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Chinese dilemma over Burma protests

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Buddhist monks pray at Shwedagon pagoda during a protest against the military government on Monday, Sept. 24, 2007
China has kept its distance from the unfolding events in Burma
China, which has become one of Burma's main supporters over recent years, has remained largely silent about the current protests.

Beijing is traditionally reluctant to speak publicly about the internal affairs of other countries.

But, despite this, there are signs that Chinese politicians are anxious to help stabilise the political situation in Burma.

They perhaps do not want to tarnish China's image ahead of next year's Beijing Olympics by appearing to support any military crackdown in Burma.

Officially, China is playing down its ability to influence events in Burma.

"China always adopts a policy of non-interference," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu at a regular press briefing.

It is in China's long-term business interests to make sure its neighbour is stable

"As Myanmar's (Burma's) neighbour, China hopes to see stability and economic development in Myanmar," she added.

"The stability of Myanmar serves the interest of Myanmar itself and the interests of the international community."

But China's ties with the military junta ruling Burma go deep, and include expanding trade links, the sale of military hardware and diplomatic support.

Energy corridor

"In the last decade or two, with the improving economic situation in China and the increasing isolation of Burma, China has become increasingly important to the regime," said a spokesman for the Asian Human Rights Commission, based in Hong Kong.

The relationship between Burma and China is mainly based on trade. Burma, which has very little industry itself, imports manufactured goods from China.

"If you walk around the streets in Burma, particularly in the north, the overwhelming majority of manufactured goods are Chinese made," said the commission spokesman, who regularly visits Burma.

That trade is reflected in official Chinese figures, which show that exports from China to Burma were up by 50% in the first seven months of this year. They were worth $964m (479m).

A monk shouts through a loudspeaker in Rangoon on 24 September 2007
Beijing does not want to be associated with any crackdown

Burma mainly exports raw materials, such as timber and gems, to China.

According to research published a few days ago by EarthRights International, 26 Chinese multinational firms were involved in 62 major projects in Burma over the last decade.

These include the construction of oil and gas pipelines stretching 2,380km (1,479 miles) from Burma's Arakan coast to China's Yunnan Province.

The rights group, based in the United States and South East Asia, says this is to help China import oil and gas from the Middle East, Africa and South America.

Official Chinese figures say total imports from Burma amounted to just $146m in the first seven months of this year.

But others doubt the accuracy of these figures. Rights group Global Witness estimated timber exports to China alone were worth $350m in 2005 - most of it illegally exported.

China also sells Burma military hardware, according to the Asian Human Rights Commission.

And Beijing used its veto in the United Nations' Security Council in January to block criticism of Burma's military junta.

'Restore stability'

But despite these deep links, China has shown signs of promoting reform in Burma over recent months.

Tang Jiaxuan (r) meets Burmese Foreign Minister U Nyan Win on 13 September 2007
Earlier this month China urged Burma to maintain stability

In June this year it hosted low-profile talks in Beijing between representatives from the US and Burma.

And earlier this month, senior Chinese diplomat Tang Jiaxuan had some advice for visiting Burmese Foreign Minister U Nyan Win.

"China whole-heartedly hopes that Myanmar (Burma) will push forward a democracy process that is appropriate for the country," he said, according to state-run Xinhua news agency.

Tang, who acts as a foreign policy adviser, said China "hoped Myanmar would restore internal stability as soon as possible, properly handle issues and actively promote national reconciliation".

China is perhaps wary of backing a regime that might order a violent crackdown of protesters ahead of next year's Beijing Olympics.

Beijing is extremely sensitive to criticism about any of its foreign policies before the event is held. They do not want anything to spoil the games.

Chinese officials have already tried to limit criticism of Beijing's support for Sudan by backing a UN plan that aims to bring peace to the African country's troubled Darfur region.

And, as the Asian Human Rights Commission spokesman said, it is in China's long-term business interests to make sure its neighbour is stable.



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