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Can China force change in Burma?

ANDREW WONG/AFP/Getty Images

Recent press coverage and commentary on Burma's "Saffron Revolution" got me thinking: Is it really as simple as China flipping a switch and Burma will be democratic overnight? Judging by many reports, you'd think so. "If China won't change its policies toward Burma on its own," writes Nobel laureate Jody Williams in today's Wall Street Journal, "it must be pressured to do so."

But aren't we forgetting that the West spent much of the second half of the 20th Century trying to get China out of the business of regime change in Asia? Is it wise to reverse course now? To get some insight on the situation, I got a hold of RAND's Bill Overholt, who has spent decades working on Burma and helped set up the Provisional Revolutionary Government in the country's mountain jungles in 1989. Here's what he had to say.

On China's ability to encourage change in Burma:

China has interests and involvements in Burma, but limited leverage. Burma is not some kind of client state of China. It is a xenophobic, divided, tribalized country with a nationalistic government; it bears more resemblance to one of the less coherent sub-Saharan African states than to most other East Asian countries. It’s not an easy place to influence. Through most of the 1980s there was a Burmese Communist Party, which consisted primarily of the Wa tribe plus Chinese leadership. When the Wa decided to turn anti-communist in the late 1980s and chased the Chinese leadership into China, China’s influence in the country was drastically reduced but there was little China could do without military intervention. So Beijing basically sat by passively when it happened.

There's a crucial lesson in that episode. The fact that China has economic involvements in this neighboring country and sells weapons to it doesn't mean anymore than when big U.S. companies are involved in some third world country and the U.S. government also sells weapons to it. Those things imply neither political commitment to a certain regime nor any ability to change the regime. The Chinese have been pressing Rangoon diplomatically for some time to liberalize the political system. Going beyond that to some kind of active Chinese attempt to impose a new kind of politics would be like the U.S. invading Mexico to clean up Mexican politics, but much messier because Burmese nationalism and tribalism make Mexico's nationalism and Iraq's tribalism seem modest by comparison.

One would hope that our experience with regime change in Iraq would temper somewhat the occasional neocon fantasy that China could simply install a new regime in North Korea or the apparent new fantasy of some liberals that China could just install a different kind of government in Burma."

On whether next year's Olympic Games factor into China's calculus on Burma, as many news outlets are suggesting:

China's motives in relations with Burma have nothing to do with the Olympics. I doubt that even the idea of some connection has ever crossed the minds of Chinese leaders. Only someone distant from the region could even imagine that."

On how events in Burma impact Sino-U.S. relations:

Washington basically has the same attitude toward Burma that China does. It doesn't like what’s happening there, but isn't willing or able to do much about it. We have largely symbolic sanctions, and we have not done as much as we could have. We have not, for instance, gone after the oil companies that provide the big money to the junta and that have benefited so much from infrastructure built by tribal people who were kidnapped by the Burmese government and often forced to work without food until they died. Our drug policy has off and on fed the fox to guard the chicken coop.... We have occasionally given economic and military aid to the same government for the purpose of suppressing the drug trade, but the aid was of course used instead against the democracy movement.

Burma is one of the world's most serious human rights problems. We need to focus on getting our own policy right and on staying in sync with Burma’s neighbors, including China, as we do so. We're pushing in the same general direction as the Chinese, for somewhat different reasons, with equally little success. Hopefully the monks are going to change the structure of the game."

With reports that the junta is stockpiling insecticides to use against demonstrators and is clearing space in jails and hospitals in anticipation of a harsher crackdown, the stakes have never been higher.

PS: For those following the "Burma" vs. "Myanmar" debate—and here at Passport, we've used both—James Fallows convincingly puts the issue to rest.

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Quotable: Why religion is like a knife

Bill Clinton, introducing Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the opening session of the Clinton Global Initiative, quoted Desmond Tutu thusly:

Religion is like a knife. If you use it to cut bread, it's good. If you use it to cut your neighbor's arm off, it's bad.