In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

China, the World and Burma

Posted by smeddum on September 16, 2010



Economist Jeffrey Sachs calls China “the most successful development story in world history.” Since its “awakening” following Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 “black cat, white cat” speech urging the Chinese government to focus on economic development and let facts—not ideology—guide its path, China’s miraculous economic turnaround over the past three decades has awed and inspired the world.

From its founding in 1949 well into the late 1980s, Communist China had been widely considered a “revisionist state” that was not well-integrated into international society. But as its economy became more and more integrated into the global economy, its political role on the world stage also grew.
Chinese leaders have been made aware of the mutual interdependence between China and the rest of the world. China’s evolving role in global politics means that its traditional sovereignty-oriented foreign policy direction has also evolved into a more nuanced normative direction, even though Beijing may not become a “responsible power” or “a status quo state” overnight due to its vested interests in many authoritarian states, including Burma.

Well into the 1990s, Deng’s 24-character dictum—“Observe in a cold and peaceful fashion, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly, hide our capacities and nurture timing, excel in maintaining a low profile and absolutely do not claim leadership”—appeared to be a handy strategic guideline for China’s foreign policy. But the addition of a new phrase in 2002 to the original 24 characters—‘‘make some contribution if you have something to contribute’’—marked a watershed in Chinese foreign policy making, implying that not only has China’s self-awareness of its role in global politics grown, but also its willingness to take on more responsibility in the international arena. China is no longer hiding behind the non-intervention shield: if necessary and when it can, it will make a contribution.

Further evidence of China’s self-consciousness may be seen in its sensitivity to descriptions of its own development. In 2002, Zheng Bijian, then deputy head of the Central Party School, first spoke of China’s “peaceful rise.” The term soon caught on in Chinese policy circles, and then just as quickly fell out of favor, to be replaced by the less threatening term “peaceful development.” But what are the implications of this “peaceful development”?

China’s foreign policy shift over the past 20 years can be discerned in almost all of its interactions with the rest of the world. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), China cautiously refrained from making a major impact on any critical issue other than Taiwan and Tibet in the past. This markedly changed over the past decade. Partly out of its own security concerns, in 2006, Beijing condemned North Korean missile launches, then voted for a resolution condemning Iran over uranium enrichment and reprocessing. Beijing also went out of its way to reproach the Burmese regime for its handling of a mass protest in 2007.

In line with its growing military capabilities, China has become more assertive in the UNSC. It has also become more active in peacekeeping missions around the world. In the 1970s, China was not involved in any peacekeeping mission, but by 2009, it had deployed 3,362 troops in 13 UN peacekeeping missions all over the world, in addition to opening up new training facilities in Beijing and sending civilian police on the missions.

China’s relations with the European Union have also markedly improved over the past decade, despite disagreement over the term “multipolarity” stressed by the Chinese and “multilateralism” emphasized by their European counterparts. By 2003, the EU-China cooperation had been labeled a “strategic partnership,” since proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, international terrorism, global security of energy supply, regional crises and the environment are seen by both the Chinese and their Europeans as common strategic issues.

As China policy makers seek to strike a multipolar balance of power, Brussels has become increasingly relevant to Beijing as a “fellow traveler” on the road to containment of American power. For the EU, the increasing importance of China as a trade and strategic partner resulted in a distancing of itself from its trans-Atlantic relations with the US.

The EU-China joint venture Galileo satellite project, which breaks the monopoly of the US global positioning satellite system, has alarmed Washington. On the other hand, the fact that the EU (as well as the US) still maintains an arms embargo that has been imposed on China since the Tiananmen incident in 1989 remains a thorn in the side of Beijing.

But China’s recent use of the term “multilateralism” and the fact that its entry into the World Trade Organization was made possible with a little help from its EU friends are seen as indications that China has become increasingly socialized in European politics.Perhaps the most telling sign of China’s foreign policy shift can be seen in its ties with the US. Since 1978, China’s foreign policy has been commercially focused, but this began to shift markedly in the 2000s. The new Chinese foreign policy direction, especially towards the US, is most tellingly revealed in “The Beijing Consensus,” a paper by Joshua C. Ramo. “Rather than building a US-style power, bristling with arms and intolerant of others’ world views, China’s emerging power is based on the example of their own model, the strength of their economic system, and their rigid defense of… national sovereignty,” writes Ramo. The Chinese leaders maintain that ‘‘true success in strategic issues involves manipulating a situation so effectively that the outcome is inevitably in favor of Chinese interests.’’

To date, US-China economic ties have been the most crucial factor in the rise of China, to the extent that some analysts believe that the US is the country most responsible for fostering China’s growth. In security terms, even though the military capabilities of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are far smaller than those of the Pentagon, Washington fears that the Frankenstein’s monster it has created could get out of hand. As Finnish China expert Matti Nojonen puts it, the Sino-US relationship is best characterized as a “Catholic marriage of convenience,” wherein the wife and the husband have different worldviews, different values, different understanding of the world order, and are often at loggerheads. Most importantly, however, as the Catholic marriage would have it, divorce is not possible.

Inasmuch as Washington remains unclear about Beijing’s strategic ambitions, it is also undecided whether containment or engagement of China serves its best interests. In the region, Beijing has cautiously adopted security strategies to carefully counter the US influence.

Today, both the US and the PLA hold joint military exercises with the armed forces of the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). This is not necessarily a bad sign. The fact that Beijing is attempting to make it more difficult for the East Asia actors to choose between one side or the other (China over the US, or vice versa) is seen as a stabilizing factor in the region. In this light, the Sino-US competition is often interpreted as “healthy,” contributing to a multipolar world order.

Finally, Beijing’s subtle shift of foreign policy can be discerned in its bilateral ties with Zimbabwe, Sudan, Iran, North Korean and Burma. China has been a staunch, loyal protector of some of the world’s worst “pariahs”, but more recently, leaders from China’s “repressive” client states have learned that they can no longer count on Beijing for unconditional support. China’s relationship with Burma provides the most telling evidence of this.

Of late, Burma’s energy industry vis-à-vis Beijing’s concerns on the security of gas and oil pipelines under construction, Naypyidaw’s increasingly close ties with Pyongyang, its engagement with India and Asean, its playing along with the EU and the US overture of engagement, and China’s plan to open up its trade route to Southeast Asia and India via Burma, have all provided better bargaining chips for Naypyidaw in dealing with Beijing.

Yet, as China has become more integrated into global politics and the world economy, Chinese leaders are increasingly aware that they can no longer provide unconditional support to Burma. That was the message the Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan brought to Than Shwe in February 2008, a few months after China reproached Burma for its handling of the Saffron Revolution. As a result, China-Burma relation sank to all-time low until Premier Wen Jiabao’s “tie-strengthening” visit in June this year.

Beijing’s influence in Burma may be waning but its political leverage over Naypyidaw is still greater than that of the US and the EU combined. The real test of Beijing’s influence on Naypyidaw will be the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the cease-fire group that operates on the Burma-China border. The 20,000-strong UWSA, whose official language is Chinese, is under pressure from the Burmese regime to become a border guard force under Burmese military command. In response to growing tensions over the issue, the Chinese recently deployed 5,000 troops near the Wa territory. Instability in the region is the last thing Beijing wants, since it would mean another influx of refugees like the one that happened last year, when Burmese troops attacked the ethnic Chinese Kokang army, as well as a disruption of border trade and a possible threat to gas and oil pipelines being built.

China has numerous problems of its own. Yet, given China’s positive foreign policy dynamics, it is a fallacy to see China and Burma simply as bedfellow revisionist states.
Burma’s Than Shwe may be wooing Chinese favor in preparation for the 2010 election and the subsequent transition, but he is also aware that Beijing has always been prepared to work with any powers-that-be in Burma, be they authoritarian or democratic. China can exert its influence on Burma in a positive direction without undermining regional stability, and that is most likely the key message that EU politicians will deliver to their Chinese counterparts at the Asia-Europe Meeting in Brussels in early October.

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