Kerry Brown: Why won't the Chinese make Burma accept the aid?

Despite the post-cyclone suffering, the junta in Rangoon is turning down most aid from Western NGOs, and its most powerful neighbour has been complicit as the death toll mounts. But Beijing's concern for her own reputation may yet open the doors

When around 100,000 of your people have been killed by a natural calamity, with an estimated doubling of that amount when the final numbers of fatalities are known, you would have thought that a government, of whatever political complexion, would react to offers of outside help with alacrity.

But the military junta in Burma has so far resisted accessing help from international donors and aid agents. Pressure has been applied through the UN and the EU, and the US has called accepting help at this time a "no brainer". But Burma's government has so far been uncooperative. Its 46-year-old policy of extreme isolationism continues unabated. So what about Burma's friends? China is the country which has most influence there. After all, it seems to have been the Chinese who discouraged the junta from adopting too hard a line when, last September, monks took to the streets of several Burmese cities to protest against the country's economic devastation.

Could they not apply similar pressure and encourage the junta allow in the aid? They could, discreetly, but do they want to? (And if they are already doing so, it has not been sufficient to make an impact.) Beijing has big interests in Burma, from where it gets the oil and gas its economy is hungry for. It invests there. The Chinese Prime Minister, the amiable Wen Jiabao, had reportedly told the Burmese earlier in the year that China did not want an unstable neighbour on its doorstep. Four nuclear powers (India, Pakistan, Russia and possibly North Korea) crowded round its borders was quite enough to worry about.

This desire for regional stability will be at the front of China's considerations as it responds to the impact of this crisis on Burma. It knows better than most what the regime is doing, but it uses this in ways that are very firmly tied to China's self-interest.

This is not to say that images of the suffering of people in other countries during a time like this do not elicit the same sympathy among the Chinese population as they do elsewhere. During the tsunami in 2004, for example, China gave aid to the affected countries, and offered humanitarian help and assistance, and yesterday it delivered 58 tonnes of its own aid to Burma. But charity and philanthropy operate differently in China. While China's reforms over the past 30 years have lifted many hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, it is still a poor country per capita, as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) pointed out, with an average GDP of $2,100 (£1,080) per head. Quite rationally, for many Chinese, charity begins at home. Thus aid offered anywhere has to have a specific purpose, one that serves national self-interest.

Chinese aid in Africa does just that. Talk of its being a giver of untied aid is simply wrong. China does not aid countries that recognise Taiwan (there are five in Africa); and on giving aid it implicitly expects "friendliness" from the recipient countries, through entities such as the UN or the IMF. African leaders such as the President of Senegal may say that Chinese aid is given more quickly, and more effectively than aid from the West. Indeed, the World Bank admits its assessment processes are horribly complex. But even if the real cost is written very faintly, there is a price tag. China's aid giving is highly strategic, and fits with an overall soft diplomacy policy to improve its international standing.

This relates to a crucial difference with Chinese aid. China operates as a giver of aid almost entirely as a state actor. It is the Chinese government that is giving aid, rather than Chinese NGOs or charities. The international aspect of the latter's work is very small: they operate almost solely domestically. There is no Chinese version of Oxfam. Money from China for relief and assistance is money from the Chinese government – and that means money sanctioned by the Communist Party.

So to the Chinese Communist Party Burma is a country of great strategic importance, rich in raw materials. The Party will see a country in which it has a unique level of useful influence. It will also see a country that is becoming strongly reliant on Chinese investment and support. The more hard-nosed in the Politburo and the upper reaches of the Chinese government, well-versed in the arts of realpolitik, will see a unique opportunity that might come from a monopoly of aid to Burma. For them, the regime's blocking of European and American assistance isn't wholly unwelcome.

Their mindset will be that such assistance, wherever it comes from (even an NGO, with no evident state links), should be regarded with suspicion and must the political sanction of the authorities in the originating country. They will believe that it must be motivated by underlying political strategies. In the case of Burma, this would be to continue the pressure on the Burmese government to reform, thereby increasing Western influence there. Abroad, China operates ina radically different way from how China behaves domestically. Of the world's top 10 economies, it is the only one that isn't a democracy.

Just like last September, though, there is a silver lining. Back then, the Burmese government seemed to listen for once. And the Chinese, as they have in North Korea, took a more proactive stance because, as never before, they care about their reputation. The UK's Department for International Development and China are currently working together on aid projects in some African countries. China is as keen to learn about more technically effective aid giving, as it is about making good economic investments abroad. Seeking partnership with China in this area, like so many others, might be more fruitful than it at first appears. China does not wish to be involved with issues that impact on its image – as it showed when it shifted its position last year in Darfur and started putting pressure on the the Sudanese government.

It also understands, as well as other governments, that the current Burmese regime is less and less sustainable. The Burmese government may well find that the price tag for aid from China this time is pretty similar to that for aid from the West – change, or we walk away.

Dr Kerry Brown is associate fellow on Chatham House's Asia programme