Has China Lost Myanmar?

As Myanmar’s messy democracy turns to the West, Beijing debates stirring up ethnic tensions to rile the government and maintain its leverage.

The rapid changes in Myanmar since President Thein Sein began democratic reforms in 2011 present China with a problem. For decades, China had a cozy relationship with its authoritarian neighbor, enjoying a near-monopoly on its natural resources and foreign policy. But now, Myanmar is a messy quasi-democracy, whose people resent Beijing for its past support of the junta and its economic exploitation of their country. And Myanmar's still a threat to regional stability: China sent troops to the two countries' border in early January because of fighting between the Myanmar government and rebel groups -- if things get worse it could spill into Chinese territory. 

China can no longer count on Myanmar as its strategic corridor into the Indian Ocean, or as a loyal supporter at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Naypyidaw (Myanmar's new capital) has vastly improved its relations with Washington, increasing Beijing's anxiety about the U.S. rebalancing to Asia. And things are getting worse for Beijing. Monks and villagers in central Myanmar have protested for months against the expansion of the Mongywa copper mine, the country's largest, which is operated by a Chinese weapons company and a holding company controlled by the Burmese military. In 2011, Sein suspended construction by a Chinese company of the $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam, saying it went against "the will of the people." The protests against Mongywa have raised worries that all Chinese investments in Myanmar are in danger.

Beijing finds itself with little ability to prevent Naypyidaw from hurting its interests. An increasingly loud section of China's foreign policy community, including government analysts and Southeast Asia specialists, are now arguing that China should return to its old friends -- the border ethnic groups that are waging small-scale rebellions against Naypyidaw -- to enhance its leverage there. Liang Jinyun, a professor of political science at Yunnan Police College in southwest China, argued in an influential 2011 paper that these ethnic groups, if "used" well, "will become China's most loyal friend in the frontline of confrontation between the United States and China in Myanmar."

China has long maintained close ties with the Wa and Kachin, ethnic minorities who live in the north and have struggled for autonomy against the government since Myanmar became a country in 1948. The relationship peaked during the 1960s, when China supported the Burmese Communist Party (which consisted primarily of Wa and Kachin, as well as Chinese nationals) in their (partially successful) struggle against the central government. The material and human assistance from Beijing ceased in the early 1990s, though local governments in China's Yunnan province have maintained cross-border ties on issues ranging from business cooperation to drug-related crop substitution programs. Naypyidaw reached a peace agreement with the Wa in September 2011, but the Kachin and the Myanmar military remain at war. On Jan. 2, Myanmar admitted that it had been using aircraft to attack the Kachin, which still boasts an army of about 15,000.

Publically, Beijing has said very little. The Foreign Ministry has stated that China and Myanmar are important neighbors, and that China welcomes the improvement of relations between Washington and Naypyidaw. But treating Myanmar nicely, as Beijing feels it has done over the past few decades, has not brought the desired outcome. Therefore, China should "diversify" its approach, said a Chinese government analyst at a private gathering in November. "The border ethnic groups are our card and China needs to play it well," said another influential Chinese analyst in Beijing. His view is shared by many analysts I've spoken with over the past few years, though none has spoken about it publically. 

These analysts believe China should mediate between the Kachin and Naypyidaw, to remind Myanmar of Beijing's influence and to facilitate the stabilization of the border area. Meanwhile, they argue that China should also support the border ethnic groups in their struggle against Naypyidaw by pressuring the Burmese military to relax its attacks and keeping the border open to allow the movement of timber, jade, and other natural resources. (The smuggling of drugs is an unwanted, but unavoidable byproduct of the porous border.) According to these analysts, assisting the minority groups will restore China's leverage over Naypyidaw and push Myanmar to respect China's national interests. After all, in their view, since Myanmar is throwing itself into the arms of the West, China has nothing to lose and everything to gain.  

In private conversations and events, analysts affiliated with the Foreign Ministry have opposed this view. They cite China's long-standing policy of non-interference in other country's internal affairs, and its well-established bilateral friendships with countries like Myanmar, to argue that inciting ethnic struggle will further alienate Naypyidaw. Many of these analysts believe that the "democracy frenzy," as one of the most prominent Myanmar experts called it in an off-the-record discussion, that is currently hurting China's interests will eventually fade. Naypyidaw will have to return to Bejing for support, otherwise the country will descend into chaos. After all, they argue, the two countries had decades of friendship -- and China today remains Myanmar's largest trading partner and investor.

For their part, the ethnic groups welcome China's participation. According to a source in the Kachin Independence Army, the untrustworthy, "chauvinistic" Burmese will repudiate any agreement unless it is backed by a global power. With the United States more focused on helping Naypyidaw than siding with the restive ethnic groups, the Kachin and the Wa have hoped China would be their strongest ally. After dispatching several delegations to Washington over the past few years, the Kachin groups have said that they are disappointed with the lack of interest from the United States. And according to several local Chinese officials, the Wa have given up any hope of altering Washington's perception of them as "drug lords" and "arms dealers." Understanding Beijing's fear about a Myanmar distancing itself from China, the Kachin and the Wa argue that China should support their struggle for a political settlement and autonomy. This will make China look bad, especially given the similar requests from Tibetans and Uyghurs for autonomy, which China suppresses. But politics makes strange bedfellows, and China supporting a restive ethnic group in its struggles against an uncaring central government is hardly the most ironic.

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The Parent Trap

Do two-parent families help children get ahead in life? The surprising answer: not everywhere.

The Jefferson Scholarship is one of the most competitive merit scholarship programs in the world. The program, which provides 30 exceptionally talented high school seniors with free tuition, room and board, and a generous stipend to attend the University of Virginia, draws more than 1,300 nominations from schools in the United States and 23 other countries around the globe every year. The pool of nominees, who are nominated by their schools based on their demonstrated excellence in leadership, scholarship, and citizenship, is unusually diverse in most respects, representing every major continent of the world, a range of political, religious, and ideological views, and interests that span the intellectual and extracurricular spectrum, from a young scientist studying "The Effect of Hydrocarbon Contamination on the Root" to a recent all-Ireland Irish Dancing champion.

But, based on my experience as a regular faculty reviewer for the scholarship, the nominees are not diverse in one respect: family structure. The vast majority of the nominees come from intact, two-parent families. This year, for instance, I found that more than 80 percent of the nominees I reviewed came from a home headed by their own married parents. This is striking because about half of American high school seniors do not live with both of their parents, according to the American Community Survey. My experience here suggests that students are much more likely to excel in school when they grow up in a stable, two-parent home.

But this isn't the full story. It may seem intuitive that children who come from stable homes where there are two adults to care for them, help them with schoolwork, and participate in after-school activities will be more likely to succeed academically. But international data suggests this is not always the case. According to The World Family Map, a new report I helped edit, whether or not you're helped by having two parents at home is largely a function of where you live. Children in wealthy or middle-income countries -- like the vast majority of those applying for Jefferson Scholarships -- are helped enormously by two-parent family units. In the developing world, by contrast, children raised by a single parent are just as likely -- in some cases more likely -- to succeed.

The results for the developed world were as you might expect: Children from single-parent families were more likely to report lower literacy scores in 14 out of the 20 OECD countries examined in the report even after controlling for differences in parental education, employment, and wealth. They were also more likely to have repeated a grade in school in 15 out of the 18 OECD countries surveyed for this outcome. This was true in places as culturally varied as Australia, Israel, Mexico, Spain, Sweden, and the United States. Children from single-parent families in Australia are 55 percent more likely to have ever repeated a grade, compared to their peers in two-parent families, even after controlling for socioeconomic differences. Similar patterns obtain for children of single parents in Chile (69 percent more likely), Israel (194 percent), Spain (63 percent), Sweden (78 percent), Turkey (95 percent), and the United States (54 percent).

Children from two-parent homes in OECD countries as varied as Sweden, with a generous welfare state, and the United States, with more miserly government services, are also less likely to fall behind in school and more likely to excel in reading, compared with their peers from single-parent families. This advantage, in turn, is likely to translate into benefits that extend into adulthood, including better work opportunities, higher incomes, and more wealth for children raised in a two-parent family, given what we know about the link between family background, education, and adult outcomes in the United States.

The picture looks quite different in the developing world, especially in Asia, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa. Take being behind in school. The World Family Map examined 15 countries in the developing world on this outcome. Children from single-parent families in Egypt are 34 percent less likely to be behind in school (measured by being below the appropriate grade for one's age), compared with their peers in two-parent families, after controlling for socioeconomic differences. And similar patterns for children of single parents can be found in Ethiopia (19 percent less likely), India (24 percent less likely), Kenya (24 percent less likely), and Nigeria (28 percent less likely), all places where children are less likely to be behind in school compared to children from two-parent families. More significantly, in none of the 15 countries examined in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa were children from two-parent families significantly less likely than children from single-parent families to be behind grade for their age.

So, at least when it comes to education, a two-parent family seems less important, or even unhelpful in some cases, in the developing world. What accounts for this surprising result?

The report suggests three possible answers to this question. First, children living with single parents in the developing world often live with and depend heavily on extended family members who can buffer against the absence of a second parent, usually a father. By contrast, children living in the developed world -- where extended families are much less salient forces in children's lives -- often do not have much access to the time, attention, and money of grandparents and other non-parental kin. For instance, children living with only one parent in India may be more likely to rely on "Daadi" and "Dada" -- grandma and grandpa -- than children raised in single-parent families in the United States.

Second, schooling effects may drown out family effects in the developing world. Even though there are clear differences in school quality within the developed world, those differences are more dramatic in the developing world. For instance, "something as basic as whether a teacher comes to class regularly" is an important factor in children's achievement in rural India, according to the report. This is a problem that rarely affects children in developed countries. Children in developed countries can depend upon a minimum level of school competency that may make their family resources more salient in determining their educational fortunes.

Third, fathers in the developed world -- especially in Europe, North America, and Oceania -- appear to take a much more hands-on approach to their children's schooling than fathers in much of the developing world. By contrast, fathers in the developing world may be less involved or, in some cases, more likely to waste family money on their own pursuits, rather than on their children's education. Research by economist Cynthia Lloyd has found, for instance, that single mothers in sub-Saharan Africa are more likely to devote family money to children's schooling than are father-headed households. Thus, the educational value of two parents may depend, in part, on men's willingness to invest practically and financially in their children's schooling.

The dramatic difference between developed and developing countries in the study is ironic because, in recent years, the two-parent family has lost more ground in Europe, North America, and Oceania than it has in East Asia. For instance, just 12 percent of children in Japan live in single-parent homes, compared with 27 percent of children in the United States. Moreover, extended families in the West tend to be comparatively weak, by no means ready to step into the gap created by a nuclear family in retreat.

Thus, at least in the West, parents, and nations, committed to giving their children an educational leg up in the global economy may wish to rethink their commitment to the nuclear family. If they want the rising generation to have every educational advantage in an increasingly competitive global economy, parents and policymakers would be wise to focus not just on the quality of their children's schools, but also the quality and stability of their children's homes.

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