China may ‘re-calibrate’ pariah relations: US

Instability amongst four of China’s maligned allies, including Burma, may cause it to rethink future relations as it rises as a global power, leaked US diplomatic cables claim.

The cable, sent from the Beijing embassy to Washington on 6 January 2009 and titled ‘LOOKING AT THE NEXT 30 YEARS OF THE U.S.-CHINA’, was published by whistleblowing website, Wikileaks, as part of the giant exposure of correspondence over US international relations.

Although it was sent to mark 30 years of US-China diplomatic ties, the cable was pockmarked with criticism of Washington’s rising global competitor. Of warm relations with Sudan, Zimbabwe, Iran and Burma, it claimed that “China is still willing to put its need for markets and raw materials above the need to promote internationally accepted norms of behaviour”.

Beijing has developed ties with a number of countries deemed pariahs by the US, including North Korea. Its soaring investment in Burma – focused mainly on the development of hydropower dams and oil and gas pipelines – has made it a key economic crutch for the ruling junta, while it has struck billion-dollar deals with the Sudanese regime to develop its oil sector.

But not all of these relationships are watertight: a separate batch of US cables leaked last week suggested that China was growing impatient with North Korea, which it described as a “spoiled child” and deliberately provocative. One Chinese ambassador went so far as to tell the US that Pyongyang was “a threat to the whole world’s security”.

In addition, the January 2009 cable claims that changing circumstances within Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burma and Iran could “have given Beijing cause to re-calibrate its previously uncritical stance toward these international outlaws”.

It says that a nuclear-armed Iran could threaten China’s energy security, while the “dysfunctional” Burmese junta was damaging the stability of a region where China holds patriarchal status. “If China’s integration into global economic and security structures continues apace, we would expect its tolerance for these sorts of disruptive players to decrease proportionately,” it continued.

But whether the changing internal dynamics of these countries will really mark any shift in Chinese relations is questionable, says regional expert Bertil Lintner.

On North Korea, he said that growing impatience with the Kim Jong-il government was obvious, but that “there is no way” it would trigger a change in policy. “It’s the same with Burma, but they’re not going to give that up – the interests they have there are still the same: to maintain status quo and stability”.

China has already poured upwards of $US8 billion into the Burmese economy this year alone, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the total amount Beijing has invested in Burma over the past two decades. In return for unparalleled access to Burmese resources, Beijing has played the political big brother to the regime.

Professor Ian Holliday, a Burma expert at the University of Hong Kong, said that this diplomatic protection would also make the Burmese junta wary of upsetting its northern neighbour.

“They [Burmese junta] too have to smell the coffee from time to time – they know there’s a Security Council veto and, even though they’ve lined up Russia as well, they’re not about to upset China.”

He added that much of the relationship stems from shared common ground between Beijing and Naypyidaw. “They both believe in state sovereignty and neither of them really wants to do anything that’s going to undermine that globally. They also both believe in some sort of authoritarian growth strategy, and they’re not too keen on democracy.”

How the leaked cables – many of which contain embarrassing, sometimes scathing, US evaluations of its foes and allies – will affect US relations is debated. The January 2009 cable acknowledges the two countries’ “growing economic interdependence” and chooses to focus on “more optimistic projections”, but warns that the US “should also gird itself for the possibility that China will fall short of today’s mostly sanguine forecasts”.

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