A surge of facts about Burma
PORNCHAI/AFP/Getty Images A quick Google search reveals that many media organizations are still reporting that China is Burma’s largest trading partner. It fits with a popular narrative about the Chinese: That they support dictatorships around the world and enable the worst kinds of human-rights abuses. In general, it’s true that the Chinese aren’t so keen ...
A quick Google search reveals that many media organizations are still reporting that China is Burma’s largest trading partner. It fits with a popular narrative about the Chinese: That they support dictatorships around the world and enable the worst kinds of human-rights abuses.
In general, it’s true that the Chinese aren’t so keen on letting human rights get in the way of ye olde national interest. But at least when it comes to official trade (the black market may be a different story), it’s just not true that China is Burma’s closest trading partner. Thailand, not China, is the number one destination for Burmese exports, according to the CIA World Factbook:
Exports – partners: Thailand 49%, India 12.8%, China 5.3%, Japan 5.2% (2006)
Thailand generates 20 percent of its electricity using Burmese natural gas, and the Thais are expanding their use of Burmese hydroelectric power. (Read all about it in today’s List: Burma’s Economic Lifelines.) But nobody seems to be focusing on the Thais for enabling the junta, instead wringing their hands about China’s mythical all-powerful influence. Which is not to say that Thailand can influence Burma’s xenophobic, paranoid rulers either.
The junta, you see, is exactly the kind of odious regime that thrives on keeping its population cut off from the international economy. With a gross domestic product of only $9.6 billion, Burma essentially has a subsistence economy like that of North Korea. The country exports very little of value—just $3.56 billion, according to the official numbers. (By comparison, the GDP of the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area was nearly $348 billion in 2005.)
What about imports? China is number one here, followed by Thailand:
Imports – partners: China 34.6%, Thailand 21.8%, Singapore 16.2%, Malaysia 4.7%, South Korea 4.3%
But again, we’re talking about 34.6 percent of a very small number, merely $1.98 billion annually. Sure, China could cut off its weapons sales, but the junta would find other willing sellers. Do people really want China to cut off its exports of “fabric, petroleum products, fertilizer, plastics, machinery, transport equipment; cement, construction materials, crude oil; food products, edible oil” to the Burmese? The already impressive black market would simply expand.
Another misconception I’ve seen is about Burma’s energy resources. Burma has a relatively small amount of natural gas, but the truth is, Burma is a net importer of oil. The rising price of imported diesel and gasoline is what prompted the “Saffron Revolution” in the first place, remember?
Bottom line: Be very skeptical when reading accounts of how China, or any country, can put meaningful pressure on the junta. To say nothing of this insanity from Bill Kristol, who calls for “limited military actions, overt or covert, against the regime’s infrastructure”.
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