October 01, 2007

China: Myanmar as the New Sudan

Source: Stratfor
Stratfor's Free Intelligence Reports
September 28, 2007 19 12 GMT


Much like Sudan's Darfur crisis, Myanmar's ongoing unrest is serving as ammunition for the "Beijing Genocide Olympics" critics. Though China will become increasingly sensitive to the impact this issue has on its global image as a "responsible international stakeholder," it is not likely to change its current stance on Myanmar for reasons based on energy assets and access, geopolitical buffer zones and domestic political stability.


China is coming under increasing international pressure over its support for Myanmar's military regime. International nongovernmental organizations and center-right and liberal groups in the European Parliament and foreign governments (including the United States) are all calling for Beijing to penalize Myanmar's regime -- either by withdrawing financial assistance or by lifting its objection to the issuance of U.N. sanctions and official condemnations.

Akin to the Darfur crisis in Sudan, Myanmar's latest unrest serves as ammunition for "Beijing Genocide Olympics" critics. Though Beijing will become more sensitive to how this issue affects its global image as a "responsible international stakeholder," reasons based on energy assets and access, geopolitical buffer zones and domestic political stability likely will keep China from changing its fundamental stance on Myanmar. China remains more concerned about protecting its energy and buffer-zone interests than about international opinion.

There are two groups behind the Sudan campaign -- Darfur-focused activists and critics of China who have hijacked the Sudan issue as an opportunity to tarnish the Chinese government. Beijing realizes that the second group will likely do the same again with Myanmar. There is a high chance that Darfur-focused activists will refrain from mixing the two issues for fear of diffusing their Sudanese cause, but Beijing's linkage to Myanmar almost certainly will be used in the "Genocide Olympics" campaign.

The "Genocide Olympics" campaign is run by activists who have long sought effective pressure points on China. And unless the Chinese government capitulates to the activists' demands, thereby forfeiting its energy stake in Sudan and its energy/buffer interests in Myanmar, this campaign will continue working to undermine Beijing's efforts to promote the Olympic Games as a sign of the new China -- one that is ready to take its place as an emerging global power.

On Sudan, Beijing has so far used a mixed bag of diplomatic, public relations and multilateral measures to contain or dilute the negative impact of the "Genocide Olympics" campaign. Beijing used its leverage over Khartoum to open Sudan for the full U.N.-African Union force -- and Beijing did so in a manner that maximized positive public relations impact. Its investment interests in Darfur continue, and although international condemnations seem to have lost steam of late, groups such as the "Save Darfur" coalition have yet to be appeased.

But Beijing has less leverage over Myanmar's regime than it does over the Sudanese government (which it influences primarily through financial means). As Myanmar's junta has demonstrated time and again, it cares little for external opinions or actions and little for improving its citizens' welfare. Sanctions and foreign government condemnations have not helped to improve the lot of the average Myanmarese.

The only way China could exert influence over the junta would be a military intervention or a withdrawal of financial and/or international support (via the United Nations) for the junta regime. The former is neither viable nor desirable (given that the Olympics are less than a year away and internal social problems are a far higher priority for Beijing). The latter is undesirable as it would undermine the interests of multiple Chinese businesses already established in Myanmar. Furthermore, Myanmar is more geopolitically important to China than Sudan; it acts as a buffer to any expansionist desires India might develop. (India, meanwhile, is happy to see Beijing take most of the rap for not sufficiently pressuring the Myanmarese regime; like China, India is interested in maintaining the status quo in Myanmar to protect its economic and security interests.) As a result, China is unlikely to do anything substantial beyond issuing public relations statements and hoping that activists such as the Free Burma Coalition will start targeting other governments more central to the junta's survival, such as Thailand.

As in Sudan, Chinese investment and support for the incumbent regime will likely continue in Myanmar, but the tools Beijing has at its disposal to counter "Genocide Olympics" critics on the Myanmarese battlefront are a bit more limited.

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