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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 September 2007, 01:20 GMT 02:20 UK
China's crucial role in Burma crisis
By Jonathan Marcus
Diplomatic correspondent, BBC News, New York

Monks protesting in Rangoon on 26 September
Attacks on the monks by security forces have inflamed public anger
This year's session of the UN General Assembly has been overshadowed by the worsening political crisis in Burma.

It figured prominently in the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's opening speech.

US President George Bush announced a tightening of US economic sanctions and a ministerial meeting involving the Americans and the 27 European Union countries called for UN Security Council action.

An informal gathering of the Security Council ensued.

It heard a briefing on the crisis from Ban Ki-moon's special representative or envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, just before he left for the region, urgently despatched by the secretary general, in the hope that he can get into Burma and speak to all sides.

But apart from registering concern and displeasure it is hard to see what practical impact these steps will have.

Chinese influence

The US and the EU have long imposed a variety of sanctions against Burma's military regime but, paradoxically, this means that they have relatively few levers to pull to influence Rangoon.

The countries that matter more to Burma are India and Russia; both of whom have trading relations with the military regime.

Russia even plans to sell Burma a nuclear research reactor.

But it is Burma's biggest neighbour, China, that plays the most crucial role, and as a permanent member of the UN Security Council it can help to limit the relative isolation that the Rangoon regime faces.

Wang Guangya, China's Ambassador to the United Nations arrives for an emergency closed-door meeting of the Security Council
China's UN ambassador said sanctions would not be helpful
Both China and Russia, for that matter, vetoed a UN Security Council resolution last January that was critical of Burma's rulers.

China has key strategic interests in the stability of Burma and accordingly strong ties with Rangoon.

This has prompted the Indian government to seek stronger ties of its own with Burma's military regime in order to counter-balance China's growing influence.

Energy resources

It is Burma's energy resources - oil and off-shore gas fields - that make it such an attractive partner for Russian, Chinese, Indian and even South Korean firms.

The scramble for Burma's energy resources make it almost impossible to isolate the regime.

Indeed, over time, as US and European ties to Burma have declined, those of China, Russia and India have increased.

China, then, is very much the key player; but Beijing faces conflicting pressures.

It has to match its energy and strategic interests - access to the Indian Ocean for example - with its desire for stability and its concern for its own reputation abroad, especially with the Beijing Olympics fast approaching.

Wednesday's informal Security Council meeting served in part to gauge the Beijing government's current position.

China's UN ambassador, Wang Guangya, reaffirmed China's predictable position that this crisis was not a threat to international peace and that sanctions would not be helpful.

Held accountable

Formal action is one thing. But might China's concern with regional stability encourage Beijing to whisper some tough words in the Burmese leadership's ear?

That is clearly what Western diplomats are hoping for.

In the short-term, sanctions may not have a great impact on Burma's rulers.

But efforts are underway to impress upon them that there could be long-term consequences if the crisis spirals out of control.

The British ambassador to the UN, John Sawers, echoing a comment from the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, issued a blunt warning to Burma's generals, noting, as he put it, that "the age of impunity is dead".

This is an explicit threat to the country's military rulers that they will ultimately be held accountable for their actions.

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