Myanmar's peaceful protests are nearing their tipping point, with the military junta weighing the potential costs of a full military crackdown. But Myanmar's generals will have little incentive to opt for an alternative to bloodshed and repression if China continues to provide them with support and protection against sanctions at the UN Security Council.
China has more influence over Myanmar's ruling generals than any other country. Indeed, without Chinese support, it is debatable whether the Burmese regime could sustain itself. So, while the current crisis in Myanmar is not of China's making, a peaceful settlement may only be possible if China acts to support it.
China is thus facing an unwanted test of its claim to be a responsible stakeholder in the international community. China has held its tongue on Myanmar, sticking to its policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of any nation. But that policy may no longer be tenable.
It is in China's interest to find an effective alternative to a brutal crackdown that would only remind the world vividly of the massacres in Rangoon in 1988 and in Tiananmen Square the following year. With the Beijing Olympics and 17th Congress of the Communist Party on the horizon, a military crackdown in Myanmar is the last thing the Chinese authorities can afford.
Yet China may be able to pre-empt difficulties by making the cost of a brutal crackdown prohibitively high to the Burmese regime. It should privately threaten to cut off all aid and trade links, and to end its efforts in the UN to protect the regime from any additional international sanctions.
China can also provide an inducement to peaceful change. Beijing can guarantee the personal safety and wealth of the military junta should its members have to leave Myanmar suddenly. But China should make it clear that such protection requires the Burmese generals to cooperate in finding a peaceful solution.
It may be morally repulsive to allow the junta's members to retire with their ill-gotten gains, but any alternative will exact a dramatically higher price from the Burmese people. China's national interest does not require it to prop up the Burmese junta forever.
China benefits greatly from Myanmar's energy and other natural resources. By playing a positive role in bringing about a successful and peaceful transfer of power, China can expand these benefits and secure a friendly neighbor in Myanmar more effectively than with its current policy, which merely incurs the hatred of the Burmese people.
As a matter of geo-political strategy, taking a positive lead in Myanmar can help China reassure its neighbors that its policy of "peaceful rise" is beneficial and real. Whatever ASEAN governments say in public about welcoming that rise, their lingering doubts and suspicions will not be erased until they see China actively playing a positive role in assuring regional stability. The current crisis in Myanmar offers China a rare opportunity to do so.
The international community, too, has a vested interest in seeing that China rises peacefully. It should encourage and support China in taking the lead over Myanmar, as long as China commits to finding a peaceful solution. The international community's objective should be restricted to a peaceful outcome that allows Myanmar's people to work out their own solution.
Any change of regime in Myanmar will not be the result of international intervention. Instead, it will be the result of political negotiations between the junta and its domestic opponents. China should recognize that using its influence would not necessarily imply intervention in another country's domestic affairs.
Steve Tsang is a fellow of St. Antony's College at Oxford University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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