If China did not have enough on its hands at the moment, one of its key allies in its naval "string of pearls" strategy – Burma – is now dealing with Western pressure to open up the country to UN relief. Commentators such as Shawn Crispin in the Asia Times are claiming that if ever there were a time for the United States to invade Burma, now is it. Well that is interesting, Shawn.
I suppose both you and I know, as we follow the China issue, that opening up Burma to the West would pretty much mark the end of Burma’s usefulness to China, and cap off a stellar few months for the West where the "peer competitor" has been routed at every conceivable turn.
Burma is an important strategic ally of China’s and claiming that the West is simply trying to alleviate a "humanitarian disaster" is disingenuous and typical of the post-Cold War rhetoric that passes as journalism these days in our media. (See F William Engdahl’s excellent article in the Asia Times or my program on Asia 2025 for more on Burma’s strategic importance to the West).
The mainstream press will run numerous articles about hundreds of thousands dead; governments will wax lyrical about their desire to assist in this time of terrible tragedy; but best of all, there will be the claims that it’s the "regime" that needs to allow the humanitarian effort to "proceed". That the numbers of dead will be greatly revised years after the tragedy, and events around the incident disputed (as in Racak, Kosovo) will be presented as historical quibbling.
For those of you who don’t know, relief efforts have long been used as a feel good way for Western missions to get into areas that otherwise might be a bit strategically sensitive.
We are supposed to be at in the midst of a War on Terror but geopolitically and strategically, the post-9/11 war has actually been on China. I suggest you ask your Member of Parliament exactly where Osama Bin Laden is at the moment. (Clearly on holiday, perhaps in Dubai where oil prices are allowing a tidy profit for the "league of democracies".)
Where he isn’t, is in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s HQ in Beijing, where the mood must be a little serious these days. Why? Well let’s look at the last few months, and what the Chinese have had to deal with.
First of all, the uprising in Tibet has spoiled the Olympic party, with human rights activists demonstrating across the globe and interrupting the ceremonial torch events that were a chance to show the world that China had arrived on the World Stage. That Tibet is strategically important and the scene of geo-political argy-bargy throughout history adds to the tense stand off – as does the fact that the Dalai Lama received a US Congressional Gold Medal last year. Reports that the US may have been involved in the Tibet unrest has only fuelled Chinese paranoia that Western powers are "At the Gates". The fear is that other provinces such as Xinjiang will also attempt some sort of separatist action, or at least be the site of unrest.
Second, they have had to deal with an Asian region that is shoring up alliances to "contain" China’s growing power. Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, Australia – these are a few of the Asian nations making sure that Uncle Sam stays in the Pacific as a warning to the growing power. The US of course assists them in purchasing very expensive military equipment, fuelling an Asian arms race which the mainstream press insists on calling a "necessary precaution" despite the fact that the weight is clearly stacked in the US’s favour. A Japan-US alliance that now co-operates on Missile Defence is a nightmare scenario for Beijing, especially as this increases the chance that in the case of a Cross Straits confrontation over Taiwan, Japan and the US will come to Taiwan’s aid.
Third, China is dealing with astronomical oil prices, a factor that slows economic growth. Energy supply is crucial for further Chinese growth, yet the CCP is dealing with the uncertainty of energy supplies and instability in the Middle East. The current flux in global security due to a myriad of internal wars means that Chinese decision-makers cannot be certain as to supply security. This is not a good position to be in especially if a "concert of democracies" decides that they will increase naval co-operation and ultimately have the power to block sea-lanes if they so desire. This would be very, very bad for the "peer competitor", and have a serious impact on China’s economic growth.
Fourth, we have the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, and an earthquake in Sichuan a region that is a key transport corridor for transporting coal from Central China. Coal of course, is the fuel of choice in China, as it is a cheap and more readily available than other fuels. Seventy per cent of China’s energy is derived from coal, so any upset to coal transport in vital areas affects the economy. The region is also home to Chinese nuclear and plutonium processing plants adding a serious security element to the disaster. China has sent 100,000 soliders to the area, with the New York Times calling it "one of the largest peacetime mobilisations by any country in recent memory".
There is also a fear that crucial dams may have suffered serious structural damage, affecting not just water supply but also China’s hydro-electric power projects. Reservoirs around the Three Gorges Dam are considered to be in a fragile state after the earthquake, and the possibility of any potential disaster scenarios involving the huge Dam would have Beijing’s leaders breaking out in an icy sweat over dinner. With the flooding in Burma wiping out rice producing regions, China must also step in and export rice to the area, as world rice prices drastically increase. The Sichuan earthquake only increases fears of a natural disaster severely affecting energy supplies thus economic and military production.
Fifth, North Korea, which has been supported by China and is important to China’s security (it is on China’s southern eastern border), has decided that it is going to allow the US to distribute "food aid" in the country with monitors being given unprecedented access to oversee its distribution. The food is going to be distributed via the UN World Food Program and "US non-governmental organisations" which have done an excellent job in the past in shoring up Washington’s foreign policy objectives. Thomas Casey, a State Department spokesperson said "There is no connection with any other issue". Really, Thomas? Now why would you have to say that? It’s enough to make me hire Team America for a little sentimental viewing.
Oh, and lastly, there is the Olympics, an event that will see thousands of athletes descend on the capital Beijing, save a terrorist strike, a political boycott a la French President Nicolas Sarkozy or natural disaster. As most of those scenarios have already played themselves out in the lead up the games, the CCP can only guess what is around the corner.
The real issue, of course, is whether the leadership can keep it together as internal and external issues weigh heavily on the political structure. A strategic misstep is all China’s adversaries need for the region to be embroiled in conflict or worse, be witness to China’s messy break-up.
Humanitarian aid for Burma masks serious geopolitical strategy by major powers, and any attempt to depict otherwise is plain historical distortion. What we can be sure of is that there is serious pressure on Beijing – and how Chinese leaders respond to this pressure will determine China’s place in the world power stakes of the 21st Century.
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