China could play crucial role in Myanmar crisis
BEIJING (Reuters) - If there is one power that could pressure Myanmar to avoid a bloody crackdown on the country's biggest anti-government protests in 20 years, it is China.
Beijing, Myanmar's neighbour, is a major trade partner and protector.
Publicly, China has repeated its appeals for stability and avoided making the calls for restraint coming from Western powers, who fear the demonstrations could end as they did in 1988 -- with a military crackdown and huge loss of life.
Privately, though, China could be playing a more nuanced role and is increasingly concerned about its international image as its diplomatic weight grows and as it prepares to host the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, an event that has already become a lightning rod for activists.
"Generally speaking, China will avoid interfering in other countries' internal affairs," said Li Chenyang, director of the Southeast Asian Studies Centre at Yunnan University.
"But China certainly hopes Myanmar can maintain stability and resolve the issue in its own way," he said.
"China has been making more of an effort of late to convey concerns of the international community to the government in Burma," said a Western diplomat based in Beijing.
"China could demonstrate that it takes its international responsibility seriously by using its influence with the Burmese government to try to encourage a positive outcome there," the diplomat said.
But whether it will do so is an open question.
In January, China and Russia vetoed a resolution calling on the junta to stop persecuting minority and opposition groups and to take concrete steps toward democracy, arguing the UN Security Council was exceeding its mandate.
But recently senior Chinese diplomat Tang Jiaxuan urged Myanmar to push forward with a "democracy process that is appropriate for the country". And earlier this year, China's foreign ministry published an unflattering account of Myanmar's new capital, an indication of some displeasure with its neighbour.
Still, Myanmar is not only a source of timber and minerals for China, it is part of a strategic push by Beijing to secure energy resources and an alternative route for oil and natural gas supplies through the Bay of Bengal.
China has already approved a pipeline that would help supply crude to its southwestern provinces and allow importers to bypass the Strait of Malacca, one of the world's busiest shipping channels.
"In the broader field of things, Myanmar is central to China's strategic interests as a neighbour," said Christopher Roberts, a research associate at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
"When you take into account India and Russia also vying for good relations with Myanmar, that would be another factor that would affect its decisions," he said.
China, which staged its own military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, is also wary of any domino effect that political liberalisation on its borders might have.
While some see China as a possible restraining influence on Myanmar's generals and an emerging global power that could play a backroom mediating role, other analysts say it has no desire to use any pressure it could wield.
"It's in their economic interests to preserve the status quo," said Bertil Lintner, a Myanmar expert based in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.
And while no one questions China's desire to protect its strategic interests in Myanmar, some wonder whether even Beijing has the strength to sway its ruling generals.
"I'm not sure at the end of the day China can deliver Than Shwe, even if they want to," said Bradley Babson, a retired World Bank Asia expert, referring to the junta's most powerful figure.
"Than Shwe will not come under the thumb of any outside power, including the Chinese."
(Additional reporting by Guo Shipeng in Beijing and Ed Cropley and Darren Schuettler in Bangkok)
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