By Garry Woodard, former Australian ambassador to China and Burma
Highly armed and opaque regimes linked with and significantly dependent on China currently are testing stability and diplomacy in East and South-east Asia. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has called a halt to multilateral diplomacy to put its nuclear genie back in the bottle. Its sabre rattling has created an immediate problem of crisis management. The burden of finding answers has shifted to the US, but China’s national interests are vitally engaged. At the same time, the political future of Burma (Myanmar), which might seem a sideshow by comparison, has reached a tilting-point, international concern focused by the show trial of democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi in order to freeze her out of elections designed to entrench military power indefinitely. Burma is making itself vulnerable to some form of external intervention for the first time. China’s national interests are engaged.
Could the Kissingerian diplomatic tactic of ‘linkage’ help to resolve these apparently insoluble crises and strengthen rather than strain Sino-American cooperation? Could linkage provide a fillip for peace and security in Asia, and open up opportunities for Australia’s middle power diplomacy?
Burma and China: ‘lips and teeth’ or mainly teeth?
The Burmese military regime presents the following advantages to its main supporter and arms supplier for 20 years, China:
- It appears to and vigorously asserts that it provides stability, and that any alternative government not under army control could not
- It has enhanced the image of stability by concluding ceasefires with ethnic minorities, some adjacent to China, after clobbering them using Chinese weapons
- It makes a contribution to the Chinese economy, most significantly through the provision of energy resources, including an increasing supply of natural gas at prices which the Chinese themselves can more or less fix, and through a flourishing barter trade, in China’s favor
- It permits large-scale movement of people across the border from south-west China to the extent that Mandalay, the old capital, has become a Chinese city. This process has helped China to laminate a traditionally troublesome border region
- It gives China strategic access to the Indian Ocean, and permits it to construct the supporting infrastructure. Burma is an integral link in China’s apparent ‘string of pearls’ strategy, now reinforced by the Sri Lanka government’s gratitude for Chinese military aid in eliminating the Tamil Tigers
- It concedes to China at least as much influence as to any external power, in a country which is a fault line between civilizations and cultures.
Consistent with its overall approach of reifying the State, China plays a key role in supporting and protecting the junta, which expects the stasis to continue. China is in a position to offer advice, especially, in its capacity as a permanent member of the Security Council, on handling the UN Secretary General and his ineffectual envoys.
The above picture of Burmese-Chinese amity, within the traditional rhetoric of big brother, small brother (paukhpaw), and of mutual satisfaction with the status quo needs qualifying because of the following factors:
- The Burmese regime is no ideal partner. It is military and shallowly rooted in a precarious mix of patriotism, privilege and brute power. It has to rely on the gun, surveillance and fear, exploiting the Buddhist quietude of the people and their low expectations
- The regime is one of the two most corrupt governments in the world, along with Somalia, and is also in effect a narco-state, from which drugs and related HIV/AIDS pour into southern China
- The regime has neither the will nor the capacity to prioritise economic development and progress good governance. Economic hardship periodically precipitates revolt, through which the people show they want a return to a form of democratic government (such as they enjoyed for 15 years after independence, despite the leadership deficit after Aung San’s assassination)
- The claustrophobic leadership has never been as cohesive as its apologists claim, and the pressing need to pass the baton to a new generation makes the future uncertain. It is said that the leaders, who pay particular attention to astrologers, are unsettled by advice that the portents are not favorable for election year. Article 445 of Burma’s new constitution slips in a claim for immunity for the current leaders, like the one George Bush and Dick Cheney included in a Bill before they left Washington
- The Burmese are xenophobic and can always turn on their friends, and autocratic leaders can choose to exploit this to maintain their position
- The significant Chinese presence could be a flashpoint in a time of economic hardship, bearing in mind that the Burmese people say of recent experience that the Chinese have no eyes or ears. Could today’s China stand idly by if there were a mini-pogrom, as it did in 1967, although it responded by supporting the draining Wa insurgency, or as it did more contentiously in allowing hundreds of thousands of the hua ch’iao in Cambodia to be slaughtered? (The head of a Shanghai-based human rights think tank which enjoyed sufficient status to occupy the house and capacious grounds of a former hong chairman’s property which Mao had moved into after liberation told me in 1991 that he had circulated to the leadership a trenchant criticism of that policy)
- China cannot be happy about the Burmese military regime’s playing it off against rivals India and Russia. India has been following similar policies to China since 1991, and its policies are essentially economically and politically competitive with, though less effective, than China’s. Russia has a keen sense of the strategic significance of Burma’s geography, and its nuclear assistance program must be viewed with suspicion by China.
To sum up, Burma is of limited, but perhaps increasing, strategic and economic importance to China. China is happiest with a Burmese government which pays more than lip service to the tributary relationship. However; the appearance of intimacy carries obligations and international costs for China, and the actuality is that amongst foreign influences, China’s is only marginally the most acceptable, and tempered by traditional Burmese xenophobia and introversion.
China and the DPRK: bared teeth
Before considering the possibility that China might see it as in its interests to show itself open to change in the special relationship with Burma, it seems logical to examine whether the DPRK presents a like situation for China.
Both countries are basically failed states, and can therefore be unpredictable. The DPRK is a greater burden on China because it is an economic basket case. The DPRK is prepared to take greater risks, because it needs to enlarge its options, to gain greater security and access to food aid. Its leadership is based on the utmost cult of personality and employs nuclear brinkmanship. Both the DPRK and Burma aredestabilizing sub regional influences, but the former is more disruptive because of the nuclear factor. China has a long and porous border with both, but currently that with the DPRK is more of a ticking time bomb, as internal crisis in the DPRK and famine could bring a mass influx of refugees.
China has put considerable effort into multilateral diplomacy in regard to the DPRK through the six power forum. It wants to maintain its political influence, but the latest developments, the DPRK’s withdrawal from the six power talks and testing of a nuclear bomb and an array of missiles, show that its influence is slim, and that it has no special insights into the leadership succession struggle which may take a considerable time to work itself out. China also has no control over and few insights into political developments in Burma. This was shown at the time the leadership performed a partial lobotomy on itself by the purge of the number three leader Gen Khin Nyunt and the military/defence intelligence service. Could China increase its insight into and influence in either country by modifying its commitment to the status quo in both?
China wants the DPRK to halt its nuclear and missile programs, because these are now having counterproductive effects on stability in the economically important North East Asian zone, and carry disconcerting risks of impelling Japan and South Korea and Taiwan to go down the nuclear path. Implications for China are huge. It wants the US to provide a political and economic solution. The bilateral talks made significant progress in 2008 before the US negotiator, Christopher Hill, whom his right wing critics called Christopher Jong Il, was assigned to Iraq. This gives the US important cards it can play, and would make it possible for the US to create a linkage between Burma and the DPRK as regional problems, where China cannot avoid its responsibilities and could benefit from enlarging its options.
The US and Burma
The US and China basically take opposite tacks on Burma. The US leads the western group which applies smart sanctions. Their useful effects have been only at the margin. The Obama administration quickly announced the need for a policy review, and a middle ranking State Department official held talks with the junta. The review predictably proved to be hard going. It has been stopped in its tracks by the junta’s show trial, as Obama bluntly called it, of Aung San Suu Kyi.
While the treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi in her many long years of detention on progressively stricter conditions has appeared arbitrary to the outside world, the junta has claimed that (except for the brutal attack at Depayin in May 2003) it was acting in accordance with law. Under the law her six-year period of detention came to an end on 27 May. The junta played with the idea that it might legally extend the detention for a further period of six months but dropped it. One reason may have been that it wants to make it clear to its people now that Aung San Suu Kyi will play no part in any political consultations leading up to, and in, the 2010 elections. A justification had to be found to render her incommunicado for the term of the potentially political life.
Her trial has had the fingerprints of military intelligence all over it. It rested on ground that would strike a chord with the ordinary people, that Aung San Suu Kyi had harbored a foreigner overnight without reporting it. The foreigner and provocateur, Yettaw, like Van der Lubbe at the time of the Reichstag fire, showed some strange personal characteristics and embodied something reprehensible, the one a communist, the other an American Mormon. Also, the case would not stand up to close scrutiny. Was it possible for a foreigner to spend two days convalescing in the ground floor of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house without being detected by listening devices or seen by roaming guards and could he possibly have got a visa if this was, and was known to be, part of a pattern of conduct, a repeat performance?
Thus the trial itself has blown up in the junta’s face. Some traditional Asian backers have become more outspokenly critical, although at this stage none promises action. Opponents are under pressure to harden their opposition, and to take definitive action to secure Aung San Suu Kyi’s release. The first arena will have to be the United Nations Security Council. That puts China on the spot.
A number of proposals are in the air aimed at the same ultimate outcome, an enquiry into whether crimes against humanity and war crimes which might lead to Burmese leaders’ arraignment before the International Criminal Court had been committed. Even if Russia were to exercise its veto, an abstention by China would hold the door open for further consultation and cooperation. It would send shock waves through the junta in its reclusive jungle capital. As the Economist of 7 May noted, the mere emergence of the possibility of action by the International Criminal Court has brought changes, mostly favorable, in Sudan.
It is open to the US to link Burma and the DPRK in the second of the senses in which Kissinger employed ‘linkage’, recognition of the ‘reality that in an interdependent world the actions of a major power are inevitably really related and have consequences beyond the issue or region immediately concerned’.
China might not automatically oppose linkage, particularly if the US handles it discreetly, and avoids a head-on confrontation with China’s doctrinal positions of non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs and opposition to resume change.
While the North-east Asia and Southeast Asia sub-regions tend to go their own way, concentrating on their immediate problems, institutions have been established which recognize their interdependence. China is at the core. Also all parties in the six party talks on Korea are involved in Burma, and in the past an ASEAN country Malaysia sought to mediate in Korea.
The Burmese and the North Koreans themselves, willingly or unwittingly, have enlarged the options for linkage diplomacy by deepening their own ties in recent years, after long estrangement caused by North Korean terrorism in Rangoon. In this burgeoning relationship there has been an element of cocking a snook at great powers, but of course particularly at the US, their most trenchant critic. These elements are present in the international crises which the DPRK and Burma have manufactured in recent weeks.
If the DPRK can ensure its survival by having nuclear weapons, the Burmese regime may well think along the same lines, and use DPRK assistance to develop a nuclear weapons program, out of the current Russian project to provide a nuclear research facility. There are somewhat stronger reports recently that this is already happening although they have not got beyond the non proven stage. Any such development should cause China great concern.
The ultimate solutions for these two hapless states lie beyond the ambit of our study. The immediate objective is to find small steps forward. Linkage may provide a way for the two major players, China and the US, to introduce desirable uncertainty into the minds of recalcitrant leadership and create fluidity.