Will China Intervene?

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[NOTE: The junta that runs the country imposed a systematic name change several years ago, decreeing that Burma was to be called Myanmar and the capital Rangoon was to be Yangon. The opposition has never accepted these changes; neither has the U.S. government. TIME continues to use Burma and Rangoon.]

As Burmese security forces crack down hard on the monk-led protests in Rangoon over the past week, the world's best hopes of pressuring the country's military rulers to avoid further bloodshed rest with Beijing. But there is little sign, thus far, that China plans to use its position as Burma's biggest trading partner to put any pressure on the junta — or that the generals would heed Beijing's wishes even if it did demand restraint.

"I think China has very little influence; you can compare it to the influence China has over North Korea," says Zhai Kun, an expert on Southeast Asia at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. "The expectations from the West are that China has influence, but because Myanmar is a closed society, I don't think they listen to advice from the outside, including China."

At a press conference in Beijing Thursday, Jiang Yu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said, "We hope all parties continue to exercise restraint and properly handle the current issue." But when asked whether Beijing condemned the killings of protestors in Rangoon, Jiang declined to answer directly. She also criticized the foreign press for "exaggerating and hyperbolizing" allegations that China had failed to play a constructive role in resolving the conflict.

The Burmese unrest comes at a particularly sensitive time for China. The Communist Party's leadership is preparing for the congress it holds every five years, at which the standing committee of the politburo — the country's most powerful executive body — will be reshuffled and broad policies for the the next five years laid out. Tension is always high in Beijing ahead of the congress, as rival factions jockey for positions of power and for influence over policy. Instability in a neighboring and allied regime is not something the Chinese leadership wants to deal with during this delicate period. "I think they just wish the whole thing would go away," says Russell Leigh Moses, a China scholar at the Beijing Center, a private think tank.

China is a major arms supplier to the junta, and is depending on Burma in its efforts to develop a network of friendly ports along the Indian Ocean. Trade between the two countries rose to $1.46 billion in 2006, a 20% increase over the previous year. China has built bridges, power plants, stadiums and factories in Burma, which it also sees as important to its expanding search for energy supplies and raw materials.

China has certainly pressed Burma's junta to reconcile with domestic political opposition. During a meeting in Beijing earlier this month, Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan told Burma's Foreign Minister U Nyan Win that "the democracy process was in the fundamental interests of the people of Myanmar and conducive to regional peace, stability and development," according to China's state-run news service, Xinhua.

The emphasis in Beijing's comments is invariably on stability, a concept prized by the Chinese government. "We hope Myanmar can develop to improve the people's welfare and national harmony, properly deal with the domestic conflict and restore stability at an early date," Jiang said.

But when push comes to shove, Beijing has shown that it will resist any sort of outside intervention in Burma. In January, China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that called on Burma to improve its human rights record. Beijing has also helped block U.N. sanctions against the regime. "We believe that sanctions are not helpful for the situation," Wang Guangya, Beijing's ambassador to the U.N., told reporters on Wednesday.

Burma and China also share an ugly history of violent responses to mass protest. Burma's junta crushed the last major demonstrations against it in 1988, killing thousands. A year later China violently cracked down on the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. China's Communist Party continues to suppress even token opposition to its rule, and has ruthlessly attacked the Falun Gong, a spiritual practice that was able to organize 10,000 people for a 1999 protest in Beijing. It is far-fetched, Moses says, that China would now do anything to encourage "a mass democratic, religious-based" movement to overturn Burma's generals.

With reporting by Simon Elegant/Beijing