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China's chess match with Myanmar

By Jaime FlorCruz, CNN Beijing Bureau Chief
  • Myanmar is set to hold its first elections in 20 years
  • China is Myanmar's closest ally since the military coup
  • China is Myanmar's second largest trading partner
  • Analysts say Myanmar is crucial space in China's sphere of influence

"Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and served as TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing, China (CNN) -- China prides itself on its loyalty to lao pengyou (old friends) -- even to those that some Western countries consider "rogue states."

Myanmar is one of them. China's southern neighbor is an isolated state, bedeviled by economic malaise and ruled by a military junta. The country is under mounting pressure to open up and change.

Myanmar is set to hold its first elections in two decades and many are questioning the legitimacy of the vote. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed the issue at the ASEAN-U.N. summit in Hanoi last month, saying "ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and the United Nations agree on the need for a credible democratic transition and national reconciliation, including the holding of free, fair and inclusive elections."

Meanwhile, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III joined international calls for Myanmar to release Noble Laureate and pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

But China has refrained from publicly pressuring Myanmar. It has remained Myanmar's closest ally since the military coup 20 years ago that catapulted the Southeast Asian nation's generals to power.

Vote in Myanmar: Military will keep control

The two countries share a common border. They both wish to prevent ethnic unrest in their backyards.

"Part of the Myanmar side is populated by 'nationalities' led by persons of Chinese ethnicity," said Asian affairs expert and retired Filipino diplomat, Rodolfo Severino. "Every country wants its immediate neighbors to be friendly to it. China is no exception."

China is Myanmar's second largest trading partner. It is keen to tap Myanmar's mineral, timber and other natural resources needed for its booming economy, analysts say.

During a recent visit to Beijing, Than Shwe, Myanmar's military leader, signed several agreements on trade, education and health exchanges with the Chinese government. China has been the main supplier to Myanmar of military hardware and has trained many of its army personnel.

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With such leverage, many world leaders have hoped China could lean on its neighbor to soften its policies. However, as in the case with North Korea, China seems reluctant to do so.

Many times, China gave Myanmar crucial diplomatic cover. In 2007, it joined Russia in voting down a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the violent crackdown on the pro-democracy uprising, which was called the "Saffron Revolution" after the color of the robes of Buddhist monks who led the non-violent protests.

Strategically, China needs Myanmar on its side, analysts say. With its fast-growing economy, China needs access to Myanmar's rich oil and natural gas reserves.

The two neighbors have been in talks to jointly build an oil pipeline from the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan through Myanmar to a port on the Andaman Sea. When completed, it will supply part of China's energy needs while avoiding the long and potentially insecure sea route through the Malacca Strait.

"More important than access to resources is access to alternative trade routes, which is why China values pipelines from the Andaman Sea through Myanmar to southern China," said Severino, a former secretary general of ASEAN.

China has faced criticism not only for doing business with Myanmar's ruling dictators, but also for dealing with the politically controversial rulers in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Iran.

China's critics say this is pure opportunism. But Beijing says it does not wish to "interfere in the internal affairs of other countries," just as it does not wish other countries to interfere with China's, according to foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu.

"A smooth election in Myanmar is in the fundamental interest of the Myanmar people and contributes to regional peace and stability. China respects the Myanmar people's independent choice of the country's development path," Jiang said.

Political analyst Victor Gao explained China's approach: "It is time for the rest of the world to give Myanmar a break and give the country a chance to devote to economic development. Embargos and sanctions rarely work, and it is not working against Myanmar."

China, Gao argued, believes that "active engagement with Myanmar will create the overall economic and political environment to develop the country in the right direction."

China's stand on Myanmar is pure realpolitik, analysts say. As Tsinghua University professor Yan Xuetong told me in an earlier interview, "China will make decisions according to its own needs, its own standards, and its own morality and certainly international treaties and international norms, rather than American understanding."

But it may not be totally strange if the world views China, as a player in global diplomacy, like a wizened player of "weiqi."

In this ancient board game also known as "go," two players take turns positioning white or black beads on a huge chessboard marked with grids. It is a game of "encirclement and counter-encirclement," a protracted battle of wits and patience. The one who outflanks the other and secures the largest total grids -- or "territory" -- on the board, wins.

In the Chinese view, analysts say, Myanmar is crucial space in its "weiqi" chessboard -- a sphere of influence -- that it must secure in the global game of encirclement and counter-encirclement. With its strategic goal in mind, they show little angst that they may be judged by the company they keep.

Read last week's "Jaime's China": Reversing China's brain drain