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Myanmar Crisis Sheds New Light on China’s Regional Influence

October 2, 2007 at 6:40 PM EST
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During recent protests in Myanmar, the country also known as Burma, the international community relied heavily on the diplomatic intervention of China in efforts to stop a military crackdown. Experts consider China's growing regional influence.
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GWEN IFILL: The ongoing crackdown in Myanmar has led to widespread condemnation in the West. But Myanmar’s neighbors, China, Thailand and India, have had relatively little to say about the violence. One possible reason: trade.

The ruling junta in Myanmar, once known as Burma, sits atop significant deposits of natural gas and oil, much of it off the coast. Burmese natural gas generates 20 percent of the electricity in Thailand just to the east. And India is also a market for gas and for Burmese minerals, precious stones, and timber.

Such resources, many of them untapped, are fueling China’s rapidly expanding economy. The Chinese have declined to intervene in Myanmar directly, calling it the inner affairs of another country.

But on Friday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao sounded slightly tougher in a statement: “China is very much concerned with this situation and hopes that all parties show restraint, resume stability through peaceful means, as soon as possible, promote reconciliation, and achieve democracy and development. China will continue to work to actively facilitate the proper solution to the problem.”

After Thailand, China is Myanmar’s second-largest trading partner, sending money to the cash-strapped nation in exchange for hardwoods from its mountainous north, especially teak wood. Much of the forest there has been decimated.

U.S. sanctions have limited the ability of Myanmar’s ruling generals to move money through international banks. The Bush administration has continued to push for broader sanctions against the ruling junta.

DANA PERINO, White House Spokeswoman: Reports about very innocent people being thrown into detention where they could be held for years without any representation or charges is distressing. And we understand that some of the monasteries have been sealed. And obviously this has, again, a chilling effect on protesters, but we would ask that everyone show restraint and allow those who want to express themselves to be able to do so in Burma.

Chinese influence in Myanmar policy

Ming Wan
George Mason University
I think China certainly has power and great influence than any other countries in the region. Part of the reason is that the United States and Western powers have been trying to isolate Burma. As a result, they really don't have much leverage.

GWEN IFILL: China continues to oppose sanctions, so Western government are instead pressing them to lead regional efforts to establish stability in Myanmar.

For more, we turn to Priscilla Clapp, who served as head of the U.S. embassy in Burma from 1999 to 2002; and Ming Wan, an associate professor of international affairs at George Mason University. He was born in Beijing and is now a U.S. citizen.

Priscilla Clapp, how critical is it that China step into this?

PRISCILLA CLAPP, Former Diplomat: I think it's very critical at this point. China shares a long border with Burma and a long history. And if anyone can have any kind of influence on the generals, I suspect it will be China. Many other countries have tried and failed, but China, they are becoming increasingly dependent on China economically, and I think it's getting to the point where they must listen to China.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Wan, do you think China wants to be listened to or is willing to do what it takes to be listened to?

MING WAN, George Mason University: I think China certainly has power and great influence than any other countries in the region. Part of the reason is that the United States and Western powers have been trying to isolate Burma. As a result, they really don't have much leverage. China, by contrast, has had a substantial economic relationship with that country.

So in that sense, yes, China has leverage. But whether China wants to exercise that influence or not very much depends on the objective (inaudible) is seeking. If you are talking about more moderate and limited protection of a calming down of the situation, maybe facilitating a dialogue between the government and the opposition, I can see China doing that.

And I'm sure that it's behind the scenes Chinese people are doing some of that. But if you're talking about regime change, and that's not in China's interest, China also does not have the ability to get that done.

GWEN IFILL: Priscilla Clapp, do you think it's likely, also -- are you as optimistic that China will do something? And, if so, does it have the ability to get it done?

PRISCILLA CLAPP: I agree that China is not in a position to effect regime change in Burma. The most we can hope for is that China can gradually bring the generals into dialogue with the opposition and press for a transition back to civilian government.

GWEN IFILL: Can I ask, can I just interrupt for a moment? Why is it that China is not interested -- maybe it should be obvious -- but why isn't China interested in regime change?

PRISCILLA CLAPP: That's not to say they're not. They are interested in regime change. I'm certain they are interested. They won't say it. I'm saying that. But they cannot go in and simply tell the generals to step down and give way to another power to come in and take over the government.

And I think that some of the expectations that have been raised outside in the international community are higher than what we can realistically expect China to be able to do with this regime. I think they will work carefully and quietly with them.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Wan, let's go back to 1988, the last big pro-democracy, quashed pro-democracy protest then. What was China's role? And is there anything to -- is it different now than what it was then?

MING WAN: It is different now. At that time, China didn't have much of a role. And the relationship between Burma and China really improved in the late 1980s and in the early 1990s.

Actually, China and Burma had a very troubled relationship until very recently. For example through1970s, the Chinese government supported the Burmese Communist Party, which was the strongest opposition to the military, so, in a sense, the relationship was very tense. And part of the reason why the Burmese military government wanted to improve relations with China was to cut off that support from China, and the Chinese government did.

In early 1990s, China also had its own interest to improve relations with Burma. And that was after Tiananmen, and China was also isolated.

Myanmar's economic interests

Priscilla Clapp
Former Diplomat
I'm confident, actually, optimistic that they will do something positive with the Burmese regime, but I'm simply warning that we shouldn't have over-expectations about what they can do, because these [Myanmar] generals are not really pro-Chinese.

GWEN IFILL: And were these also economic interests, getting access to that gas and oil we were talking about?

MING WAN: I think that came a bit later with China's economic reform. Right now, China is a major player in the Burmese economy. It's really the country's second-largest trading partner. Last year, I think they did a trade about $1.5 billion. And if we count illegal trade, in timber, jade, and other materials, the volume should be much higher.

GWEN IFILL: Smuggling?

MING WAN: Smuggling. China also provides aid for Burma.

GWEN IFILL: Is Darfur an example of this? We saw China being pressured by other nations to step in and to put pressure on the government in Khartoum, and eventually it did. Can you see it playing out that same way in this case?

PRISCILLA CLAPP: Yes, I think there are a lot of similarities between the two. You might add North Korea to that.

GWEN IFILL: That's right, six-party talks.

PRISCILLA CLAPP: China facilitated North Korea, the beginning of the six-party talks, and has brought North Korea back into the six-party talks when they've been reluctant to join. I think that China is gradually beginning to take a more responsible, political diplomatic role in the world, as its power, economic power, increases, and that's a very good sign. Darfur is a good example.

And I think the world is hoping that they will step up to the plate in the case of Burma. I'm confident, actually, optimistic that they will do something positive with the Burmese regime, but I'm simply warning that we shouldn't have over-expectations about what they can do, because these generals are not really pro-Chinese.

They earn their early medals fighting against these Chinese-inspired insurgencies, communist-inspired insurgencies that were supported by the Chinese. There is a very anti-Chinese sentiment in the Burmese population. The Chinese, there have been race riots against the Chinese as early as -- I mean, as recently as 1967, and it could break out again. China is very aware of that.

So they have to be careful in balancing the way that they approach this situation.

GWEN IFILL: Do you agree with that, Professor?

MING WAN: Yes, I agree with Priscilla. She's absolutely right. And China has to be very careful in how to deal with the Burmese government, given their troubled history. In fact, you can argue that the relationship between the Burmese military government and Chinese government has been reasonably good is because both sides have been very careful, you know, on the Chinese side.

So if you start trying to be viewed as trying to change the government there, you know, there will be a backlash.

Other players in Myanmar trade

Ming Wan and Priscilla Clapp
China wants to have good relations with the West, the United States. And the Olympics is coming up. So there are a number of reasons why China wants to calm this down.

GWEN IFILL: Is it completely up to China? There are other nations in the region -- Thailand is actually its number-one trading partner. There's India. Is it completely -- why are we focusing, I guess, on China so much?

MING WAN: Well, you know, certainly, Chinese are not the only player, but in some ways China is far more important than the other players. You can argue that India and Southeast Asian countries have engaged in Burma partly because they worry about China's growing influence. So they're trying to match that influence there.

And so if China reduces its support to Burma and there will be less reason for those countries to support Burma, as well. So, in that sense, China is quite important.

PRISCILLA CLAPP: And I might say, we're looking at the future, too, because the Chinese are negotiating with Burma now to tap into those off-shore natural gas reserves and to build pipelines through Burma to the southwestern part of China, which has traditionally been the poorest part, the part that's left out of the Chinese economic development revolution that's going on right now because they don't have enough power. So Burma is going to open that all up.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you both to translate from me in a diplomatic sense, something that we just heard from the Chinese premier when he talked about the need for a sense of stability in Myanmar, Burma, and when he said that he would work to achieve democracy and development. Now, democracy is not a term you hear coming a lot from Chinese leaders...

PRISCILLA CLAPP: Oh, very infrequent.

GWEN IFILL: ... so it caught my ear. What do you think that was about?

MING WAN: Well, you know, I think you're talking about Chinese-style democracy. And but I think the most important thing is that he's trying to calm down the situation. That is clearly in China's interest. China's paramount interest, first interest is to maintain a stable environment.

And also in China interests, it involves United Nations. China supports the United Nations. China wants to have good relations with the West, the United States. And the Olympics is coming up. So there are a number of reasons why China wants to calm this down.

I think one key thing in that talk -- and then also voiced by other Chinese officials is national reconciliation. And that means that China wants to see some dialogue between the military government and the opposition. And they have been saying this openly.

GWEN IFILL: Did we see any sign of that with the visit of the U.N. envoy today?

PRISCILLA CLAPP: We'll learn more when he reports back to the Security Council on Thursday. We don't know yet. But the fact that he was able to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi twice and that he got to meet all of the top generals is a very good sign.

But I heard the Chinese premier saying that the military has to work with the opposition, that they have to work with all the parties in the country, including the ethnic minorities. That's what I think they mean by democracy and reconciliation, which is not what the military has been doing.

Chinese cooperation with America

GWEN IFILL: And, finally, we know that the United States has been using very tough talk and pushing for increased tougher sanctions. Can you ever see China getting on board with that, Professor Wan?

MING WAN: Yeah, it depends on the objective. If things are more limited, calming down the situation, and working with different players, I can see China doing that. But if the U.S. wants China to help promote democracy, that would not happen, because China is not democracy. U.S. cannot outsource democracy promotion to China, which is not democracy. And I think the best the U.S. can do is start a process and act as a coordinator and set up some infrastructure to sustain engaged discussion of the issue.

GWEN IFILL: Do you agree with that?

PRISCILLA CLAPP: Yes, I don't think that China is going to set the example for democracy in the world. But the Burmese know what democracy is, because they had it before in the 1950s. And Aung San Suu Kyi certainly knows what it is. And so if the Chinese can get the process of dialogue going, then it's up to the Burmese to form the kind of democracy they want. And that's what's important.

GWEN IFILL: But the Chinese then just play a facilitating role and the Burmese take over? That's...

PRISCILLA CLAPP: That's right. And we're looking for an effective facilitator. We haven't found it yet, but maybe the Chinese can help.

GWEN IFILL: Ming Wan, Priscilla Clapp, thank you both very much.

MING WAN: Thank you.

PRISCILLA CLAPP: Thank you.