China's Black Cat, White Cat Diplomacy

Why Beijing is losing patience with its dysfunctional allies.

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.

Resentful that its hands are tied with regard to North Korea, China would like to prevent its other supposed client, Burma, from securing the same leverage. Although Burma has often been seen as part of China's so-called "string of pearls" policy, an attempt to build naval and intelligence bases around the Indian Ocean, the benefits of those strategic assets have come at a price. Indeed, recent weeks have shown China to be stealthily exploring the possibility that jailed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi might govern Burma as a more reliable, and perhaps more pliable, neighbor than Burma's junta does.

As the situation stands today, Burma's lawless borders permit all sorts of poisons -- not just insurgency, but drugs and AIDS -- to enter China. The trade in opium and heroin into China, which is partly fostered by some of Burma's ruling generals and partly conducted by the rebel armies the junta has failed to suppress in decades of fighting, brought drug addiction into China's southern provinces, where ethnic minorities are clustered. Shared needles from that plague produced China's first HIV epidemic.

Clearly, Burma is an unreliable client for China. Until now, the junta's failing regime has survived in the cracks of the international system, notably those formed by the mutual suspicion of its giant neighbors, China and India, and by ASEAN's hands-off culture. But the key message of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's recent visit to Burma was not his call for Aung San Suu Kyi's release but the signal his presence sent that those cracks of permissibility had narrowed. Ban would not have attempted his mission had China not signed off on it.

Indeed, China has of late been quietly reaching out to Burma's opposition. Last year, during protests by Buddhist monks in Burma, China repeatedly called for restraint and backed the arrival of a U.N. special envoy. Two months ago, China signed a joint EU-ASEAN petition calling for Aung San Suu Kyi's release. Both pleas fell on deaf ears. Now, China has stood behind Ban's bid to end Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest.

None of this adds up to a break with Burma's generals. Not yet. But China appears determined to explore whether there is a viable option to them. Call this China's "Mandela Option."

The United States and Britain tacitly backed apartheid South Africa because they feared chaos would erupt if power were transferred to the black majority. Yet, when anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela emerged from imprisonment, he forged a regime that offered better long-term protection for U.S. and British interests than the apartheid regime ever could. For China, Aung Sang Suu Kyi might offer a similarly safe alternative to a regime unable to grapple with, or confine, its own domestic pathologies. At least, as Deng might say, Aung San Suu Kyi may be a cat worth having around China's backyard.



A Hollow Victory for Iraq

How the militants are celebrating the U.S. withdrawal.

Last week's "National Sovereignty Day" was a euphoric one for Iraq. Men, women, and children flocked into the streets and cried tears of joy, celebrating the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi towns and cities -- the first phase of the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement that could see foreign forces out of the country by the end of 2011. That same week, Baghdad held its first postwar oil auction. Oil giants took part in a televised bidding round, hoping to claim a piece of the country's estimated 115 billion barrels of reserves. Iraq, it seems, is starting to look more and more like a sovereign state capable of managing its own affairs.

Appearances, however, can be deceiving. Hiding behind Iraq's apparent independence are the country's militants, waiting and poised for the opportunities a U.S. withdrawal could now permit.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's decision to prematurely coin June 30 as National Sovereignty Day was a weak attempt to disguise this unavoidable reality. U.S. troops will be situated in military bases technically "outside" urban areas, but they will remain nearby, even visible from urban centers. U.S. soldiers will still patrol the streets with their Iraqi counterparts; U.S. logistical support will continue; and U.S. training and mentoring teams will be guarded by their own combat soldiers. Moreover, the all-essential behind-the-scenes network of U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism experts will keep providing surveillance and mobile interception data. All of these "on-duty" U.S. forces have the right to defend themselves militarily when operating in Iraqi cities.

The prime minister is keen to claim the withdrawal as a victory for himself. But if anything, the troop phaseout is a victory for the militants, who are desperately but defiantly hanging on in volatile areas such as Mosul, Diyala, and Kirkuk. Mosul in particular has been a hotbed of terrorist activity since 2003, but it is also where U.S. efforts have led to an improved security situation. Attacks there now amount to about 5 per day, compared with the daily 20 to 30 of previous years. It might seem logical to keep U.S. combat troops in place to hold those gains. The opposite has taken place, however, and the consequences might be showing: 34 people were killed there today in a suicide bomb attack.

Maliki insists that Iraqi soldiers and police officers are up to the task of stopping al Qaeda in Iraq, as well as the Sunni and Shiite insurgencies. In truth, the country's security forces have yet to make their mark in any major operation. Even the 2008 "Charge of the Knights" operation against Shiite militias in Basra that won Iraqi troops local respect would have been a brutal defeat had it not been for U.S. intervention. It was this U.S. presence that eventually reclaimed the streets and handed peace back to the people.

By insisting that U.S. troops exit the main stage despite all this, Maliki has put politics first. The prime minister's eye is on national elections scheduled for the end of the year. Maliki knows that his "repulsion of the occupiers" could win him political clout and campaign ammunition. He enjoys little support in Mosul, which is perhaps why it has failed to warrant the same urgent and decisive security operation we saw in Shiite-dominated Basra in 2008. For the militants, Mosul consequently became a place where they can regroup, reinvigorate morale, and capitalize on an exposed, vulnerable Iraqi security force.

Mosul also constitutes a danger zone because of growing tensions between Arabs and Kurds. Today, that animosity is so intense that just one nasty exchange could spark a wider Arab-Kurd conflict that could derail the whole country. Previous eruptions were tamed only by U.S. mediation -- and the militants know that. Whether U.S. forces will be ready to arbitrate disputes in the future remains to be seen.

Iraq's leaders are running from the reality that Iraq is still a divided nation unable to handle its security challenges. The troop withdrawal masks this fact, but the facade of unity is sure to crack. Political reconciliation is the only way to stability, but Iraq's leaders shy away from admitting that this will be contingent on U.S. diplomatic intervention or the presence of troops to act as a buffer.

The war in Iraq, a military and political one, is far from being won. The terrorists and insurgents are down but not yet out. The images of joyous Iraqis, broadcast into living rooms around the world, were little more than a skillfully orchestrated show of self-denial disguised in nationalism. It's a kind of posturing that even Saddam might have been proud of.

Ranj Alaaldin is a political researcher and analyst specializing in the Middle East.