The 7 November Myanmar elections bring to the fore a long-standing dilemma for the international community of choosing between supporting real and immediate democratic change or accepting incremental moves towards a democratic government far in the future. In the context of the impending political transformation in Myanmar, it is therefore, imperative to ask – why has China not bothered about its neighbouring dictatorship going ‘democratic’? What explains its support for or silence on the current political developments in Myanmar?
China is currently Myanmar’s largest trading partner and has functioned as its most dependable ally for several decades. Advancing from ‘strategic neutrality’ to ‘strategic alignment,’ the two countries have been engaged in a mutually beneficial and reciprocal entente on issues ranging from agricultural to military equipment. On a strategic plane, China’s attitude towards Myanmar has been heavily guided by national interests – the need for energy resources to sustain its double-digit growth, geostrategic leverage in terms of naval access to the Indian Ocean, border security and stable external environment, and as a gateway for future oil and gas imports. Economic relations have soared high and the junta has relied heavily on Beijing’s support against economic sanctions by the West. Bilateral trade in 2010 reached US$2.097 billion, an increase of ten per cent over the previous year, reflecting the importance of economic ties between the two countries.
Meanwhile, ethnic tensions on the border have long been a cause of worry for the Chinese authorities and Beijing is wary of the long-term fallout from the exclusion of ethnic minorities from the elections. The Myanmar military’s offensive into the Kokang region in August 2009 led to the breakdown of a 20 year-old ceasefire and the exodus of some 30,000 refugees into China’s Yunnan province. These issues hold the potential to destabilize the border regions and diplomatic relations as they create a larger human security dimension. However, following Myanmar leader Gen. Than Shwe’s visit to China from 7 to 11 September 2010 and his assurance of ensuring stability on the Sino-Myanmarese border, Beijing has reaffirmed its commitment to the elections. This also mirrors Chinese recognition of Myanmar’s crucial position in the revival of China’s ‘southwest silk road.’
China’s silence on the transition of power from the military junta to a more democratic set-up would be surprising unless construed through a tacit understanding between the two governments about the nature of this election. China’s response is thus packaged in its efforts of striking a balance between its neighbourhood policy and its larger self-vision of a ‘responsible stakeholder’ on the global arena. Statements originating from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) best reflect this exercise.
Speaking at a regular press conference on 9 September 2010, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu expressed support to Myanmar and said that the polls were an “internal matter” for Myanmar, and that China hoped other countries would provide it with “constructive help and avoid bringing negative effect to bear on Myanmar’s political course and regional peace and stability.”
Though as a member of the Group of Friends initiative of the UN, China did call for “inclusive, participatory and transparent” elections in Myanmar, such a discourse is visibly absent in Chinese domestic media. There has been no direct mention of releasing important political figures, in fact the MOFA had earlier in 2009 argued for respecting Myanmar’s judicial sovereignty on the announcement of extended house arrest for Aung San Suu Kyi, and there has been no significant change on that position so far. On the occasion of the commemoration of 60 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries, the Chinese MOFA in fact, declared that “a smooth election in Myanmar is in the fundamental interest of the Myanmar people and conducive to regional peace and stability...China respects the independently chosen development path of the Myanmar people and hopes that the election can proceed smoothly” (MOFA, PRC, 9 September 2010).
The remarks are an indirect call for legitimizing the outcome of the polls about whose predetermined nature the Chinese political leadership seems to have little illusions. Beijing continues to ward off the growing international pressure for ensuring transparency and accountability. Appeals from ASEAN members during their 43rd meeting at Hanoi in July 2010 to employ “regional watchdogs” to oversee Myanmar’s upcoming elections have hence fallen on deaf ears.
China’s obsession with stability in its neighbourhood has yet again earned it the identity of being a lone ranger. Chinese leaders are more concerned about their investment interests in Myanmar rather than the creation of institutional apparatuses for self-governing entities. In sum, China is willing to wait to resolve ethnic issues and border infiltration, but not to deal with a democratic neighbour. Beijing is steeped in a comfortable prescience of the elections results; meanwhile, it lack of any overt support for the Myanmar junta helps sustain the impression that it is a "responsible" international power.