China’s Black Cat, White Cat Diplomacy

Why Beijing is losing patience with its dysfunctional allies.


Deng Xiaoping famously said that it doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice. These days, China seems to be applying Deng’s logic to its neighbors: It doesn’t matter if they are democratic or despotic, so long as they safeguard China’s interests.

That simple premise helps explain why, after years of working with the military junta in Burma, China may now be looking to change tack. It’s not that China is concerned that such a government is morally suspect; it’s that Beijing worries that Burma’s leaders are incompetent. And any slippage in that country’s stability could have harsh consequences for China’s own fortunes.

From the neighbors’ side of the fence, China looks like a rising hegemon, keen to throw its weight around. The country’s decisive intervention in support of the government in the recently concluded civil war in Sri Lanka — a country outside its usual sphere of influence — seemed to prove this.

Yet seen from Beijing, it is China’s allies who at times string the country along for a ride. Two supposed subordinates in particular — North Korea and Burma — leave China feeling helpless to intervene, fearful that any instability abroad might upset China’s delicate internal political peace. As China’s rapid response to unrest in its Xinjiang region makes clear, nothing makes China’s rulers more jittery than the potential of regional or border disputes to incite internal instability. With 200 people killed in the recent riots in Xinjiang, China finds unstable neighbors, and the threat of an influx of refugees, more dangerous than ever.

So the calculus behind China’s regional security strategy is straightforward: If peace and prosperity among China’s neighbors are not secured, then peace, prosperity, and unity at home will be put at risk.

This strategic imperative arose after China’s relative success in navigating the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and 1998. The experience whetted China’s appetite for regional respect, and the country began to deepen its ties with East and Southeast Asia, particularly members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). China agreed to settle its remaining territorial disputes with ASEAN members through collective mechanisms for arbitration. The country also signed ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, promising never to use force against ASEAN members. It is a structure that has suited China quite well ever since, with two nagging exceptions, North Korea and Burma.

In the first case, the survival of North Korea’s regime is a key Chinese foreign-policy goal. Beijing fears the inevitable flood of refugees that would stream over its border following that country’s collapse. Moreover, a divided Korea suits China’s purposes, because a unified Korea could emerge as another regional heavyweight, on the magnitude of Japan. So it is no surprise that China joined the six-party talks over North Korea’s nuclear program out of fear that Western sanctions might shatter the North’s brittle economy. Like a bank too big to fail, North Korea poses too dire a threat for China to contemplate pushing leader Kim Jong Il very hard. That is why China’s influence over North Korea appears to be so ineffective.

Resentful that its hands are tied with regard to North Korea, China would like to prevent its other supposed client, Burma, from securing the same leverage. Although Burma has often been seen as part of China’s so-called "string of pearls" policy, an attempt to build naval and intelligence bases around the Indian Ocean, the benefits of those strategic assets have come at a price. Indeed, recent weeks have shown China to be stealthily exploring the possibility that jailed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi might govern Burma as a more reliable, and perhaps more pliable, neighbor than Burma’s junta does.

As the situation stands today, Burma’s lawless borders permit all sorts of poisons — not just insurgency, but drugs and AIDS — to enter China. The trade in opium and heroin into China, which is partly fostered by some of Burma’s ruling generals and partly conducted by the rebel armies the junta has failed to suppress in decades of fighting, brought drug addiction into China’s southern provinces, where ethnic minorities are clustered. Shared needles from that plague produced China’s first HIV epidemic.

Clearly, Burma is an unreliable client for China. Until now, the junta’s failing regime has survived in the cracks of the international system, notably those formed by the mutual suspicion of its giant neighbors, China and India, and by ASEAN’s hands-off culture. But the key message of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s recent visit to Burma was not his call for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release but the signal his presence sent that those cracks of permissibility had narrowed. Ban would not have attempted his mission had China not signed off on it.

Indeed, China has of late been quietly reaching out to Burma’s opposition. Last year, during protests by Buddhist monks in Burma, China repeatedly called for restraint and backed the arrival of a U.N. special envoy. Two months ago, China signed a joint EU-ASEAN petition calling for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release. Both pleas fell on deaf ears. Now, China has stood behind Ban’s bid to end Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest.

None of this adds up to a break with Burma’s generals. Not yet. But China appears determined to explore whether there is a viable option to them. Call this China’s "Mandela Option."

The United States and Britain tacitly backed apartheid South Africa because they feared chaos would erupt if power were transferred to the black majority. Yet, when anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela emerged from imprisonment, he forged a regime that offered better long-term protection for U.S. and British interests than the apartheid regime ever could. For China, Aung Sang Suu Kyi might offer a similarly safe alternative to a regime unable to grapple with, or confine, its own domestic pathologies. At least, as Deng might say, Aung San Suu Kyi may be a cat worth having around China’s backyard.

Wen Liao is chairwoman of Longford Advisors, a political, economic, and business consultancy.