China's Influence on Myanmar: Casting the Shadow of Darkness, Not Peace

Protestors shout slogans for better living conditions while holding placards near a market in central Yangon, Myanmar. (Photo: STR / AFP-Getty Images)

China's political power, on the wings of its spectacular economic success, is rising. But because of China's military and financial support for Myanmar's brutal regime, like many nations on the wrong end of this power equation, Burma (interchangeably known as Myanmar) and its people are facing a future not of peace and security, but of continuing conflicts and violence.

China's commercial influence on the current South African government alone has subverted the latest United Nations Security Council push for a resolution to end the violence in Burma. South Africa is China's biggest trade partner in Africa, and China has no scruples in using its influence to get Pretoria to vote with them in the Security Council, against the best interests of the poor people of Burma.

Instead of listening to their outstanding leader, Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu, who was advocating peace and security for the people of Burma, South African President Thabo Mbeki voted with China, forgetting the past United Nations' role in abolishing apartheid in his country and his own warning against allowing ties with China to develop into a "colonial relationship."

China's influence on South Africa however, is minute compared to the power it wields over other more menacing regimes such as North Korea, Burma, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Gordon Chang, the author of "Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World" described North Korea under the influence of China as, "the little autocrat that could neither bark nor bite without China's assistance."

Taking a cue from China's handling of the North Korean nuclear crisis, the overall take on China's policy in Burma is not only bleak, but downright chilling. China has so far refused to acknowledge or act on behalf of a peaceful political settlement in Burma.

Just in the past year alone over 80,000 Burmese refugees, running away from government assaults, have crossed the border into Thailand. Recently, the Karen Women's Organization reported that the Burmese military's violence against civilians continued while the Security Council rejected a resolution to take action on Burma's behalf. They outlined in detail the sexual violence committed by the army against civilians, as Myanmar continued to use rape as a weapon of war.

Amidst the poverty and violence, HIV is rampant on the borders, including the border with China. The proliferation of drug trades, gambling, human smuggling and prostitution on Burma's border has only hardened the evidence that finally brought the case against Burma to the Security Council.

A stalwart supporter of the unpopular regime in Burma, which is bitterly despised by its own people, China has been sending arms, money and infrastructure support.

In November 2005, Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, warned that countries which provide assistance to sustain unpopular regimes for short-term economic or strategic interests often pay a steep long-term political price once these regimes fall out of favor. She said that China should look carefully at its engagement in countries like Sudan, Zimbabwe and Myanmar, among others. Chinese multinationals, too, should consider the longer-term health, safety and environmental welfare of the communities in which they operate, or risk growing local protest.

On Oct. 3, 2006, rioters attacked Chinese nationals in Zambia, where the political opposition accused China of exploitation and turning Zambia into dumping ground for Chinese slave labor. In less than a decade over 30,000 Chinese have moved into Lusaka, where the riot took place.

Until now China was able to hide behind the headlines about the unsuccessful war in Iraq by the United States. But with a careful hard look, the stories about China's fast track into the heart of Africa and Burma are much more brutal. There are over 100,000 United States' troops in Iraq and the bloody conflict of the war has been a major concern for America and her allies. But two million Chinese migrants have moved into Burma in less than two decades, and it is destabilizing the already explosive political situation there.

Adding to the ill-effects of China's direct involvement in Burma's political affairs is Beijing's continuing lack of concern about the threat of HIV, drugs, crime and political instability on its border, and highlights the more crucial, underlying failure of the Chinese political leadership. As Gordon Chang has discussed above, what many mistake as "nuanced" diplomacy is just an example of competing views and interests that result in directionless policy within the Chinese government.

The blind faith in the slogan of "peaceful rise of political power" has not protected poor Chinese migrant workers at home and abroad. Rupert Wingfield-Hayes of the BBC on March 7, 2006 reported that in a system akin to South Africa's apartheid, Chinese migrants are discriminated against and exploited.

Accurately, Ms. Economy has labeled China as a rising power exploiting other countries' natural resources, spoiling the global environment, making economic deals but looking away from serious government mistreatment of its citizens and not delivering on promises.

In his expert analysis, David Lampton, director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said that the Chinese political system does not adequately reflect the diverse interests of the increasingly pluralized society that marketization, urbanization, and globalization have created. Consequently, the Chinese Communist Party's legitimacy is not robust and the Chinese system's appeal, at home and abroad, rests largely on the country's economic success.

Burma is affected by what Mr. Lampton described as the massive, often unintended spillover effects of Chinese power and its appetite for economic growth. And although Beijing's domestic and foreign policies are not malevolent by design, they often have harmful effects. For those countries on the receiving end, intentions may not matter. He concluded that the rise of Chinese political power generates global responses that Beijing cannot fully control and that may not be in its interest.

The Chinese veto at the Security Council, along with their friend South Africa, of the resolution to bring a peaceful reconciliation in Burma, was deeply felt by the Burmese people. Even the Myanmar military personnel were said to have been very disappointed in losing the last glimmer of hope for peace. China has cast a long shadow of darkness on Burma.

Chinese political power is rising in the east but the long darkness in Burma will not be over soon.