Cina - Myanmar

Argomento: Birmania


China makes contingency plans for junta's fall

By David Lague

As China publicly calls for stability and reconciliation in Myanmar, it is also preparing for the possibility that the current protests could lead to the downfall of the military junta leading its resource-rich neighbor, political experts said on Wednesday.

Although China is Myanmar's most important trading partner, investor and strategic ally, Beijing has also maintained discreet links with opponents of its military rulers and tolerates the activity of some of exiled critics on Chinese soil, these experts said.

And as Myanmar's strongest international supporter, China wants to avoid any damage to its reputation from Myanmar's handling of political dissent, particularly with the approach of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Beijing has exerted diplomatic pressure on the junta to avoid a repeat of the violent crackdown on demonstrations in 1988 that led to extended periods of house arrest for the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

"If Aung San Suu Kyi became the leader of Burma tomorrow, China would be the first country to roll out the red carpet," said Bertil Lintner, an analyst of Myanmar politics based in Thailand. "But they wouldn't like to see it happen."

China has firsthand experience of the risks ahead for the junta if it turns to violence. Its governing Communist Party is still feeling the effects of international criticism over the military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989 in Beijing and other cities.

Political experts and foreign diplomats in Beijing say China would prefer that the Burmese junta bring the protests under control without bloodshed and instability in a nation that is an important supplier of raw materials including timber and minerals.

Two-way trade between the countries increased 39.4 percent in the first seven months of this year over the same period in 2006, reaching $1.11 billion, according to official Chinese government customs figures.

Analysts say China is eager to import energy from a country that has estimated reserves of three trillion cubic meters of natural gas and three billion barrels of crude oil.

China would also like to keep a pliant government in place to develop strategically important access to the Indian Ocean, according to security experts.

In an effort to expand its influence in Myanmar, China has become the junta's biggest arms supplier and has extended concessional loans and development aid to the economically embattled nation.

Moreover, analysts estimate that more than one million Chinese entrepreneurs and traders have crossed the border and settled in Burma in the past decade.

There have been reports that China wants to build a $2 billion oil pipeline from Myanmar's coast on the Bay of Bengal to Yunnan Province in China that would allow the delivery of oil from the Middle East without transiting the Malacca Strait, a waterway that could be easily closed during a period of international tension or conflict.

Officially, China maintains its customary diplomatic stance of noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries.

"As a neighbor of Myanmar, we hope to see that its society is stable and its economy developing," China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, said Tuesday at a regular news briefing in Beijing. "We hope and believe that Myanmar's government and people can appropriately deal with their current problems."

But, analysts say, there is evidence that China has been hedging its bets on political developments in Myanmar for some years.

Lintner, the Thailand-based analyst, said Beijing maintained unofficial contacts with exiled Myanmar opposition groups in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries in a bid to minimize their antagonism and to improve its understanding of political developments.

He said Beijing also tolerated the presence of these groups in Ruili, on the border with Myanmar in Yunnan Province, where some maintain unofficial offices.

Other experts agree that these informal contacts with exiles along with recent official statements from Beijing calling for a peaceful settlement of differences among all groups in Myanmar suggest that China has doubts about the junta's survival.

"One day, they expect the military will no longer be running the place," said Trevor Wilson, an expert on Myanmar at the Australian National University who was the Australian ambassador to Myanmar from 2000 to 2003.

"It will be political parties, maybe even the current opposition, running the place," he said, "and China needs to keep open some channels of communication with them and not put them entirely offside."

Despite China's close economic and political ties with the junta, there are also signs that it is dissatisfied with some aspects of its performance.

Wilson said senior Chinese diplomats in Myanmar have been bluntly critical of the junta's poor economic management and its inability to stem the flow of illicit drugs across the Chinese border.

At times, political tensions in the early years of this decade led to the suspension of new Chinese loans to Myanmar, he said.

Political analysts also noted that China had openly called on the junta to show restraint in dealing with the protests.

In a meeting with Myanmar's foreign minister, U Nyan Win, on Sept. 13, Tang Jiaxuan, a member of China's State Council and a former foreign minister, said the Chinese government hoped its neighbor could restore stability and promote national reconciliation, the official Xinhua press agency reported.

Tang also told U Nyan Win that Beijing wanted Myanmar to move toward "a democracy process that is appropriate for the country," Xinhua said.

This did not mean China wanted Myanmar to adopt Western-style democracy, analysts said, but it was a suggestion that the junta should move toward a settlement with its opponents.

China has also recently shown that it is prepared to use its influence with the junta to ease diplomatic tensions with the United States.

In June, China arranged in Beijing the highest-level talks between the United States and Myanmar in five years.

Da   International Herald Tribune, September 27, 2007