The Chinese Sphere of Influence

Burma continues to be in the news and it appears as though the authorities have successfully put down the protests there:

In stark contrast, the streets of Rangoon and Mandalay – centres of the attempted saffron revolution last week – were virtually deserted.

A Swedish diplomat who visited Burma during the protests said last night that in her opinion the revolution has failed.

Liselotte Agerlid, who is now in Thailand, said that the Burmese people now face possibly decades of repression. “The Burma revolt is over,” she added.

“The military regime won and a new generation has been violently repressed and violently denied democracy. The people in the street were young people, monks and civilians who were not participating during the 1988 revolt.

“Now the military has cracked down the revolt, and the result may very well be that the regime will enjoy another 20 years of silence, ruling by fear.”

The military junta’s victory has come at a price:

Thousands of protesters are dead and the bodies of hundreds of executed monks have been dumped in the jungle, a former intelligence officer for Burma’s ruling junta has revealed.

The most senior official to defect so far, Hla Win, said: “Many more people have been killed in recent days than you’ve heard about. The bodies can be counted in several thousand.”

China is Burma’s most important trading partner. Add to that the lavish aid that China supplies to Burma and it’s easy to see that, if any country has influence over the Burmese government, it’s China.

In Thomas Barnett’s Core and Gap model of international relations, in which “connectivity” is the hallmark of the Core and disconnectedness that of the Gap, he characterizes China as part of the “New Core”, countries which are just becoming part of the Core and its rulesets. While I like Tom’s view because of its optimism and clear view of the way forward, I’ve made no secret of my skepticism about the theory’s applicability. The theory is descriptive but is it predictive?

I don’t think so. For it to mean anything wouldn’t “connectivity” have to be transitive? In other words, if country A is connected to country B and country B is connected to county C, then shouldn’t country A be connected to country C? That very clearly isn’t the case with Burma and any number of other countries with which China has close relations.

There’s another model available that’s both descriptive and predictive: the old spheres of influence model, which I learned about in elementary school and you may have, too.

Burma certainly falls within China’s sphere of influence as do North Korea, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Sudan, increasingly Cuba, and at least formerly Albania. Note that these include the poorest countries on their respective continents.

There are good explanations for this. China’s hands-off policy makes relations with China relatively attractive to some of the most oppressive, awful regimes on the planet. The Chinese leadership may have a good eye for distressed properties, with which influence may be purchased at a bargain or be willing to step into the vacuums left by Western countries’ reluctance to deal with such regimes.

Whatever the reasons for the connections, China is indubitably connected with all of these countries and their ruling regimes and I believe there’s some point at which trade and aid becomes support for the regimes that rule these countries.

I have no prescriptions for this. China is notoriously difficult to motivate. But the awful, miserable condition of China’s sphere of influence is proof positive I think that the notion of China’s soft power is being oversold. Other than a handful of tyrants, dictators, and a few oligarchs in China itself, does anyone really want what China seems to want?

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  • And don’t forget those “Chinese take-out” organs harvested by unlucky peasants in good health railroaded into early executions. China is a moral leper among nations & as it reverses its own socialistic economy into a capitalist model, it keeps old socialist fossils like Burma, N. Korea, Zimbabwe, and Cuba on a lifeline just to satisfy some old hard-liners in the Chinese Politburo. Conscience of a Communist?

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