Deng Xiaoping famously said that it doesn't matter if a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice. These days, China seems to be applying Deng's logic to its neighbors: It doesn't matter if they are democratic or despotic, so long as they safeguard China's interests.
That simple premise helps explain why, after years of working with the military junta in Burma, China may now be looking to change tack. It's not that China is concerned that such a government is morally suspect; it's that Beijing worries that Burma's leaders are incompetent. And any slippage in that country's stability could have harsh consequences for China's own fortunes.
From the neighbors' side of the fence, China looks like a rising hegemon, keen to throw its weight around. The country's decisive intervention in support of the government in the recently concluded civil war in Sri Lanka -- a country outside its usual sphere of influence -- seemed to prove this.
Yet seen from Beijing, it is China's allies who at times string the country along for a ride. Two supposed subordinates in particular -- North Korea and Burma -- leave China feeling helpless to intervene, fearful that any instability abroad might upset China's delicate internal political peace. As China's rapid response to unrest in its Xinjiang region makes clear, nothing makes China's rulers more jittery than the potential of regional or border disputes to incite internal instability. With 200 people killed in the recent riots in Xinjiang, China finds unstable neighbors, and the threat of an influx of refugees, more dangerous than ever.
So the calculus behind China's regional security strategy is straightforward: If peace and prosperity among China's neighbors are not secured, then peace, prosperity, and unity at home will be put at risk.
This strategic imperative arose after China's relative success in navigating the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and 1998. The experience whetted China's appetite for regional respect, and the country began to deepen its ties with East and Southeast Asia, particularly members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). China agreed to settle its remaining territorial disputes with ASEAN members through collective mechanisms for arbitration. The country also signed ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, promising never to use force against ASEAN members. It is a structure that has suited China quite well ever since, with two nagging exceptions, North Korea and Burma.
In the first case, the survival of North Korea's regime is a key Chinese foreign-policy goal. Beijing fears the inevitable flood of refugees that would stream over its border following that country's collapse. Moreover, a divided Korea suits China's purposes, because a unified Korea could emerge as another regional heavyweight, on the magnitude of Japan. So it is no surprise that China joined the six-party talks over North Korea's nuclear program out of fear that Western sanctions might shatter the North's brittle economy. Like a bank too big to fail, North Korea poses too dire a threat for China to contemplate pushing leader Kim Jong Il very hard. That is why China's influence over North Korea appears to be so ineffective.