China Propping Up Dictatorships

Tim Johnson of Knight Ridder takes a look today at how China has been propping up the military junta in Burma (now, of course, called Myanmar by those who run the country) through trade and other economic ties:

China has a habit of coddling repressive regimes. In places such as Sudan, Iran, Zimbabwe and Myanmar, all under some type of international sanction, China has stepped in with diplomatic protection, usually in exchange for market access for its goods or a stake in oil fields or other natural resources.

Yet in remote corners such as this one, snug against the hilly frontier with the nation once known as Burma, China is resisting global efforts to end a decades-old military dictatorship. How China deals with Myanmar reflects how it wields its power in the early 21st century.

It seems more than a little bizarre to refer to the Myanmar government as a “decades-old military dictatorship” without noting that the junta’s currently carrying out genocide—or something very, very close to it—against ethnic minorities in the eastern part of the country. (See Nicholas Thompson’s excellent report in Legal Affairs last year about one man’s attempts to raise awareness about this issue.) All the same, this is a serious issue.

Both the United States and Europe have never been fantastic about promoting human rights around the world—quite to the contrary in many places. The rise of China, though, can very seriously set back attempts to put positive pressure repressive regimes, as the Financial Times reported a few weeks ago in a look at China’s engagement with Africa, noting among other things that in exchange for access to natural resources, China has been willing to offer “military assistance and arms, providing equipment to countries such as Zimbabwe and Sudan where other suppliers are barred by embargoes.” (The conservative Heritage Foundation has a good backgrounder on Chinese activities in Africa.)

Indeed, it’s no longer clear how Western powers can use trade and other economic incentives as a tool to promote human rights in Africa—if that even is ever the intention (and often it isn’t). In 1999, for instance, the World Bank helped to finance a new oil pipeline in Chad with the caveat that 10 percent of revenues would be set aside for health and education. Recently, however, the Chad government violated the agreement by reallocating the resources to, among other things, defense spending—in part because of increasing skirmishes with Sudanese militias on its border, a conflict that has, in part, flared out of control because of international inaction. The World Bank responded by suspending hundreds of millions of dollars worth of loans. Chinese investors probably wouldn’t have done the same. So what can we expect the Chadian government to think about next time they need to go somewhere for financing?