On September 26, the People's Republic of China (PRC) prevented
the U.N. Security Council from condemning the brutal crackdown on
pro-democracy demonstrators that is now underway in Burma.
China's representative did relent and allow a brief press
statement expressing "concern" for the situation and calling for
"restraint." Any Security Council statement on Burma-even one as
weak as this-should be welcomed. But rather than providing a ray of
hope, this bit of tentative diplomacy at the U.N. crystallizes the
Burma dilemma facing the United States.
President Bush's announcement of tighter sanctions provides
vital moral support for pro-democracy forces in Burma. Those
braving the guns and truncheons of the junta deserve full American
support. But moral clarity has its cost: The effectiveness of our
Burma policy relies more than ever on appeals to the enlightened
self-interest of others. This being the case, the United States
needs to drastically reorder its approach, relying less on China
and more on its democratic friends in the region.
China Is Proving Unreliable on
Unfortunately, very few countries have any influence at all with
the junta; certainly not the United States. The world of the
Burmese generals is very small. They are not much interested in the
views of the American president, the American market, or the loss
of American investment. Their handling of the protesters is only
the latest testament to their lack of sophistication and thuggish
Few countries have a large enough stake in the outcome to
develop a serious, sustained policy approach. Those with both
position and stake have shown little to no inclination to help. The
Chinese-by far the most influential outside players in Burma-are
holding a winning hand. Burma's isolation is Beijing's windfall.
China is building ports and pipelines in Burma and is forging a
lucrative relationship with the Burmese military.
The PRC conceives its interests in the same narrow way that its
allies in Burma do: cold calculation. China is not about to
compromise its gains in Burma just to comply with requests from the
United States-even with the designation of "responsible
stakeholder" dangled before them.
The Chinese have had their chances to intervene in Burma-and
they have severely disappointed. There is no evidence to suggest
that China is doing anything to restrain the Burmese
junta. Faced with a clear moral outrage, their public statements on
the crisis have been tepid and hedged.
Case in point: The Chinese statement accompanying yesterday's
U.N. statement called for "stability, national reconciliation," and
"progress on the road of democratization." These words
carefully-and not accidentally-appeal to definitions Americans
would not easily recognize. In fact, the Burmese government would
claim this is exactly what they have been trying to do with their
undemocratic "roadmap to democracy," and that it's the protesters
(ironically, the real democratic forces) that stand in the
Of course, when the Burma situation came before the U.N.
Security Council earlier this January, the Chinese representative
famously vetoed a non-punitive resolution condemning the government
for its abuses. With that resolution, the United States and eight
other members of the Security Council sought to empower the U.N.
Secretary General's Special Envoy in much the same way that the
recent informal Security Council statement did. It took the tragic
turn of events in Burma this week -and the recoiling of the
international community-to drag the Chinese even this far.
A Role for ASEAN and India
Burma is first and foremost the problem of ASEAN (the Association
of Southeast Asian Nations). ASEAN bought the problem in 1997
when-against strong international opposition-it admitted Burma as a
member. ASEAN leaders rationalized that bringing Burma into the
fold would help foster positive change. As it has turned out, not
only has there been no change, but the net effect of Burma's
membership has been to sully ASEAN's international image.
ASEAN is in a position to help. All the players in the Burma
drama converge in ASEAN's markets, corridors of power, and multiple
official forums. Compensation in the form of global, responsible
stakeholder-hood might be over the heads of the Chinese. But China
is seriously interested in geopolitical advantage in ASEAN. If the
democracies in ASEAN, particularly Indonesia, take an energetic,
principled stand on behalf of democracy in Burma, the Chinese
cannot ignore it.
The September 27 statement from ASEAN condemning the Burmese
government for the crackdown is fine as far as it goes. They had to
say something given the events unfolding in their fellow ASEAN
member state. But speaking out about Burma is something ASEAN is
getting used to. ASEAN first broke with their policy of
non-interference four years ago during a crisis over an attack on
Burmese democracy crusader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
ASEAN has also officially consulted and commented on the situation
since. Two years ago, it pressured Burma into giving up its turn at
chairing ASEAN for fear of being too closely identified with the
Commendably, the ASEAN statement, unlike both the U.N. Security
Council and the Chinese, calls for national reconciliation "with
all parties concerned," and "the release of all political detainees
including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi."
Now, the more important matter is what ASEAN does to follow up.
As the ASEAN statement points out, the Burma issue seriously
impacts the organization's "credibility." ASEAN cannot simply
condemn the crackdown and move on; the fundamental problem in Burma
must be addressed. ASEAN is going to have to use real muscle,
including the threat of expulsion, to force the junta to heed the
cries of its people for democracy.
ASEAN will soon have two representatives on the U.N. Security
Council, one of which will be Indonesia. It is encouraging that
although the Chinese and the Russians voted against the January
resolution, Indonesia abstained. Given the situation now unfolding
in Burma, an abstention is going to be hard to hold. Democracy
exerts a strong pull on the collective conscience of the Indonesian
people-stronger, in fact, than does its ASEAN
One would hope that the United States can also persuade India to
get involved on behalf of democratic change in Burma, but it will
be a tough sell. The Indians share a border with Burma and a
decades-long rivalry with China. Indian leaders are alarmed by the
close friendship the Chinese are striking up with the Burmese
generals. India is a proud democracy, however. The free world
certainly expects better of them than cold calculation.
Long after the traffic in New York returns to its normal chaos,
the problem of Burma will remain. A real solution will require new,
clear-eyed distinctions among potential partners in Asia. On the
Burma issue, the United States needs to abandon its misplaced
confidence in China and build confidence in its democratic friends
in ASEAN and India, imparting responsibility for a problem that is,
in reality, more theirs than that of the United States.
Walter Lohman is
Director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage