The Chinese state-owned company contracted to build the controversial Myitsone hydropower dam in Kachin State has protested loudly against a decision by Burmese President Thein Sein to suspend work on the project, warning that the action could have legal consequences.
In an interview with the state-run China Daily last Monday, Lu Qizhou, president of the China Power Investment Corporation, called the decision “bewildering,” noting that in February of this year, Thein Sein had urged the company to speed up its work on the project.
What he didn't mention, of course, was that at the time, Thein Sein was merely the figurehead prime minister of a widely reviled military junta deeply beholden to China for its hold on power. Now, six months into his term as president of a new quasi-civilian government, he is trying to recast himself as a reformist leader, and not just the latest face of military oppression in Burma.
While many still have their doubts about how far Thein Sein’s government is willing to go in breaking with the past, his announcement that he would respond to the will of the people and halt work on the dam, at least for the remainder of his term in office, was welcomed as a sign that perhaps Burma is finally moving in the right direction after all.
What made the decision all the more remarkable is the fact that it could seriously jeopardize relations with China, a country that has used its international clout to shield Burma’s military rulers from the consequences of ruling with an iron fist.
It is richly ironic, then, that China now feels that it is being unfairly treated by the very people that it has aided in committing a long list of crimes against their own citizens—not only indirectly, by giving them diplomatic cover and the economic means to ride out decades of punitive sanctions, but also directly, by supplying them with weapons of mass oppression.
China says that its foreign policy is based on “win-win” arrangements that fully respect the sovereignty of other countries. Its thinking, however, appears to be based on the notion that governments, no matter how illegitimate, should be regarded as monolithic embodiments of this sovereignty—much as the Chinese Communist Party arrogates to itself the right to speak for China’s interests in perpetuity.
But China’s preoccupation with the “stability” of states is at odds with the reality of a world that often seems to be in constant turmoil. To the extent that it does recognize that there are governments that have a tenuous claim to power at best, it seems to regard this as a situation to be exploited, rather than as a problem to be corrected.
Propping up reprehensible regimes, particularly those with control over natural resources, has become a cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy. Its practice of embracing pariah regimes to cut deals highly favorable to China’s interests, but not to those of local people, can best be described as amoral opportunism at its worst.
Of course, China does not confine itself to dealing with dictators. Indeed, it would be difficult to think of a country that doesn't have trade ties with the world's emerging economic superpower. This fact alone has enabled it to exert its influence in ways that belie its claims that it never interferes in the internal affairs of other countries.
In Africa, for instance, Beijing threatened to cut diplomatic ties with Zambia, a resource-rich nation that has received some US $3 billion in Chinese investment over the past three years, if it elected Michael Sata, an outspoken critic of China's outsized role in the country's economy, as president. But China's threat, and its strong backing of the pro-Chinese incumbent, backfired last month when Sata—who described Chinese investors as “infesters”—became the first opposition leader in 20 years to win the presidency.
China was similarly wrong-footed in Libya, where state-controlled Chinese arms manufacturers offered to sell more than $200 million in weapons and ammunition to Muammar Gaddafi in the months leading up to the collapse of his regime, in violation of UN sanctions.
None of this is to suggest that China can't play an important role in responsibly helping other countries to develop their resources or maintain political stability.