Send China to Burma

Dr. Steven Taylor noted earlier in the week that the SLORC junta in Burma (sorry, no Myanmar here) has agreed to receive aid but not aid workers.  Dr. T notes that this is par for the course in dictatorships:

One of the tried and true (and tragic) behaviors of hardline dictatorships is to reaction to internal disasters as if either they didn’t happen (something that is increasingly difficult to do these days) or to downplay the need for help from the outside (if not to reject it outright). It has to do with control (of information as well as what the population might learn) as well, I suspect, with embarrassment over the state of the country. No doubt there is a healthy dose of xenophobia thrown in for good measure.

The shroud being drawn across the disaster relief effort by the junta naturally creates a problem for donor countries, as there are zero guarantees that humanitarian aid will (a) go to the victims of Cyclone Nargis, (b) not be used politically by the government, and (c) can actually be delivered in a prompt and effective manner.

To an extent, the junta’s policy is understandable from the perspective of a hyper-paranoid autocratic elite which has almost no international friends and sees the crisis situation as a potential opening for outsiders intent on toppling the regime.  The human cost of this need for total control is difficult to estimate — surely it will add thousands to the final death toll from the storm — but SLORC likely looks to examples such as the North Korean famine as assurance that a hardline regime can remain in power despite massive loss of life.

So, what should the UN and the West do to make sure that relief aid can actually get to devastated Burmese communities?  They might want to call on China.

While an international pariah, SLORC, like the regimes in Sudan, Zimbabwe, and North Korea, has a significant ally in Beijing.  Westerners have thus far unsuccessfully tried to pressure China to change its friendly policies towards the Burmese government.  They ought to learn by now that China will always refuse to implement policies that might run contrary to the interests of one of its client states.  That said, while nothing will sever the Sino-Burmese relationship, the international community might be able to persuade China to put boots on the ground in Burma as part of the relief effort.  SLORC trusts China, after all, and is not likely to see Chinese relief workers as a security threat.

China might not agree to be the West’s proxy, but the country’s relatively recent history in providing relief operations suggests an openness to the idea.  Bringing Beijing on board would require illustrating the following benefits to Hu Jintao and his foreign policy hands:

  • Leading a significant relief effort will provide good PR for the Chinese government in advance of the Olympics and in the wake of the Tibet riots.
  • China, by distributing aid, could help stabilize Burma (and help SLORC stay in power).
  • Western countries could provide the bulk of the material cost, and even some of the air- and sealift, leaving China with the cost of manpower, which is significantly less than Western manpower costs.

Many in the West will be left scratching their heads and wondering where the good side is in this proposal.  China, a sometimes-adversary, comes out ahead, while the SLORC emerge unscathed and Western countries foot most of the bill.  Yet, as we watch the news from Burma, we cannot underestimate the scale of the tragedy nor the urgency of the situation:  between 20,000 and 100,000 already dead, millions displaced, and tens of thousands more threatened by malnourishment, disease, and floodwaters.  This is a rare circumstance where the lesser of two evils is easy to determine.

The question is, will any leaders in the West or the UN step forward and ask China to go to Burma?