceasefire between Burma’s military junta and ethnic militias in the country’s north demonstrates the failure of China’s outdated foreign policy, according to Burmese political analysts.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Beijing has aggressively pursued a path of rapid economic development as the surest way to avoid a similar fate. Although it has dramatically expanded its trade ties with the rest of the world, the principle of non-interference in other countries’ political affairs remains the cornerstone of its foreign policy. However, as the situation in Burma attests, this principle may no longer be sufficient to protect China’s national interests.

Beijing certainly enjoys the economic benefits of being the Burmese junta’s best friend. Since 1989, China has been the regime’s most important supplier of military aid, providing jet fighters, armored vehicles and naval vessels, as well as extensive training to Burmese military personnel. In exchange, it has been given access to Burma’s abundant natural resources.

A joint statement on “Future Cooperation in Bilateral Relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Federation of Myanmar,” issued in June 2000, indicated the future direction of Sino-Burmese relations, which were to be based on the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” and the consolidation of mutual relations for wider regional stability and development.

Despite Beijing’s willingness to be more direct in persuading Burma to enhance its economic reforms and to push for political reconciliation at home, China still regards Burma’s poor human rights record as an “internal affair.”

At the same time, the United States has continued to denounce the Burmese generals’ human rights records and refusal to honor the 1990 election results. Washington’s harsh criticism, especially during the Bush administration, gave the Burmese generals no other choice but to turn to the Chinese government for support. In 2003, when the US imposed tougher sanctions against the regime under the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, Beijing was highly critical of the move.

China’s foreign policy is completely divorced from the harsh realties of life under military rule in Burma. Without taking this suffering into consideration, Beijing has used its veto at the United Nations Security Council to block resolutions designed to push Burma toward genuine political reform. This has allowed the junta to simply move forward with its efforts to orchestrate a political transition from an absolute dictatorship to a faux democracy within the framework of a militarized constitution.

China has continued to back the Burmese regime as part of its policy of extending its influence within the region. However, Burma’s long history of ethnic conflict and political dissent presents serious challenges to Chinese policy, which may not be viable in the long run.

Another problem facing Beijing is that the Burmese regime is deeply distrustful of China. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Burma’s armed forces fought hard against the Burmese Communist Party, which was backed by China’s ruling Communist Party. This experience has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Burmese generals and continues to affect the thinking of the current military leadership.

China’s current dual-track policy of supporting both the junta and the ethnic groups living along the Sino-Burmese border has helped to keep these memories alive. It has also raised the specter of renewed conflict with China. In a 2006 quarterly report, Burma’s ruling military council said that it needed to brace for an invasion from the northeast—obviously referring to China.

According to a reliable source, officials from China’s Yunnan Province have recognized the significance of developments inside Burma and are seeking to minimize the negative impact of Beijing’s policy. However, China can’t change its foreign policy within a few years; it will take decade, said a high-ranking diplomat from Beijing.

However, other China watchers have argued that Beijing is less interested in dealing with the Burmese junta since it purged Gen Khin Nyunt, the former intelligence chief, in 2004. Chinese leaders know that the current rulers in Naypyidaw have little interest in engaging with the outside world, but believe that the generals would not dare to turn their guns against China.

China may also feel that it is paying too high a price for backing Burma politically. Some analysts suggest that Beijing could move away from its long-held position on Burma in international forums to protect its broader geopolitical interests. China realizes that defending Burma may have triggered a more aggressive US policy in the Asia-Pacific region. Beijing is carefully observing the current US administration’s re-engagement in the region to decide whether Burma should be a center of China’s foreign policy.

China is aware that regional countries have supported a new Burma policy by the US government in terms of their constructive engagement and economic interests. China could be isolated by its Burma policy, proving its policy is still inferior to that of the US.

In the post-Cold War era, China should have more pro-active and tangible fairness to the citizens of the region, rather than putting its emphasis on ruthless authoritarian rulers. Beijing’s ignorance may have impacted the understanding of the Burmese generals. All the socialist states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) are willing to yield to the US political engagement while they enjoy China’s limited favor in economic prosperity.

In recent years, Burma has moved to develop strategic and commercial relations with India, with which it shares a long land border and the Bay of Bengal. Increasing trade and military cooperation with India and developing bilateral relations with Japan within Asean shows a shift in Burma’s foreign policy to avoid excessive dependence on China.

Chinese analysts closely observed the Kokang incident in August and questioned whether the Sino-Burmese relationship was really impacted. In line with the 2008 constitution, the regime was attempting to ensure the stability of border areas by neutralizing armed forces that are independently standing outside the framework of the constitution.

“They (the Burmese military) don’t always heed China’s advice. China has so little leverage against them because China, in some sense, depends on them,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.

Chinese officials were not only extremely upset over the lack of forewarning about the border clash but were also worried about the future political consequences.

China-Burma relations may be at a crossroads. Only demanding ethnic rights and showing concern about the situation at the border cannot reflect China’s foreign policy in terms of its status in the international arena. China should bring the role of Aung San Suu Kyi and a settlement of the general political crisis to the forefront of its Burma policy in order to show China’s role in finding a solution along with the US and the international community.

Nyo Ohn Myint is a chairperson and Moe Zaw Oo is secretary of the National League for Democracy (Liberated Area) Foreign Affairs Committee.

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