China’s Burma Test

Burma’s peaceful protests are nearing their tipping point, with the military junta weighing the potential costs of a full military crackdown. But Burma’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 Burma’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 Burma is not of China’s making, any peaceful settlement may be possible only 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. With 3,000 villages destroyed and 1.5 million people already displaced in eastern Burma, a humanitarian disaster has been unfolding for some time now. Throughout these troubles, China has held its tongue, sticking to its policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of any nation.

But that policy may no longer be tenable, because it is in China’s interest to find an effective alternative to a brutal crackdown, which would only remind the world vividly of the massacres in Rangoon in 1988 and in Tiananmen Square the following year. With some international celebrities already keen to start a campaign to boycott the Beijing Olympics because of China’s support for some of the world’s most repressive and incompetent regimes, a military crackdown in Burma is the last thing the Chinese authorities can afford.