Beware the company you keep

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 November, 2010, 12:00am

The release from jail of Burma's most famous dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, is problematic for China, the closest ally of Burma's military junta. For years, China has defended this brutal regime which has impoverished what was once one of East Asia's most prosperous nations. Beijing has also stood apart from other members of the international community by opposing the sanctions imposed on the regime.

Now the whiff of change percolates through Burma and, so, what does this mean for its biggest neighbour which is so closely identified with this widely vilified regime?

Suu Kyi, a resolute fighter but also a pragmatist, has been careful not to alienate Beijing following her release. However, only those who believe that the junta can remain in power forever can be confident that, after its fall, its closest diplomatic ally and biggest trading partner will not suffer consequences.

Not least is the threat to China's impressive oil and gas projects in Burma were other nations to resume normal relations with the Southeast Asian country. In these circumstances, a democratic government would be free to focus on the nation's real economic needs as opposed to deals secured by a tiny clique with little regard for Burma's prosperity.

If China had confined its alliances merely to this one repressive regime, it would be unwise to define Chinese foreign policy as being one of befriending pariah states. But this is hardly the case.

On its own borders, China is also closely allied to the dynastic dictatorship in North Korea; in fact, this alliance entirely eclipses all other relations enjoyed by the regime in Pyongyang. In return, China has what it believes to be a stable border with Korea and access to considerable coal and mineral deposits.

This desire for access to mineral resources also partly explains why China is No1 best friend to the Robert Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, aiding and abetting attempts to defy reform in a battered coalition government which the regime was forced into forming under pressure from its neighbours, but not from China.

Elsewhere in Africa, China is allied with the grisly regime of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, currently under indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. Sudan has no other international partner quite like China, which purchases around 40 per cent of its oil and ensures that the government remains armed.

Oil also partly explains Beijing's closeness to the government in Iran, which supplies around a third of China's requirements. Not only is Beijing Iran's major defender in international forums but its closeness to the regime in Tehran greatly complicates relations with other nations, principally the United States, where the Iran issue is a constant source of friction.

China tends to defend its collection of strong alliances with these pariah regimes as being a policy of 'non-interference' in the internal affairs of other nations. Beijing seems to be arguing that it takes a neutral position and urges other states to follow its example. However, it is hard to see how a policy of neutrality can include arming the Burmese junta and supplying the Sudanese government with precisely the sort of weapons to keep the population in check.

History demonstrates that these rigidly authoritarian regimes that make a practice of terrorising their people are far from being as stable as they seem and that, when they collapse, they do so very rapidly with exceedingly messy consequences. Among these consequences is a popular upsurge of resentment against the regime's allies. This, in turn, has long-term repercussions for relations between states.

Hardened cynics proclaim the old adage that nations have no permanent allies, only permanent interests which can change at the drop of a hat. There is some truth here, but regime change in circumstances of revolution is not without consequences in international relations.

Anyone doubting this may care to look at the history of the fascist regimes which lingered in Spain and Portugal after the collapse of fascism elsewhere in Europe. These nations, devoid of allies in Europe, rapidly fell behind the rest of Western Europe and only started to catch up once the fascist governments collapsed.

The idea that morality in foreign relations is only for wimps is fortunately not shared by the majority of ordinary citizens who don't feel good about their country becoming best friends with unspeakable regimes.

China alone among the great powers is immune to internal pressure on this front and has a unique record of befriending pariah regimes.

However, the policymakers in Beijing who believe that they do so in the cause of stability should consider the warning of Kim Dae-jung, Suu Kyi's fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who famously said about regime change that 'nothing is forever'.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur