China’s response to the suffering of cyclone survivors in Myanmar has exposed the limits of its ability — and arguably its willingness — to press even close allies to change set habits, analysts say.
With the junta in Myamnar refusing to admit foreign aid workers and curbing the distribution of emergency supplies, UN and other agencies warn the death toll could rise far higher than the official 60,000 dead or missing.
Only a quarter of the victims have received any help at all, triggering a race against time to reach more than a million critically short of food, water and other aid and stalked by hunger and disease.
That in turn has increased pressure on Beijing to convince the generals — long suspicious of the outside world — to change course.
While it is difficult to assess the scale or nature of any contacts between Beijing and the junta, analysts are skeptical as to how much China is able to do.
“China looks at what is beneficial to its own interests, not what is beneficial to other countries,” said Colonel Hariharan, of the Chennai Centre for Chinese Studies in India.
That view reflects decades of Cold War thinking in which China’s rulers were absorbed by their own economic and political problems, viewed the outside world with suspicion and followed a foreign policy based on reclaiming Taiwan, analysts said.
Beijing is slowly emerging with a more multi-dimensional outlook, but has a long way to go in intervening in situations such as Myanmar on a scale that is commensurate with its growing global profile, they said.
“They’re not at the point where they can really project positive power in the region,” said Bob Broadfoot, head of the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy. “There’s still an overwhelming tone of ‘what can we get out of it’ in their foreign policy. There isn’t that altruistic ‘how do we play a good global citizen?’”
The Chinese foreign ministry has called on the Myanmar junta to cooperate with the international community and Beijing has so far sent three planes packed with aid supplies to the country.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also asked her counterpart in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (楊潔箎), to have Beijing use its sway to convince the regime to open up to foreign help.
Broadfoot said the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami crisis, when China’s response was criticized as inadequate, was a “wake-up call” for Beijing, highlighting growing regional expectations of Asia’s biggest power.
However, “China just does not have much of a track record on humanitarian issues,” he said. “Just look at their handling of their own disasters. It’s not exactly a stellar record to brag about.”