China’s Black Cat, White Cat Diplomacy
Clearly, Burma is an unreliable client for China. Until now, the junta’s failing regime has survived in the cracks of the international system, notably those formed by the mutual suspicion of its giant neighbors, China and India, and by ASEAN’s hands-off culture. But the key message of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s recent visit to Burma was not his call for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release but the signal his presence sent that those cracks of permissibility had narrowed. Ban would not have attempted his mission had China not signed off on it.
Indeed, China has of late been quietly reaching out to Burma’s opposition. Last year, during protests by Buddhist monks in Burma, China repeatedly called for restraint and backed the arrival of a U.N. special envoy. Two months ago, China signed a joint EU-ASEAN petition calling for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release. Both pleas fell on deaf ears. Now, China has stood behind Ban’s bid to end Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest.
None of this adds up to a break with Burma’s generals. Not yet. But China appears determined to explore whether there is a viable option to them. Call this China’s “Mandela Option.”