Can China remain friends with tyrants? – Michael Vatikiotis

From The Straits Times (Singapore):

Much has been made of China’s quiet diplomacy, which helped bring a recalcitrant and now nuclear back to the negotiating table. Beijing’s successful leverage over Pyongyang suggests that China’s strong adherence to the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign nations is loosening. If so, this will have important ramifications for the rest of Asia, perhaps critically altering the geopolitical dynamics.

For the past six decades, China has lived by – and expected regional neighbours to adhere to – the much-vaunted Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence first propounded by the late Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in 1953 during talks between China and India over Tibet. Mutual non-interference in one another’s internal affairs was one of the five bedrock principles.

Although the idea is pretty much the Treaty of Westphalia with Chinese characteristics, China’s diplomatic dogmatism has helped Asia fend off too much outside scrutiny. For one thing, China has stood in the way of effective intervention in the region’s other reclusive totalitarian state, .

The military rulers of Myanmar can effectively hold out against international pressure to accelerate progress towards pluralistic so long as China and, to some extent, India and Russia, prop up the economy without asking awkward political questions.

What then has Myanmar’s obstinate military junta made of the fact that in the wake of Pyongyang’s nuclear test, China effectively cut off energy supplies and strangled the financial lifeblood of the regime? Who would have expected China to throw solid weight behind economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations? Myanmar has reason to be concerned because China failed to prevent the Security Council from putting the political situation there on its official agenda.

Of course there are those who will point to exceptional circumstances: North Korea lies along China’s borders and is a strategic priority. For the most part, this argument runs, China isn’t interested in meddling overseas because of much greater challenges at home. But times have changed for China. As for any big power, an active foreign policy will be a necessity, not a luxury, for China. Therefore, it seems logical to expect more diplomatic intervention, not less, from Beijing.

One immediate legacy of the North Korean episode will be heightened expectations. Already, against the backdrop of the Sino-African summit in Beijing, there have been calls for China to exert a similar amount of diplomatic muscle in Africa.

‘In recent days, we’ve seen that Chinese pressure has brought North Korea back to the negotiating table in the wake of its nuclear test,’ ran a statement from Human Rights Watch in New York. ‘We hope similar efforts will be made with countries in Africa where the situation is also catastrophic.

‘Beijing is under specific pressure to back plans for a United Nations peacekeeping force in Darfur, where China now owns 40 per cent of oil production facilities. China has blocked several United Nations resolutions aimed at forcing the government in Khartoum to prevent further violence in the Darfur region. But now Chinese officials are saying they have been working behind the scenes to improve the situation. And as if to set some sort of precedent, China is planning on sending a sizeable force to reinforce the UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon.

All the same, the scene in Beijing of Chinese President Hu Jintao and ’s President Robert Mugabe toasting an ‘unshakeable’ friendship hardly inspires confidence in China’s desire to exert pressure on a country where most Western countries have imposed sanctions because of human rights abuses. Nor does the recent visit by Myanmar’s Prime Minister Soe Win to China appear to have resulted in any move to cut off trade and withhold aid unless Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is released from house arrest.

So perhaps it is premature to imagine that China’s dealings with errant North Korea portend a tectonic shift away from non-interference to constructive intervention. Tyrants in Asia and Africa can probably rest assured that if they have trouble in the West, or at the United Nations, there is always China to turn to for friendship – especially if there is oil or natural gas in the mix.

The real question is how much longer China can juggle its traditional default position governing international relations with its new role as a global power. One key test lies ahead: what stance China takes on Iran’s nuclear programme, which is also before the UN Security Council. The world will be watching and expecting China to behave like a responsible stakeholder.

The writer is based in Singapore as regional representative of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

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