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

Share
Related Topics

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Web Developer

£350 p/d (Contract): Guru Careers: A Software Developer / Web Developer (PHP /...

Recruitment Genius: Financial Controller

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Head Porter / Concierge

£16000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Credit Controller

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The UCAS clearing house call centre in Cheltenham, England  

Ucas should share its data on students from poor backgrounds so we can get a clearer picture of social mobility

Conor Ryan
A study of 16 young women performing light office work showed that they were at risk of being over-chilled by air conditioning in summer  

It's not just air conditioning that's guilty of camouflage sexism

Mollie Goodfellow
Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
10 best sun creams for kids

10 best sun creams for kids

Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

Tate Sensorium

New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

Remember Ashton Agar?

The No 11 that nearly toppled England
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks