Fri 18 Aug 2006
Filed under: News,Opinion
China is a growing power in world affairs. In Chinese policy circles, this is characterized as a â€œpeaceful riseâ€-a benign and unthreatening process where China modernizes itself and takes its place alongside the leading nations of the world, but without subjugating others in the pursuit of imperial ambitions or causing conflicts or instability.
An integral part of this peaceful rise entails taking the world very much as China finds it, developing relationships with existing governments in various countries without raising questions about the legitimacy or credibility of the rulers it deals with. In official-speak, this is the policy of non-interference. Any controversial issues relating to foreign governments are consigned to the category of â€œinternal matters,â€ upon which China has no right or desire to make comment.
From the standpoint of an emerging power like China, such a policy of non-interference makes good sense. Unlike the US, China does not yet possess the economic, political or military clout to pursue its national interests in an overt or aggressive manner. It will take years to build up such power, and at an astronomical cost. For the time being, appeasement works well, especially with regimes that have their differences with the US.Â By assuring a stance of non-interference in others’ domestic affairs, the Chinese have been able to secure cooperation from a series of governments in Asia, Latin America and Africa, thereby advancing Chinese interests significantly, and all at a very modest cost.
While undoubtedly of benefit to Chinese interests, it must be asked if this policy of non-interference really has a neutral impact on the countries China has relations with. By saying and doing nothing about the internal affairs of a country, is China really refraining from interfering? Or is it doing precisely the reverse?
Burma is an instructive case exposing the myth of such non-interference. As it is well known, the Chinese have consistently refused to comment on the political situation in Burma, insisting always that any problems are internal matters that should be handled by political players within the country itself. Even more, China has argued forcefully that this principle be respected by the international community, using its influence on the international stage and most critically, the UN Security Council, to block international attempts to assist in the resolution of the political crisis in Burma.
But in pursuing this policy of non-interference, are the Chinese really remaining neutral? Far from it. You see, a hands-off approach leaving the disputing parties to sort things out themselves is fine if the parties involved are relatively equal. But the disposition of political forces in Burma right now is anything but that. There is a dominant and powerful military machine facing off a weak and fragmented opposition. Under such circumstances, non-interference simply creates an opportunity for the military to exercise its dominance with fewer inhibitions, and thus crush the opposition. Through non-interference, the Chinese are effectively creating the conditions for an eventual State Peace and Development Council victory.
The prospect of such a victory is all the more likely since Chinese non-interference also implies a denial of any role or assistance from the international community in the political process. Typically, such external mediation or assistance will be a lifeline to a weaker opposition movement, recognizing it as a critical stakeholder in the political process and ensuring it a voice to influence developments. The Chinese doctrine of non-interference, however, closes this avenue off and leaves the opposition with stark alternatives. Without recourse to external mediation, the only game in town is the military-controlled process. The opposition can submit to the military regime and play the game according to its rules and conditions, or it can reject the military-dominated process but run the risk of marginalization, persecution and eventual extinction. Whatever the alternative, the opposition is effectively silenced. Yet again, Chinese non-interference delivers the SPDC the upper hand.
If this is not enough, it must also be remembered that despite the rhetoric about non-interference, the Chinese have been very generous supporters of the SPDC, showering the regime with aid, soft loans and materiel. Significant Chinese investment has also poured into Burma, and directly or indirectly, this has bolstered the fortunes of the SPDC. Hence, while the Chinese may speak of non-interference, they are hypocritically providing the SPDC with the economic sustenance to wage their political struggle more effectively. At the same time, support of any kind to the opposition, be it moral or material, is denounced as external interference in the internal affairs of Burma.
It is important to make one final point, as this has a bearing not only on the immediate political struggle but the longer-term economic and political future of Burma. In the developing economic relationship between China and Burma, it is worrying to see that Burma is primarily a source of resources for China and a market for her manufactured goods. Over time, it is likely this economic pattern will intensify, as China’s voracious appetite for resources sees it extend itself further into Burma, while its highly competitive manufactures decimate local Burmese industry. What might emerge in the end is an economy that is heavily dependent on China, and this will have tremendous implications for any government in power in Burma. With that high level of dependence, the room for maneuver for any government will be severely constrained. Even if the SPDC were removed, any incoming government will find it extremely difficult to break out of economic-and perhaps even political-servitude to China. So, when the Chinese speak of non-interference and happily conduct their business deals in Burma, it might be wise to be cautious. The economic relations being forged now may be the basis for an even grander interference in the future affairs of Burma.
For the time being, Beijing is getting away with this illusion. But over time, the deception will be recognized and will exact a heavy toll. China risks a heavy backlash against its economic, political and diplomatic interests as it dawns on many it has had less than honorable intentions in advocating non-interference. It will also place its own nationals in Burma and many other countries around the world at risk. Far from a peaceful rise, China’s emergence may be accompanied by conflict, tension and instability.
Whether born of naivety or by design, China’s policy of non-interference cannot be sustained. China needs to openly acknowledge its role as a key player affecting economic and political developments in countries it has relations with. It cannot keep ducking for cover under the pretext of non-interference while selfishly continuing to reap the economic benefits of its relations. As part of its rise to become a global power, China has also a responsibility to assist in finding solutions to conflicts in countries with which it is engaging and bring about a more peaceful, just, and prosperous world. Sadly, this is a responsibility it is now shirking by clinging to a stance of non-interference.
Nyein Chan Aye is a pseudonym for a non-Burmese businessperson working in Asean countries, who regularly visits, and has access to, Burma’s business circles.